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Carcassonne/France

Introducing Carcassonne

Perched on a rocky hilltop and bristling with zig-zag battlements, stout walls and spiky turrets, from afar the fortified city of Carcassonne looks like something out of a children's storybook. It's most people's perfect idea of a medieval castle, and it's undoubtedly an impressive spectacle – not to mention one of the Languedoc's biggest tourist draws.

Sadly, the inside of La Cité, as the old walled town is now known, doesn't quite live up to the fairy-tale façade. With over four million visitors every year, it feels depressingly devoid of any magic and mystery in summer, and the plethora of tacky souvenir shops and cheap cafes does little to contribute to the mystical atmosphere. Time your visit for late in the day, however (or better still for spring and autumn) and the old town regains something of its medieval charm – especially along its rickety ramparts, which look out across the Langedoc's sunbaked landscape.

Beneath the old town sprawls the Ville Basse (lower town), an altogether more contemporary grid of grey streets, open squares and busy shops. The two towns are linked by a brace of bridges across the Canal du Midi: the modern Pont-Neuf road bridge and the much older and prettier Pont-Vieux, a pedestrian-only bridge built during the 14th century and rebuilt in the 19th.