After two nights in Marseille, Colin and I rented a car and drove ourselves across southern France into Spain, where we celebrated the New Year with friends. The road trip had been sort of an impulse decision after we’d realized that our friend’s parents’ vacation house (where we’d be staying) was an hour outside of Barcelona and we’d need a car to get there. We could either take the train to Barcelona and rent a car there, or we could rent a car in Marseille and drive along the coast and through the Pyrenees on our way. While scanning the map, I saw a place name that sold us on the road trip immediately: Carcassonne.
Carcassonne—yes, it’s a board game, but it’s also a real place. It’s the largest medieval walled city intact today, and it’s magical.
The old city of Carcassonne springs up out of seemingly nowhere—one minute you’re driving through wooded foothills, and the next you’re face-to-face with turrets and ramparts. The old city itself is a maze of tiny streets, which means you will definitely get lost while exploring, but the city is so tiny (and conveniently surrounded by walls) that you can’t actually get lost.
As much fun as it is to wander through the narrow medieval streets, the highlight of Carcassonne is the Château Comtal. (Because it wasn’t clear to us before we got there: the only way to walk the ramparts of the city is with an admission ticket to the Château.) The views from the Château and the ramparts are stunning. The walkable portion of the ramparts doesn’t quite encircle the city, but you can come and go as often as you’d like during the day with your admission ticket so we just went as far as we could in one direction then returned to go in the other. When we were there in December it wasn’t crowded at all, but I hear it’s basically Disney World in the summer. In any case, it’s worth it.
And here’s why: in addition to the breathtaking history and charm of the old city, the modern city of Carcassonne is vibrant and fun. About a 15 minutes’ walk across the Pont Vieux toward the Canal du Midi, you find yourself in a totally modern town that feels more lived-in than touristy. The day we were there, there was a Christmas market with a Ferris wheel (France loves Ferris wheels!), rides for kids, an ice skating rink, and vendors selling snacks and hot wine. (Side note: Colin bought a baked potato for dinner, and it came with an ENTIRE WHEEL OF CAMEMBERT on top.)
As we were leaving, I commented to Colin that Carcassonne combined all the best aspects of some of our other favorite places: the small-town charm of Brugge, the walkable ramparts of Beaune, the castle of Château de Chillon. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite place in Europe, but Carcassonne is definitely up there on my list.
Anyway, although Carcassonne was the highlight of our road trip, it wasn’t the end. From there we drove through the Pyrenees (literally through them—the French seem to really like tunnels), along the border with Andorra, and through the Catalan countryside into Spain. Because country borders aren’t always marked in the EU, we weren’t even really sure when we crossed into Spain—as far as I could tell from the map, it was somewhere in the middle of a field dotted with cows. And that’s how we wrapped up 2018: with castles, mountains, and an impromptu travel itinerary. Which, come to think of it, is basically how we spent all of 2018, so that seems fitting.