Right on the main Toulouse–Montpellier train link, Carcassonne couldn’t be easier to reach. For anyone travelling through this region it is a must - it’s one of the most visited towns in this area of France.
Don’t miss the beautiful church of St-Nazaire, towards the southern corner of the Cité at the end of rue St-Louis. It’s a serene combination of nave with carved capitals in the Romanesque style and a Gothic choir and transepts, along with some of the loveliest stained glass in Languedoc. In the south transept is a tombstone believed to belong to Simon de Montfort.
One of the best things to do in Carcassonne is explore its fortress. There is no charge for admission to the streets or the grassy lices between the walls, though cars are banned from 10am to 6pm. Guided tours are available. These assume some knowledge of French history, and point out the various phases in the construction of the fortifications, from Roman and Visigothic to Romanesque and the post-Cathar adaptations of the French kings.
The attractions of the well-preserved and lively ville basse notwithstanding, everybody visits Carcassonne to see the magical Cité, a Unesco Heritage Site. It consists of a double-walled and turreted fortress. It tops the hill above the River Aude so provides a picturesque setting and proves one of the most impressive things to do in Carcassonne. From afar, the whole scene looks like it’s jumped right out of a storybook. Viollet-le-Duc rescued it from ruin in 1844, and his “too-perfect” restoration has been furiously debated ever since. It is, as you would expect, a real tourist trap. Yet, in spite of the chintzy cafés, craft shops and the crowds, you’d have to be a very stiff-necked purist not to be moved at all.
The Canal du Midi runs for 240km from the River Garonne at Toulouse via Carcassonne to the Mediterranean at Agde. It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a minor noble and tax collector, who succeeded in convincing Louis XIV (and more importantly, his first minister, Colbert) of the merits of linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean via the Garonne. You can follow the canal by road, and many sections have foot or bicycle paths, but the best way to see it is, of course, by boat. Outfits in all the major ports rent houseboats and barges, and there are many cruise options to choose from as well.
What to do in Carcassonne? Eat of course! The magnificent cassoulet is a dish with age-old origins. It was apparently first concocted when the town was besieged by Edward, the Black Prince, during the Hundred Years war and was deemed so sustaining that the townspeople not only survived, but put the English to rout. According to tradition it would be assembled in a deep earthenware bowl, the cassole, from which the dish takes its name, and taken to the village bread oven, where it would slowly transform to an unctuous, aromatic masterpiece. Little has changed through the ensuing centuries: the bread ovens have gone, and a few cosmopolitan ingredients have found their way into the mix, but essentially the dish is the same, and so is the method. Tuck into the hearty meat stew and beans for an unforgettable meal.