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Carcassonne: The Captivating City on the Canal du Midi

The spectacular fortress of Carcassonne is definitely worth visiting, especially for those who love castles and beautiful landscapes. Carcassonne Castle is the best-preserved medieval fortress in the world and has served as inspiration for countless castles in fairy tales. UNESCO declared Carcassonne a designated World Heritage Site in 1997 because of the exceptional preservation and restoration of the medieval citadel.

Carcassonne France

Carcassonne is located fifty miles south-east of Toulouse in the Aude region of France. The fortress occupies land near the Pyrenees mountain range and formerly bordered the Spanish region of Aragon. It is situated in a picturesque rural landscape and can be admired against the spectacular backdrop of the Pyrenees. The best place to see Carcassonne is from the historic Pont-Vieux bridge over the river Aude.

Ramparts Carcassonne France

Carcassonne boasts magnificent ramparts with watchtowers, a portcullis, a drawbridge, and elevated defenses built on top of a hill. Entering through the portcullis, visitors can weave their way through the Medieval city with its narrow, cobbled streets, lined with gift shops and restaurants. Climbing to the top of the ramparts, you will be greeted with stunning panoramic views of the canal and surrounding landscapes. Guests can wander the battlements, ascend the parapet, and see some of the rooms in the keep. Don’t miss the opportunity to see the Pyrenees Mountains from the highest position in the area.

During its almost two-thousand-year-old history, Carcassonne fortress has resisted many armies and has witnessed numerous battles.

Founded in the 6th century BC by a people of Celtic origin, it was transformed into a hill fort named ‘Carsac’. The Romans fortified the city in the 1st century AD. Over hundreds of years, the name of the city changed to ‘Carcasum’, and it grew to be a successful trading post during its occupation by the Gallo-Romans.

In 462 AD, Carcassonne was taken by the Visigoths, marking the beginning of its history as a tactical fortress that would be fought over by many armies. To give the town protection from invasion, the inner rampart of the city was built. Another invasion came in 725 AD, and this time, Carcassonne was seized by a Saracen army from Barcelona. After being held by the Saracens for 35 years, the fortress was taken back under French control by the King of the Francs, Pippin III.

During Medieval times, Carcassonne became recognizable as the fortified stronghold that can still be seen today. Throughout the period, Carcassonne Castle was mostly owned by Frankish nobility. During the 11th century, the keep was built to provide accommodation for the viscounts of Carcassonne and Bézier, who chose the city as their home. At this time, a basilica, and the Château Comtal was built inside the city walls.

Carcassonne’s peace, however, was interrupted again by the Albigensian Crusades. The viscounts of Carcassonne and Bézier belonged to a religious group known as the Cathars, or Albigenses. French Catholics were unsettled by Cathars because they did not recognize them as Christians.

In 1209, the Cathars of Languedoc were overthrown and were forced into surrendering the city of Carcassonne. The unfortunate Viscount, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, was imprisoned in his own dungeon during negotiations, and apparently starved to death three months later. The citizens of Carcassonne were expelled from the city and Simon de Monfort was appointed as Viscount. Trencavel’s son attempted to recapture Carcassonne but was defeated, and in 1247, the viscounts’ possessions were confiscated by the French crown.

The thirteenth century marked a new era for Carcassonne as it was modernized, and Gothic construction was undertaken on the cathedral. By the end of the thirteenth century, Louis IX had commanded the construction of the outer ramparts, and then Philip III added fortifications to the inner walls. The space between the walls extends for a little over one kilometer and was designed to delay attacking forces if they made it through the outer defenses of the fortress. However, during medieval times, this area was inhabited by the poorest people of the city, who lived in shanty towns that have long since gone.

Because of its important position on the border with Spain, the castle of Carcassonne was seen as a great tactical stronghold. In 1355, Edward the Black Prince failed to take the city during the 100 Years War with England. Carcassonne Castle remained in French hands, but its significance was greatly reduced after 1659.

Carcassonne France

In 1659, Carcassonne became less important as a French fortress. The Treaty of the Pyrenees changed the border between Spain and France by giving the latter the region of Roussillon. No longer occupying a tactical position, Carcassonne became a manufacturing center for the Languedoc wool industry.

In the eighteenth century, Carcassonne’s significance declined still further when trade with the Ottoman empire collapsed. Henceforth, the city of Carcassonne became a rural outpost that fell into a state of disrepair.

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was a renowned architect and restorer who rescued Carcassonne Castle in the nineteenth century. He undertook work on the fortress to repair and preserve its fortifications and buildings. He is famous for his restoration of the most prominent medieval landmarks in France. His other major restoration projects included Notre-Dame de Paris, the Basilica of Saint Denis, Mont Saint-Michel, Sainte-Chapelle, and Roquetaillade castle in the Bordeaux region.

Carcassonne France

A few interesting facts:

Learn more about the Canal du Midi:

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Canal du Midi between Carcassonne and Marseillan, France


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French Hotel Barges Cruising the Canal du Midi


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