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motorway aires: 16

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motorway aires[1]
Carcassonne, A61

world heritage fortified city

Motorways/autoroutes of France, showing world heritage fortified city - Carcassonne aire, A61

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Carcassonne, A61: world heritage fortified city

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Motorway aires are designed to provide a suitable environment for relaxing, refreshing and recovering during the long, hard journeys. As well as facilities of often dubious nature, picnic tables and seats, a telephone kiosk, there are often optional extras such as a play area or a display related to some local interest or event.

the carcassonne aires

The medieval walled city of Carcassonne
The medieval walled city of Carcassonne

There are two aires on the A61 close to Caracassonne: Belvédère de la Cité on the eastbound, southern side of the autoroute and Belvédère d’Auriac on the westbound, northern side. Both have magnificent views towards to the fortified old city of Carcassonne. These aires are created so to provide panoramic views to the nearby world heritage site.

On the southern side, Belvédère de la Cité is set on a rise which ensures clear views over the motorway traffic to Carcassonne from one or two positions. It is small and neat,and rather charming.

Belvédère d’Auriac aire, on the north of the motorway, is more spacious and has various explanatory and history plaques [in French]. There are several viewing positions towards Carcassonne. These give better views, but are obscured in a minor fashion by fencing and various cables. There is a large sloping picnic meadow that can become over-trampled and rather sad.

[Note: there is now a speed camera just in front of the sign indicating “La Cité du XIème siècle” when driving west , on the northern side of the autoroute, by the Belvédère d’Auriac aire.]


fireworks: the embrasement or “dazzling illumination” of the Cité de Carcassonne

The fortified city of Carcassonne lit up by feux d'artifice. Image:
The fortified city of Carcassonne lit up by feux d'artifice. Image:

On 14 July, each year, the fortified city is illuminated in a Bastille Day extravaganza of feux d’artifice [fireworks]. One of the best places to view this is ... the aire de répos at Belvédère de la Cité. This is particularly true as at least 70 ,000 people are expected to watch from the banks of the River Aude near to the city. Remember, the French celebrate their national day, Bastille Day, with as impressive fireworks as the local commune can afford. This tradition occurs throughout France.

However, the origin of the “dazzling illumination” or “setting the Cité ablaze” is more recent. To close celebrations welcoming a locally famous group of literary, artistic and political worthies, the “Cadets de Gascogne”, on 14 July 1898 there were great illuminations using Bengal fire to give the impression that the walls of the Cité were on fire.

7:29 mins

This idea came from Rouquet Achille (1851-1928), a local painter, writer, poet in both French and occitain. After this first ‘conflagration’, Achille asked the Mayor of Carcassonne to continue the display each year on the French national day.

The annual show is scheduled to start at 10.30 pm/22:30h and continues for about 25 minutes. This and other information is to be found at the local tourist office web site [in French].


world heritage fortified city - a concise history

Engraving of the fortified town of Carcassonne. By Robida, c. 1910
Engraving of the fortified town of Carcassonne. By Robida, c. 1910

Carcassonne as a settlement probably had its origins in its hill location at the crossing of two major routes used since ancient times: one route going west to east, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and the other north-south, from the Massif Central to Spain.

Celts had a fort at Carcassonne by about 500 BC. In about 100BC, the conquering Romans built a new and stronger fort, still part of today’s fortification. By about 6 BC, the Gauls were the occupants.

And through the centuries, this pattern continued as succesive invaders captured and strengthened Carcassonne as part of their conquest: the Visigoths, the Umayyads, the Franks, the Merovingians, the Counts of Toulouse and Viscounts of Trencavel, Cathars, the French.

The city of Carcassonne has two distinct parts: the historic walled Cité that occupies a plateau on the right bank of the Aude, and the adjacent Bastide of Saint-Louis and the Lower Town, which extends along the river’s left bank. The two are linked by the old and new bridges - le Pont Vieux and le Pont Neuf.

Interactive, satellite map of Carcassonne and neighbouring areas. Image: GoogleMaps, with additions
Interactive, satellite map of Carcassonne and neighbouring areas.
Hover with your mouse, clickable areas change to a hand icon
Image: GoogleMaps, with additions

The French further reinforced the Cité’s defences by building another surrounding wall, and used the enlarged fortification as a significant part of their border defence with Spain.

With the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 between France and Spain, the need for major frontier protection ended. While the Lower Town on the left bank of the Aude developed and grew with the development of commerce, the fortress gradually fell into disrepair, with much stone being taken for building in the Lower Town. [That part of Carcassonne was much helped by the diversion of the Canal du Midi in 1810 to flow through the town.]

In 1803, the cathedral status of St Nazaire, within the fortress walls, had been transferred to Saint Michel’s in the more prosperous Lower Town. The cité fortress fell into such disrepair that, by 1849, a decree was issued by the national government for its demolition. Following the ensuing uproar, the antiquary and mayor of Carcassonne, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the writer Prosper Mérimée, the first inspector of ancient monuments, led a campaign to preserve the fortress as a historical monument. By 1853, rebuilding had started. Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc [1814-1879], an architect who had been restoring the St Nazaire basilica, was commissioned to undertake the work. After his death in 1879, the restoration work was continued by his pupil, Paul Boeswillwald, and later on, the architect Nodet.

Before coming to Carcassonne, Viollet-le-Duc had been working in the north of France. Thus, his restoration of the walled and fortified town was more appropriate to the snowy north of France than to the local architecture, countryside and climate. Viollet-le-Duc used slates on the roofs, as well as restoring the roofs into pointed cones, instead of conforming to local tradition of tiled roofs and low slopes. However, the end result is a glorious fairy-tale castle-cum-fortress-cum-town.

1914 map of both parts of Carcassonne. Image: Baedeker Guide.
Image: Baedeker Guide

In 1997, UNESCO named the city of Carcassonne as a World Heritage site.

visiting Carcasssonne in the 21st century

The English version of Carcassonne Tourist Office web site gives details of times and prices (where appropriate). However, this tourist office web page is unclear in its information, so you are advised to check further.

Within the Medieval City, places to visit include the Castle and ramparts, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire (the former cathedral), the Museum of Chivalry, Arms and Archery, the Museum of the Middle Ages, the School Museum. You may also sightsee by a Little Train, so often to be found in French tourist towns.

Petit train 
		touristique, this one is outside Lourdes funicular railway station
Petit train touristique, this one is outside Lourdes funicular railway station

At the Bastide Saint Louis, as well as guided tours, you may visit the Memorial house of a local poet, Joë Bousquet, the Museum of Fine Arts, or take a boat ride on the nearby Canal du Midi.

Note that the Cité of Carcassonne is now said to be the most visited place in France. Thus, to avoid the press of people in the narrow, cobbled lanes within the medieval cité, it has been suggested that a visit starting early in the day would be more comfortable, or else visiting out of the summer tourist season.


Sketch map locating the Carcassonne aires

sketch map locating the Poey de Lascar aire, A64

These two aires have no communicating tunnel or bridge. Thus to reach one aire from the other, you will need to leave the autoroute at the next sortie [motorway junction] and re-enter the motorway to go in the opposite direction.

The Carcassonne aires are in Département 11 - Aude.

end notes

  1. aire: in this context, an area —
    aire de loisirs: recreation area;
    aire de pique-nique: picnic area;
    aire de repos: rest area;
    aire de services: services , motorway (GB) or freeway (US) service station.

  2. Bengal fire
    Pyrorotechnical mixture, akin to black powder (a fore-runner of gunpowder). The basic ingredients include cast iron shot, iron powder and aluminium powder. Other ingredients are added to give off different colours.
    See also How fireworks work
                  Putting colour in your fireworks

  3. Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle by Eugène Viollet Le-Duc.





on first arriving in France - driving motorway aires, introduction
travelling by rail to and within France individual aires                                             
A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers and its aires Les Pyrénées, A64 Poey de Lascar, A64
A89 autoroute from Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand and beyond - aires Pic du Midi, A64
Hastingues, A64
Dunes, A62
Mas d’Agenais, A62
A7 - aires on the busy A7 autoroute from Lyons to Marseille Pech Loubat, A61
Port-Lauragais, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62
Garonne, A62
A9- aires on the motorway to Spain Ayguesvives, A61
Renneville, A61
Catalan village, A9
Tavel, A9
A62 - aires on the autoroute of two seas three aires on the canal du midi, A61 Lozay, A10
Poitou-Charente, A10
A65 : the autoroute de Gascogne, from Langon to Pau Carcassonne, A61 Les Bréguières, A8
A64 and A61 - aires on the other autoroute of two seas  
A83 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A63: the French Wild West, Bordeaux to the Spanish border - formerly the N10
A837 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A20 - aires on the Occitane autoroute, from Brive to Montauban
A42 and A40 motorways - aires from Lyon to Switzerland and Italy A87 motorway and its aires in Poitou-Charentes

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