I had an amazing winter weekend in Carcassonne, a tiny city that can be overwhelmed by visitors in summer. It’s atmospheric at any time of the year – the citadel apparently inspired Walt Disney’s castle in The Sleeping Beauty – but the gargoyles and flickering lamps are best appreciated after the tourist buses leave.
It was dull and grey when we arrived on the Friday, with pewter skies.
I had no idea that snow was coming (my Nokia brick had no weather apps – innocent times!). But on the first morning there was that muffled hush in the street outside the shuttered windows, that strange cloak of quiet that tells you there has been a snowfall before you even see it.
Carcassonne was blanketed in white, with deep virgin drifts everywhere, and the local children were sledging down the slopes that lead up to La Cité.
Every gargoyle had an icicle beard and the old city seemed frozen in an enchanted winter. Hot toddies suddenly beckoned from every chalkboard menu.
La Cité of Carcassonne is the largest medieval citadel in Europe that still has completely intact encircling walls. It can feel like a slight letdown to read that it was vastly restored in the 19th century, when the pointy turrets were added, but it still feels ancient, mythical and epic.
This bastide (the fortified medieval upper town, or La Cité) became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. There has been a fortified settlement on the hill where La Cité stands since the pre-Roman period: the sense of history and continuity is breathtaking.
More importantly, there are plenty of cosy bars serving chocolat chaud and I had some of the best food I’ve ever had in France – many of the local bistros specialise in tender meat grilled over an open wood fire in front of customers.
Visiting in winter, you definitely avoid the over-commercialised, tourist-thronged aspects of Carcassonne (and the stifling summer heat) and you can soak up the magical atmosphere in peace. There is a Christmas market and an ice rink in December, but it’s more likely to snow in January, apparently.
Carcassonne in the snow evokes all the best storybook clichés: the Snow Queen, Tolkien, lands of ice and fire… and of course, all the frosty lamp posts will force you to mention Mr Tumnus at least once.
“It is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long, and we shall both catch cold if we stand here talking in the snow”.
Carcassonne’s jolly gargoyles:
The citadel by night:
Hot gin! Or is it vin? I’ll have one anyway:
Take a walk across the Pont Vieux over the river Aude to see the fairytale views of the city from afar. The scale of the bastide looming over the lower town is incredible.
Twilight views inside La Cité:
“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
La Ville Basse, Carcassonne’s lower town:
The 18th century Hotel du Pont Vieux on old Rue Trivalle (above) has incredible views of the ramparts. I’d recommend it as an ideal and relatively inexpensive place to stay. Below is the actual view from our upper-storey room of snow-covered Carcassonne: