In this series, we’ve compiled itineraries showcasing some of the most interesting, authentic and well-preserved medieval sites across the European continent. In this first installment, we take a look at the stalwarts of Western Europe: England, France and Spain. Follow us through time as we tour architecture, landscapes and villages fit for a history buff — but never far from accommodations fit for a king.
It was here that the troubadours of Aquitaine first sang of courtly love and the popular concept of chivalry was first developed.
In the Middle Ages, southern France historically maintained a distinct language and relative independence from the northern kingdom. It was here that the troubadours of Aquitaine first sang of courtly love, and where the popular concept of chivalry was first developed. The picturesque medieval settings, then as well as now, are a fitting complement to those romantic ideals.
Begin at the citadel of Carcassonne in southwestern Languedoc-Roussillon, where the Aude River divides the city into two sections. La Cite, the upper town, is a medieval wonderland and designated World Heritage Site. Entering this charming area is like taking a step back in time, as the town is complete with more than 50 towers, stone walls, a moat and drawbridge, and a cathedral. Though a crucial stronghold during centuries of warfare—Romans, Visigoths, Spanish Moors and French nobles all took refuge here—the city fell into disrepair as the French border expanded, culminating with government orders to demolish the medieval fortifications in 1849. However, under the guidance of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, one of the pioneers of modern conservation science, it was successfully restored to its medieval glory. Today, Carcassonne’s storybook setting continues to impress, with appearances in films and literature and as the inspiration behind the popular board game of the same name.
Your next stop is the coastal city of Montpellier. Now the fast-growing capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, the city was originally settled in the 10th century as a refuge from pirates, and later became a major port for the spice trade with the Middle East. Stroll its medieval streets, such as Rue du Bras de Fer, and make your way to the Tour de la Babotte and the Tours des Pins to view the remains of 12th-century fortifications. Montpellier also is home to the Faculte de Medecine, a medical college established in 1289 that continues to be one of the preeminent institutions in the country, and the world’s oldest medical school still in operation. In the city’s Jewish quarter, visit the medieval mikve, a sacred ceremonial bathhouse, that dates back to the 13th century and one of the best-preserved mikves in all of Europe.
End your French sojourn in Èze, which sits high above the Côte d’Azur between Nice and the Italian border. “Èze is a very special place, a medieval walking village with an exceptional view 400 meters above sea level overlooking the whole French Riviera,” says Robin Oodunt, general manager of Château Eza. As you approach this cliffside town, its terracotta roofs seem to rise out of the earth, and the magnificent vistas and tranquil setting have made Èze a popular spot for honeymooners as well as notable personalities ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Walt Disney and the Prince of Sweden.
Èze’s medieval castle was torn down in 1706, but its ruins remain. The surrounding village features restored medieval buildings that now house artisan shops and perfumeries. French author George Sand wrote of this paradise, “The ruins of Èze, planted on a coneshaped rock, with a picturesque village perched on a sugar loaf, stop the glance inevitably. This is the most beautiful point of view of the road, the most complete, the best composed.”