Like I’ve said before, anything that’s really good is usually on top of a huge hill or up a lot of stairs. The steeper the climb, the bigger the reward, which was certainly true when I visited the (very elevated!) medieval city in Carcassonne, France.

Carcassonne is a small town in southern France that attracts more than 3 million visitors each year. While its “new city” section is pretty and quaint…

it’s the walled Cité that’s the big draw and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Luckily, as with all of my previous stops, I visited during the low season, so I had this breathtaking place almost all to myself.

I also got a great, low-season deal at a bed and breakfast that was perfectly located at the foot of the walled city. This was the view from my window:

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The view from the top was even better! Once you climb the (steep!!!) path to the Cité and enter through one of the portals, you can walk though winding cobblestone streets…

Visit the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire

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And tour the stunning 12th century castle: Chateau Comtal. The tour fee (about $10 USD) also allows you to walk the ramparts — my favorite part. There were views in every direction!

Two rows of walls and more than 50 watchtowers helped keep the fortress safe from intruders. Everywhere you looked, there were slits in the stone, just wide enough for aiming arrows. I liked this collection of cannonballs — some pockmarked from battle, others still smooth. 

One thing … about half of the shops in the Cité were closed (low season), which was fine with me since shopping’s not a priority. However, I think for someone planning a vacation, visiting during the busier months would make for a fuller, more Carcassonne-y, experience.

Another Carcassonne experience: cassoulet! It’s basically a casserole made with beans, sausage, pork, pork fat, spices, and topped with a duck leg. The weather at the top of the Cité was cold and windy, so curling up with a steaming dish of anything was much appreciated. I found a nice French bistro and had the fish one day and cassoulet the next. Along with a glass of wine and a flaming crème brûlée, I was pretty happy, and pretty full.

I budgeted more time in Carcassonne than I really needed, which gave me a chance to slow down and enjoy some things I’ve been missing. Like reading! I read two books in two days, including the powerful and poignant When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It felt good to read again. So good, in fact, that I bought another book when I left Carcassonne for a repeat visit to Paris. When you buy a book at Shakespeare and Company, they offer to stamp it for you. I was tempted to buy an armload of books, but I only had room in my luggage for one. I think I made a good choice!

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Here are a few more photos from Carcassonne: