The road to Carcassonne
September in the South of France is a fantastic time to visit this stunning part of the world. I was staying in Perpignan for a few weeks and set off to explore a little more of this beautiful region. The baking August heat has subsided but it is still very pleasant indeed, if a bit breezy.
I didn’t bring a jumper and was forced to buy one, but hey, we all have to make sacrifices. The temperature is now ideal for site seeing and with many of the summer crowds leaving, it is a lot more pleasant experience.
Collioure – the painter’s paradise
A little bit further down the coast from Perpignan is Collioure. Collioure is a charming seaside resort with a strong Catalan culture. Its medieval streets once inspired famous artists of the early 20th century. Andre Derain, Matisse and Picasso all stayed and painted here, enjoying the colorful boats and the amazing light. Today the town has a picturesque setting and lots of arty shops and restaurants. Quiet in September, it gets very busy in the height of summer.
Collioure is known for its anchovies. Back in medieval times Collioure’s reputation revolved around the salting of anchovies, sardines and Tuna. In 1870, 800 fishermen were employed n the anchovy business now only two anchovy salting families remain. Ets Roque and Ets Desclaux.
Carcassonne – the walled city.
A couple of hours drive from Perpignan will bring you to another very popular visitor hot spot. The fortified French town of Carcassonne with its UNESCO world heritage site, walled medieval town and castle remains an impressive sight.
You can tour the old town walls riding on a horse drawn caleche. You can then cross the drawbridge into the city and explore the steep winding streets and the castle itself on foot.
Occupied since the Neolithic period the town is situated at a strategic site between the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea and a range of mountains called the Massif Central. This range of mountains runs through the middle of this part of France. Throughout history, everyone wanted to control Carcassonne.
The Romans obviously liked to be in charge of everything and Carcassonne was no exception. They were there until the demise of the Western Roman Empire. The city was then taken over later in the fifth century by the Visigoths. The Visigoths were a western branch of the nomadic tribes of the Germanic peoples. Great name! The town has certainly seen lots of action during its colourful history.
Carcassonne – inside the Labyrinth
Carcassonne also thrived as a trading post due to its location. The city saw many rulers come and go. Each subsequent ruler gradually built up its fortifications over time.
The Cite de Carcassonne was restored by the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in 1853 and added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. It has the turrets, the moat, the draw bridge and the perfectly preserved pretty medieval streets.
There is so much history here. This incredible walled city was also the inspiration for the Kate Mosse best seller Labyrinth which has also put Carcassonne very much on the tourist map.
Souvenir shops and restaurants abound. Most are serving the local speciality cassoulet. Cassoulet is a kind of stew or casserole with sausages and beans and vegetables. It is ideal fare for the hungry day tripper.
The day I was there the castle and ramparts were open free of charge as it was ‘a special day.’ Not one to look a gift rampart in the mouth, up I went with rather a lot of other visitors. We all tramped up and down the stairs to the ramparts and noted the expansive view all around the castle walls. Ideal for spotting any potential assailants.
Driving back to Perpignan we drove past the endless vineyards which characterise this part of France. As dusk fell, we saw the most amazing sky. This part of the world regularly displays some of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen.
Less crowded than Carcassonne, Perpignan I reflected, is less of a tourist destination than Carcassonne. It’s more of a real French town and all the more attractive for that. There is still more to explore though.