‘Il ne faut pas mouris sans avoir vu Carcassonne’ – Gustave Nadaud
It was not until 1659 that the border between France and Spain was finally decided, after a thousand years of dispute firstly between the Visigoths and the Saracens and ending with the disputes between Paris and Madrid. It was the determination of the French to hold and claim permanent ownership of the Languedoc that resulted in the creation of the fortifications at Carcassonne, undeniably the queen of all medieval castles.
Local geography and in particular the angle of the River Aude as it veers sharply to the right on its journey to the sea, combine to give this location a high strategic value. As long ago as the 3rd century it was occupied by the Tectosage Gauls. One hundred years later the Romans created a fortified veterans colony here which they named Carcaso.
It was during the 5th century, with the arrival of the Visigoths, that Carcassonne began to assume a military role as a border stronghold between France and Spain. The first military action took place in the year 506 AD when Clovis laid unsuccessful siege to the town.
Two hundred years later the Arabs arrived from Spain but after only a short thirty year stint in control they were sent packing by Pépin the Short; though the Franks experienced similar difficulties in holding it and with the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, local viscounts were able to seize control.
For the next one hundred and twenty five years, until 1209, Carcassonne enjoyed an unimagined era of wealth and culture under the Trencavels. Louis IX and his son Philip III were responsible, during the thirteenth century, for building the outer walls of La Cité, thereby transforming the whole of the town into the greatest fortress in Europe
Carcassonne’s military role came to an end in the middle of the seventeenth century, when France claimed the province of Rousillon and it was allowed to fall into disrepair. The neglect continued, and was helped by the English competition in the textile industries, until Viollet-le-Duc, fresh from his restoration triumphs at Narbonne, was appointed, at the instigation of Mérimée, to restore the Cité in 1844. The restoration continued, under his supervision, for the remainder of the century.
Source: ‘South of France’ – Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls.