Ever booked a trip by mistake? Well this was one of them.
My girlfriend received a voucher for a two night hotel stay for Christmas. There were lots of UK destinations to choose from; Devonshire, Lake District and Scotland. However there was one that stood out, a quaint Bed and Breakfast in the south of France. I checked prices for flights to the nearest airport to that hotel on Skyscanner and found a great deal from East Midlands (Nottingham) Airport to Carcassonne for £53 return for the Easter 4 day weekend. Without hesitation, I booked the flights as it was stupidly cheap, pennies in fact considering the dates. I quickly called the B&B and they could barely understand English. With my GCSE Level E French, I whipped out the ‘tu parle Anglais?’. The receptionist said ‘Oui’ and everything went downhill after that. They said that they have never heard of the gift voucher Buy-a-Gift therefore they rejected my booking attempt. We tried calling the company and they said they would look in to this for me. We never heard from Buy-a-gift again, so I got an AirBnB close to the city instead.
I’ll be honest, I have never heard of Carcassonne before. When people asked me where I was going, nobody really knew where it was either. So this was the trip to ‘Southern France’. I google imaged Carcassonne numerous times to get a grasp of what we got ourselves into. It had pictures of a castle on a hill. It looked beautiful, but this was a trip to just relax and unwind, preparing for our hectic Asia trip a couple of weeks after.
The plane landed and we went through immigration to what only looked like a shed. The passengers on our plane were the only ones there. It was a quiet, regional airport. We took the city shuttle for 6 euros and it took around 25 minutes to get us in to the city. We were unsure of where we were supposed to get off, so went to the final stop of the route at the La Cité, the main tourist attraction of the city. We saw the main course straight away, the medieval castle that Carcassonne boasts about. It was like something out of Heath Ledger’s early 2000 film, ‘A Knights Tale‘. As a sensible traveller, we didn’t go indulge ourselves too much too soon, we had another challenge to conquer, looking for our AirBnB.
In the end, it wasn’t much of a challenge. We had Google Maps on and overestimating the size of the City, we were pleasantly surprised at how quickly we managed to locate our home away from home. It was a room above a burger parlour that was closed for the Easter week. The place was a typical European city apartment. Plenty of volumetric space, but in need of renovation due to its age.
After having a quick rest, we went straight in to the main square, Place Carnot. It was a humble square in typical European standard. It was no Trafalgar or St Mark’s square. What it had was a laid back, southern European laid back charm. Cafe’s and restaurants line the perimeter with al fresco dining, a beautiful fountain centrepiece and plenty of space to chill out and soak the Mediterranean sunshine.
After slowly seeing the afternoon out, the evening came and it was time to rest and prepare for a full day of exploring.
As we were woken up by the sunlight through our window, there is no better feeling when you are well rested and looking forward to what this southern French town has to show. But first, brunch. Venturing out to look for our next meal, we opted to go authentic French. We bought a stick of baguette, brie and crisps from the local Carrefour and on our way back to our room we found a Charcuterie serving all sorts of different pick up meals. That day’s choice was headcheese, pork salad, moussaka and meatballs in tomato & wine sauce. It was a cheap and delicious brunch.
‘As you may expect, everything was medieval themed. You see people dressed up as knights, jesters to townsfolk. It was an important touch to the authenticity of the experience.’
We headed straight for La Cité at a snail’s pace, a very different style to what we are used to. It was a totally different atmosphere as we had no itinerary and we had plenty of time in Carcassonne. As soon as we entered the medieval fortress, it seemed like we had time travelled back in time. We walked around the castle ramparts and the list, the exterior perimeter of the walled city.
We entered the interior through the Porte Narbonnaise and we were greeted with plenty of tourists appreciating the sights. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed walking around the old fortress with its winding alleys and streets, not knowing what there is to see.
We spent all afternoon weaving in and out of shops and having an afternoon beverage. As you may expect, everything was medieval themed. You see people dressed up as knights, jesters to townsfolk. It was an important touch to the authenticity of the experience.
As the castle is on top of a hill, I waited out until sunset, anticipating the beauty of the sun setting in to the horizon and I was not disappointed.
On the way back to our room, we saw the castle walls lit up from a distance. It’s majesty stood out the horizon, demanding to be seen. A beautiful sight to end an exciting day.
On our last full day, we joined the locals in Place Carnot as it turned in to a fresh produce market. Vendors had an array of delicious delicacies such as freshly baked bread, cheese and cooked meats – to freshly picked fruit and vegetables.
Sadly, the afternoon turned in to a wash out, with the sky opening and heavy rain pouring. It was an afternoon inside our AirBnB.
When the rain subsided, we walked through Canal du Midi, a water way used to travel on small water vessels within southern France. It was tranquil with nobody around and having the walkways all to ourselves. It was a beautiful, serene late afternoon walk.
Our last dinner had to be quintessential Carcassonne, and there is no better way than having the local specialty: the cassoulet. We went in back in to La Cité to get a final grasp of its beauty, and sitting down at a highly recommended restaurant, Le Plo. The food was cheap, fast and delicious. We sat in an area outside to what I can describe as a winery’s mini courtyard. It was fresh and airy, and a perfect way to relax while having dinner and sipping on wine.
‘Carcassonne can be proud of this dish; it’s simple, unique and full of flavour.’
A three course meal for 16 Euros was hard to beat especially within the city walls. For starters, we salad. Cassoulet was the obvious choice for main course, along with duck in fig confit. Both main courses were sumptuous. The duck was succulent and the confit was to die for. Having not tried the cassoulet before, we didn’t know what to expect. It has white beans, duck, sausage with other wonderful things. It tasted something close to the KFC gravy without its synthetic ingredients. The flavour was refined and for the first time in a long a while, I could not guess what spices and herbs they had used. Carcassonne can be proud of this dish; it’s simple, unique and full of flavour. For dessert, we both went for the pistachio crème brulee.
Going back to the room, we took a different route and we saw murals on walls that caught our eyes.
Our last day inevitably came, we had a couple of hours to waste as our check out was at 12 and our flight at 5. We roamed La Bastide for a couple of hours, looking at churches and other significant landmarks while gliding our luggage backs along with us.
Waiting for our plane to arrive at the departures lounge, I couldn’t think more about how I enjoyed Carcassonne. I expected nothing from this relatively unknown destination. It had a relaxed vibe with friendly locals and a city designed for laid back stroll. If it wasn’t a piece of history you were seeing, then it is the natures green and its clear waterways (although I found an alarming amount of dog poo on the pavements! Why?!). It’s not a place to spend a week in, perhaps 2 or 3 days max. If the chance comes calling to check-in at Carcassonne, it’s definitely worth the visit.