Say the name Carcassonne and most people will think of the Cité, that walled and turreted fortification that looks as if it has wandered out of a fairy tale. This thinking isn’t surprising as the Cité is a tourist hot spot attracting over 3 million visitors a year. It is a must-see place because of its amazing history and architecture (and for anyone with a small boy, the numerous shops selling plastic swords). But if you’ve made it to the Cité, it’s also worth crossing the River Aude to visit the other part of the old Carcassonne, the Bastide Saint-Louis (“the Bastide”). Although the Bastide doesn’t have the high profile of the Cité, it does have its own charm as a small, pretty, workaday town dating back to the 13th century.
The thing I love about the Bastide is that it has plenty to offer but is a manageable size. You are not daunted at the thought of exploring it, because it is so compact and relaxed. For high culture there are two places in particular to visit, the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Maison des Mémoires. The Musée des Beaux Arts is situated in a lovely but slightly dilapidated building in the Rue de Verdun. It doesn’t get too crowded and there’s plenty of room to wander around. Don’t miss the paintings by Jacques Gamelin, an 18th century Carcassonne artist.
The Maison des Mémoires, also in the Rue de Verdun, has a permanent exhibition about Joë Bosquet, a Carcassonne born writer, who lived in the house. After being wounded in the First World War he returned home and put himself to bed for the next 30 years. From his bed he wrote poetry and a huge number of letters, while also entertaining various literary figures. The bedroom is set up as it would have been when Joë Bosquet was working in it.
If after these cultural efforts you need some refreshment, the Bastide has plenty of independent restaurants and cafés. The Hotel Terminus opened in 1909, has an enormous and beautiful Belle Époque restaurant. It does good value set menus as well as dishes such as large seafood platters and the very French one of pigs’ trotters. During the 2nd World War the restaurant was used as officers’ quarters by the occupying German army and a portrait of Hitler hung over the fireplace.
Or there is Chez Fred in the Boulevard Omer-Sarrault, a small restaurant whose eponymous owner is clearly a man in love with cooking. Fred is to quote his website “un cuisinier passionné, fier de son terroire”. Chez Fred provides a range of set menus from the Menu Bistrot Express at 14 euros to the Menu Plaisir Carcassonnais at 32 euros.
It’s easy to wander around the Bastide, because like most fortified towns it is set out in a grid pattern. The main shopping street, Rue Georges Clemenceau has been pedestrianized, making strolling along looking at the shops even easier. Markets are held in Place Carnot, off Rue Georges Clemenceau, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.
And the locals are a friendly lot. When I was last there taking some photographs a man walked past and laughingly told me that I wasn’t getting his best side. Maybe not, but the Bastide is a pretty good side of Carcassonne.