In ancient times, the best way to protect your city was to fortify it. This meant building large walls, towers and other barriers that kept your people safe. Think the Great Wall of China on a much smaller scale.
As the years passed and the 21st Century rolled around, the need for such cities became less necessary. In their infinite wisdom, however, Europe continued to preserve these places through organizations such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). This leaves us, the modern travelers and history seekers, a chance to time travel back into a place far different from our own.
Today, we will be focusing our interest in France. So before you finalize that itinerary or book that plane ticket, read up on these fascinating walled cities and maybe find some time to squeeze a little fortification into your trip.
Consistently, the walled city of Carcassonne has been rated the best in France and perhaps all of Europe for its beautiful yet imposing presence. Originally built to keep invaders out, the hilltop city is encircled by an enormous double row of fortified walls and 56 imposing towers. Tourist often find themselves enthralled in the fairytale-esque atmosphere, half expecting to see a knight and fire-breathing dragon fighting around the corner.
While there is no princess to rescue from an evil foe, the town has its fair share of sordid history. One of the towers housed the Catholic Inquisition in the 13th Century and today is the Musée de la Torture, where visitors can take a look at some of the original torture equipment from that time.
Don’t let that scare you off though. This town evokes romantic notions of a simplistic past that will leave you wishing to set up camp and never leave. Today the town is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and will continue to leave tourists and locals standing in its magnificent shadow for years to come.
The most stunning architectural feature of this town is seen only from above. Military engineer, Marquis de Vauban, designed a plan for this town that laid out fortifications in the shape of a large star – making this the most unique walled city on our list!
Three separate rows protect the city, which sits safely nestled in the star’s center. Visitors to the town can stop by the Vauban museum, journey through the forest La Hardt, sit on the banks of the Rhine River or simply enjoy the relaxed local atmosphere. In 2008, Neuf-Brisach became one of the twelve fortresses recognized as a World Heritage site.
A band of wild pirates used to control the island of Saint-Malo. Situated at the opening of the Rance, the ruffians taxed any sailors who passed their way. At one point these fierce warriors even declared the island to be an independent republic!
Today passage is far safer, mostly due to a large bridge installed to permanently attach Saint-Malo to the rest of the continent. As the most visited city in the Brittany region, it may be best to save this spot for a time other than summer to avoid the crowds and to truly enjoy all the city has to offer.
Take a ferry ride, stroll along the beach, see the Cathedral of St. Vincent or visit the Great Aquarium (one of the largest in France). Before you leave be sure to indulge in some seafood – Saint-Malo has one of the highest concentrations of seafood restaurants in Europe.
In the 14th and 15th centuries the town of Avignon was the center of great controversy. Pope Clement V chose the city as his residence rather than the traditional Rome, creating a stir in the Catholic Church. Deep into the 15th century, many popes followed his lead and stayed at the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) – the most famous landmark in the town.
If you happen to be around in the summer, the Palace hosts a theater festival of music, dance and cinema. You can join a more formal crowd at the “Festival In” portion, held inside the Palace of the Popes. Or journey over to “Festival Off” to experience a more bohemian style of undiscovered plays and street performers.
Perhaps the smallest town on our list, Domme is a medieval fortified town on the Dordogne river, that holds barely a thousand residents. Particularly wonderful for sightseeing, the town sits on top of a hill and enchants every visitor who passes through. Other sights include the towers of the Porte des Tours that are open year round for visitors wishing to see the prisons that held the Knights Templar in 1307.
It is still possible to see the engraved crosses they carved while imprisoned. Another spot to check out is the stalactite and stalagmite grottes (caves) that protected residents during the Hundred Years War. Classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Domme is an excellent stop whether you’re only popping in to grab lunch or staying for a few relaxing nights.
What are you waiting for? Don’t take my word on these places – go check them out for yourself! Explore the walled cities we described here or any of the others that are scattered across the beautiful countryside. Don’t forget to report back, we love hearing about your travels.