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© David Williams


22 October 2004

The city of Carcassonne lies in Roussillon in south-west France at a bend in the River Aude and this strategic position was very important for many centuries. The site was occupied by the Tectosage Gauls in the third century BC and there has been a fort here since around the eighth century. From the tenth to thirteenth centuries power was in the hands of the Trencavel family and they constructed the cathedral and the Château Comtal, both of which are described in this article.

Simon de Montfort took the castle in 1209 and used it as his headquarters until his death in 1218; after that, his son gave the city to King Louis IX. Louis and his son Philip III added the outer walls, making the fortification virtually impregnable. As the French state expanded and took Roussillon, the castle lost its importance as a frontier fortification and the buildings fell into disrepair. In the 1830s attention was turned to restoring the decaying Cité and in1844 the architect Viollet-le-Duc was charged with this mammoth task.
This is the gateway at the Porte Narbonnaise, the main pedestrian entrance to the Cité.
The lices (the lists) is the broad space between the inner wall (on the left) and the outer wall (on the right).
The sight of the handsome and well-defended entrance to the Cité, said to be the largest and most perfect medieval fortification in all Europe, suggested that my visit would be the treat I had hoped for. Entering the first section of the elaborate Porte Narbonnaise entails going through a massive gateway and crossing a dry moat. Then there is a drawbridge — all this just to reach the outer wall. No wonder it never suffered a major attack.

The tall outer wall is 3km long and punctuated by fourteen massive round "pepperpot" towers. These have narrow arrow slits as well as windows from which hot oil could be poured on enemies foolish enough to launch an assault.

I gave way to a group of nine horseriders leaving the citadel, one of them busily taking pictures as he crossed the drawbridge. Once through the outer wall I was now in the lices (the lists), the broad open area between the two walls which was used for jousting. Today it was a picturesque picnic site for a large group of well-behaved primary school pupils. The inner wall towered some 15m above the children; its twenty-four towers have arrow slits and battlements to guard the lices.

The cobbled roadway led across the lices and through the inner gate, this dark and foreboding entrance having a large opening above it for pouring more oil on attackers able to penetrate this far.

I was now at the foot of a cobbled road (the Rue Cros-Mayrevieille) which narrowed as it climbed and gently curved round to the left, yet another set of clever defensive features which had been engineered into this state-of-the-art fortification. However, in complete contrast to all the highly-practical medieval architecture that had been seen so far, this street was now lined by a myriad of tourist shops selling souvenirs, local foods and designer clothes !

Before continuing, I visited the tourist office which was located under the inner wall. The interior of this tall stone building was circular in shape and in the centre was a wide and very deep well. Around the walls were alcoves which housed stone benches and these reminded me of the chapter houses found in some medieval abbeys. Today, these alcoves were perfect places in which to sit and study a map of the citadel before venturing into the busy street.

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