Benvengut, Benvenguda a Carcassona!

Carcassonne lies in the Occitania region, 80 km south-east of Toulouse, and is noted for its spectacular medieval defences. The citadel was built atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Aude, commanding views of the countryside as far as the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees in the south.

Disputed territories

Given its strategic position, Carcassonne has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths and Crusaders. Myth has it that Lady Carcas, the emblematic ruler of Carcassonne, broke the siege of Emperor Charlemagne by flinging a pig from the ramparts.

Throughout the 12th century, fierce fighting ensued as the Cathar knights defended their faith against the Papal Crusades. It was all for naught, however, as Carcassonne fell in 1209. More fortifications were added during the Hundred Years War to keep Edward The Black Prince and his English armies at bay.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 ceded Languedoc definitively to France, bringing peace. The citadel subsequently fell into disrepair, until a meticulous – but somewhat controversial – restoration was undertaken by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century.

In 1997, Carcassonne was named a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Another UNESCO site also runs through Carcassonne: the Canal du Midi, a major feat of engineering undertaken during the reign of Louis XIV to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Embattled language

The area is home to a Romance language, Occitan, whose name comes from the word òc meaning “yes”, and is reflected in the French name of the département, Languedoc – “the language of òc”.

Fighting centuries of decline, the Occitans keep their language alive with their network of bilingual primary schools – Calandretas – and through cultural associations and music.

Approximately 800,000 people in France, Italy, Spain and Monaco use various dialects of Occitan as their first language.

Culinary heritage

Cassoulet, a meaty bean stew, is the region’s signature dish. Other local offerings include Lauragais poultry, Pélardon cheeses, Luque olives and umpteen types of sausages.

To sniff out local treats, stroll around the street markets of the Bastide quarter and the historic Halles Prosper Montagné.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, fear not; the restaurants of Carcassonne are gradually keeping up with the times, and many places serve alternatives to the meat-heavy local fare – one of our intrepid scouts even enjoyed a tasty vegan cassoulet.

Naturally, there is plenty of excellent wine to accompany the local cuisine. The region’s distinctive terroir, worked since ancient times, yields a wide range of wines, including the Minervois, Corbières, Malepère, Cabardès and Languedoc appellations.

Farther afield

Myriad charming villages surround Carcassonne, though you’ll need a car to visit them.

Toulouse, the iconic ville rose, is well worth a stopover if you’re coming that way. Explore its distinctive red-brick architecture, atmospheric old quarter and abundant gastronomic delights.

The Mediterranean is also just an hour away by car or train (Narbonne, Gruissan).