Few destinations are so full of mystique and legend that they inspire a globally renowned creative force to create a cinematic classic.
Once Walt Disney first clapped eyes upon Carcassonne in southern France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, he was reputedly so taken aback that he borrowed its most famous landmark as the setting for his adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.
The fortress of this charming French city is not only a Unesco World Heritage Site but is one of the country’s most popular tourist spots, second only to the Eiffel Tower. The reasons for this become instantly evident when you catch a glimpse of this remarkable feat of construction, and even more so when you first set foot within the castle’s walls.
We’re on a budget for this trip but we’re looking for accommodation within a stone’s throw of the citadel. Thankfully, we find a great deal at Adonis Carcassonne Résidence la Barbacane and are welcomed with open arms by our genial hosts.
Our digs are surprisingly large for the price – a one-bed flat that you’d pay a premium for elsewhere in the city. But the major selling point is that as soon as you open the blinds each morning, the majesty of la cité, is slap, bang in front of you.
There’s only one place to start exploring, and once you make the ascent, what awaits is a wondrous world of Gallo-Roman construction. As you wind your way around the cobbled streets, you’re transported back to the Middle Ages. As with any other tourist trap, there’s a smattering of souvenir shops and snack bars serving international grub. But among the tat are some fantastic artisans’ workshops and authentic, if a little pricey, restaurants that will give you the real flavour of Carcassonne. No trip to the Languedoc-Roussillon region would be complete without sampling a cassoulet, the local dish on which many chefs pride themselves.
Although most tourists plump for the Maison de Cassoulet (it’s in the name, after all), we find this hearty dish is best served at L’Auberge des Musées. This underrated restaurant is better value and the service and quality are absolutely spot on.
Now, it’s time to walk dinner off. And there are few better places to do so than along the battlements, from which you will enjoy a fantastic view across the rest of Carcassonne, which sits below, on the banks of the River Aude.
This is very much a city of two halves and it would be foolish to spend your entire time here bumbling about in the citadel.
Crossing over the Pont Vieux to the newer part of town opens up another world of intrigue, thanks to the fabulous architecture, interesting selection of museums, bars and restaurants to be found there.
A visit to the Musée des Beaux Arts is a must for any aficionado. There you’ll find a collection of works from European artists dating from the 17th century to the present.
However, a more quirky option is the Maison des Mémoires – Centre Joë Bousquet. This permanent exhibition is a tribute to the surrealist poet, who set up home in Carcassonne several years after he was wounded in the First World War. His house, and his personal effects, have been preserved for posterity and provide an intriguing insight into his life.
If the weather is kind (it is to us, even in late November), there are few nicer strolls to be had than along the Canal du Midi. You’ll find lots of locals cycling or sipping coffee on the canalside (we wish we’d hired a bike to follow suit).
Slightly fatigued from one such walk, we decide to finally give Le Bistrot d’Augustin, housed in the railway hotel (Terminus), a try. Having passed it a few times – on this occasion after a day trip to nearby Narbonne – we are glad to find this place is busy for a reason.
Our dinner of confit de canard is one of many reasons to fall in love with this impossibly picturesque nook of southern France. We can easily see why Disney did so, too.
Emirates flies to Barcelona from Dhs2,945, then take a train to Carcassonne for around Dhs200. www.emirates.com.
The perfect day trips from Carcassonne
A short train ride from Carcassonne, this former Roman seaport makes for a delightful away day from all the tourists. Dinner at one of the top-notch bistros and a walk along the Canal de la Robine are not to be missed. Take the train for Dhs95.
A walk into history
Famous for a medieval siege, this sleepy village is another picture-perfect example of Gallic greatness. Take your hiking boots as there are some superb walks to be had in and around Minèrve. Take a bus to Homps, then a taxi to Minèrve for around Dhs85.
This attractive market town comes to life at the start of the year when the Fécos festival is on. However, after the hubbub, it’s a great place to sit with a coffee and watch the world go by.Take a train for Dhs40.