WHY GO NOW?
Among the many French cities reachable on cheap flights from the UK, the most alluring destination for a quick and intriguing weekend away is Carcassonne. The self-styled capital of Cathar country combines a beautiful setting and superb architecture with a deep and tangled history. The first settlement was in the sixth century BC; the Romans built a city in the second century AD; the Moors were in control in the eighth century; and for hundreds of years Carcassonne was the front line between France and Aragon. The medieval fortifications have been preserved and embellished to create a unique ambience.
The only direct flights to Carcassonne are from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). The airport is 4km west of the Bastide St- Louis, the lower town. A connecting bus departs about 20 minutes after the flight arrives: it runs first to the upper town, the Cite, then takes a circuitous route for those bound for the Bastide St-Louis. The fare is a steep EUR5 (pounds 3.50). The low-budget alternative is to cross the main road outside the airport, walk for five minutes along rue Jacques Vaucanson, turn left along boulevard Henri Bouffet for another five minutes and, at the roundabout, catch bus 1 or 3 (not Sundays) for a fare of EUR0.90 (65p). The no-budget option is to walk to town, which takes about 40 minutes to the Bastide St-Louis and another 20 minutes to the Cite.
The other main gateway is Toulouse, served from Birmingham, Bristol and Southampton by FlyBE (08705 676676; www.flybe.com); from Cardiff by Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com); and from Gatwick by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com). Catch the airport bus to Toulouse railway station, and take the 40-minute train ride to Carcassonne's handsome station (1).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Carcassonne is two fine cities for the price of one. This guide assumes that you will spend most of the first day in the 13th- century Bastide St-Louis, on the left bank of the Aude, and the second in the medieval city, Cite, high above the right bank. Carcassonne's main Office de Tourisme (2) is on the eastern edge of the Bastide St-Louis, looking out over Square Gambetta. It opens 9am- 6pm daily (only to 1pm on Sundays), and shares space with the city's fine-arts museum, which you can wander around free and see the history of art in the course of just 18 works. Another office (3) is just across the Canal du Midi from the station (1), but this opens only 2-6pm daily. The longest hours are kept by the branch at the Porte Narbonnaise (4) of the Cite, which opens 10am-6pm daily.
Top of the town in every sense is the four-star Hotel de la Cite (5), high in the old quarter at Place Auguste-Pierre Pont (00 33 4 68 71 98 71; www.hoteldelacite.com). It is an Orient Express property, and has a basic room rate of EUR300 (pounds 220) double, with buffet breakfast an additional EUR24 (pounds 17) per person. France's most beautifully located youth hostel (6) is a couple of minutes' walk away on rue Raymond-Roger Trencavel in the heart of the Cite (00 33 4 68 25 23 16); a bed costs EUR15.50 (pounds 11), including breakfast. The third option is the B&B (Chambres d'Hotes) (7) at 8 Place du Grand Puits (00 33 4 68 25 16 67), which is especially good value for families wishing to share a room. Rates range from EUR42 (pounds 30) for a double to EUR68 (pounds 48) for a room sleeping five; breakfast, in "kit" form, is included.
At river level, the Trois Couronnes (8) at 2 rue des Trois Couronnes (00 33 4 68 25 36 10) is an eyesore right next to the Vieux Pont, but it has some spectacular views. A panoramique double room costs EUR96 (pounds 69), with breakfast an extra EUR9.50 (pounds 6.70) per person. In the Bastide St-Louis, the Grand Hotel Terminus (9) at 2 Avenue Marechal Joffre (00 33 4 68 25 25 00) is the place for historical resonance. …