Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Carcassonne, France is the medieval city that Hollywood would have invented if it didn't already exist. The iconic fortress and palace that are its focal point have existed in some fashion since the Roman era. The years have seen the Visigoths, Saracens and Franks rule the city and environs in Western Provence. For hundreds of years, Carcassonne defended the border between France and the Spanish kingdom of Aragon.
The castle in Carcassonne seems more like a fairy tale building than a real fortress that has endured for centuries.
The castle entrance is fairy tale perfect.
This white marble ablution fountain dates to the 12th century.
Paintings from the late 12th century depict a combat between Christian and Saracen knights.
Part of Carcassonne's charm is that the entire town surrounding the castle has been restored in medieval fashion. We saw many children the day we visited, and they seemed to be having a wonderful time. The shops are filled with swords, knights' costumes and princess dresses. There are also shops for adults interested in medieval sorcery and history. A Museum of the Inquisition features instruments of torture and special enchanted tours can be booked accompanied by guides in medieval costumes. It is an easy city for a Game of Thrones fan or a serious student of medieval history to love.
Just down the cobblestoned street from the castle is the former Cathedral of Carcassone, the current Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus. Built in 1096, the church retains its medieval splendor. Especially dazzling are the medieval stained-glass windows which are said to be the most beautiful in the south of France.
A day in Carcassone wouldn't be complete without a stop at one of the many restaurants offering Provence's specialty of cassoulet. The white bean stew includes pork loin, sausage, tomatoes and optional duck legs. Pretty much everyone was eating cassoulet the day we had lunch and almost every restaurant in town offers it as part of the daily special. To make it at home, try Mark Bittman's version in the slow cooker as seen in the New York Times cooking section.