If you've ever played the popular board game Carcassonne, or the video game adaptation, you may have wondered what inspired it.
Here it is, the Cité de Carcassonne, an epic citadel in all its medieval glory, seen here from a walking bridge in the French town of the same name.
Though there are several ways to approach the castle, my route wound up the steep front hill.
Once inside, the first major building you see is the Keep. If you keep gunpowder out of your mind, the walls are quite imposing.
Most of the castle is free to access, and there are restaurants and hotels throughout. You have to pay to enter the Keep, but that also gives you access to the castle walls.
There's not much in the Keep, though two large courtyards give some hint of what "safe" must have felt like all those years ago.
Here you can see an overview (very over, as high as I could reach, in fact) of the layout of the fortress. The upper left is the keep, the lower right the church. The barbican got chopped off a little on the left. It really got chopped off in the citadel's restoration, but more on that later.
Pass the gift shop and a small museum with the history of the castle, and you get to walk along the Keep's walls.
A quick peek above the walkway at the walled town.
This much larger courtyard made it easier to imagine people living here.
One of the many restaurants inside the walls. I had lunch and dinner at Carcassonne and the food was good, though expensive (unsurprisingly).
The walls are nearly 2 miles in length. You can't completely walk around them, as a few sections haven't been fully refurbished.
No longer fearing invading Visigoths, Carcassonne has spread to the land around the castle.
Where the church now stands was once the barbican. The path on the right was the walled stairs for defenders to use to get from the castle to the fortress-outside-the-fortress.
There are 52 towers along the walls, some small like this (about the size of a single room per floor), others are larger.
One of the many hotels inside the walls. I imagine walking around at night is equal parts spooky and awesome.
This is look back toward the Keep and the town below. Yes, that's the walk up.
In one corner is the huge Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse. There's something about these angles and curves.
Shakespeare in the park? No, wait, this is France. Bergerac dans le parc?
It is southwest France after all, so it shouldn't be surprising to see vineyards from the walls.
Given that it's behind massive walls, the basilica is quite massive.
Inside are European stone and glass churchworks that are pretty typical, which is to say, incredibly gorgeous.
The Basilica is "only" about 200 years old, replacing the cathedral, which was about 800 years older.
Carcassonne has one of the most elaborate and impressive defensive designs I've ever seen. Multiple high walls, plus being on a hill. Its greatest enemies were time, and the French government, which wanted to demolish it in the mid-1800s.
Apparently the roofs were often bright colors like these, at least during certain eras and in certain areas of France (controversially, not necessarily this area).
In other eras, the roofs were stone or slate for better protection against attacks involving fire.
For this picture, I'd made a loop back round near where I started, coming in under the keep. A small garden and benches are set up in the space that was once designed to be a murder zone during defense of the keep.
Le Hourd, a wooden walkway from which defenders could drop heavy things on the heads of attackers. The narrow slit windows were angled internally so archers could aim at the ground.
This was the original entrance gate during the Middle Ages. If you go clockwise along the walls during your tour, you end here.
Sun catches the buttresses of the old Basilica. As the day winds down, the air grows cold and the streets empty.
It was actually impressive how quickly the town emptied out. Only the areas around the remaining open restaurants had people.
This probably shouldn't have been surprising since the vast majority of visitors were either old or parents with stroller-bound children. Not sure why that was the mix.
During the day these are stores selling candy, ice cream and souvenirs.
The beige stones take on the warm glow of a French sunset.
No one lights buildings better than the French...though I look forward to when the yellow sodium vapors get replaced by more color-neutral LEDs.
Imagine facing this, trying to attack up.
Returning to the train station via the road bridge yielded the view I'd longed for when I arrived. It had started to rain, but it didn't matter.
A truly incredible experience. If you're in southwest France, don't miss it.
For the full story behind the tour, check out Take a tour of the Citadel of Carcassonne: a real-life castle from video games, TV, and more.