Kings of the castle
Whether they're a marauding knight or a pampered princess, children get a kick out of castles most adults can only dream of. Mike Peake and his family bed down in a citadel to beat them all
It is 7.30am on a crisp Sunday morning and, while the kids sleep off the exertions of the day before, I slip out of the hotel to take some pictures. We’re in Carcassonne in south-west France, inside the ancient and magnificent fortified town that has stood here at the edge of the Pyrénées for centuries. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit like Richard the Lionheart as I stride atop its silent ramparts.
I haven’t seen a soul in half an hour until suddenly, on a high wall with a 50ft plunge down one side onto hard stone below, I almost bump into a man coming the other way. He’s not exactly what you’d call menacing – but you never know, do you? What if he’s the resident maniac? What if this is it?
As we come face to face I murmur “Bonjour”, and valiantly take the more dangerous route. Which means stepping out towards the unguarded edge of the ramparts so the stranger can shuffle past – and I steel myself for the inevitable moment that he turns and shoves me off. He doesn’t, of course, and I am able to return to my knight fantasies, which now involve lying in wait until my adversary returns, beneath me, so I can drop a vat of bubbling oil on his head.
Oh, come on – there’s just something about castles that sets the imagination on fire. It’s a fascination that starts aged four, tucked up in bed, lost in a sea of stories about dragons, armour and jousting. And here in Carcassonne, Europe’s most spectacular medieval city, it all comes flooding back. When people talk about Carcassonne, they mostly mean what the locals call the “Cité”, the fortified town and Unesco World Heritage site that occupies 7ha on a hilltop at the edge of the more modern riverside conurbation. To all intents and purposes, the Cité is a vast, fairy-tale castle, and seen from a mile or two in the distance it takes your breath away. Those old stone walls, dotted with 52 towers and turrets, snake their way around the hill. You couldn’t think up a more perfect medieval vision – and under a setting sun it is little short of awesome.
I’m here with my children, who probably prefer Star Wars to castles – but the latter comes a very close second. And we’re lucky enough to be staying inside the citadel itself. There are only a couple of hotels within the stronghold, and to be in one that Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and Jacques Chirac have all bedded down in feels like a rare treat. The last time I visited Carcassonne I was in somewhat less salubrious lodgings outside the castle, but as guests of the sumptuous Orient Express Hôtel de la Cité we get to feel like we actually live here, perhaps en route to a crusade.
One of the nicest things about this historic landmark is that it is always open, and it’s free to get in – although it can get busy during the day. When the tourists have all gone home the Cité is at its most magical. A warren of ancient streets lined with enchanting shops, a handful of museums and what looks like a handful of old stone houses means a night-time stroll is like stepping back in time. Cars are a rare sight too – so it’s easy to wander a while without seeing another human being or anything to remind you this is the 21st century.
The combination of being inside a castle and out after dark sends the kids’ sense of excitement into overdrive. And there’s no let-up back at the hotel, a beautiful, sprawling building that occupies the site of a former bishop’s palace. It is full of nooks and crannies – and to the kids it quickly becomes another medieval playground. Patterns in the carpet become trapdoors, huge wooden staircases become drawbridges. In such an inspiring setting, their creativity knows no bounds.
We’re deep in Cathar country and, as well as Carcassonne’s rich pickings, history fans can take in such local treasures as Rennes-leChâteau, as mentioned in The Da Vinci Code. The children, however, have no time for the Holy Grail and are more interested in the intergalactic wonders of the Cité de l’Espace (www.cite-espace.com) at nearby Toulouse. The city is at the epicentre of France’s space industry, and the local knowledge of all things stellar has been put to good use in a museum that is brimming with things for children to do, such as bouncing around as if walking on the moon, or making televised weather bulletins.
They leave happy and with careers as astronauts carefully mapped out. But their resolve weakens as we return to Carcassonne, where thoughts of dragon slaying return to their heads. They can’t believe it when I tell them that Napoleon and his successors wanted to knock the whole place down because it had fallen into such a state. Writer Kate Mosse, who set her bestselling book Labyrinth here, says: “Whenever I see Carcassonne, I can hardly believe it’s real.”
Back at the hotel, we’re midway through a battle with plastic swords when I ask my eldest what it’s been like staying in a castle. “Brilliant!” he beams, hitting me with a punishing blow to the abdomen. “Actually, no,” he corrects himself. “It’s been better than that. It’s been brilliant to infinity!”
HÔTEL DE LA CITÉ, PLACE AUGUSTE-PIERRE PONT, CARCASSONNE, TEL: +33 (0)46 871 9871, www.HOTELDELACITE.COM
THREE MORE CASTLES TO STAY IN
GLENAPP CASTLE HOTEL, SCOTLAND
Only an hour’s drive from the airport, this luxury hotel has plenty of towers and turrets. Activities for children include tennis, croquet, falconry, archery and clay pigeon shooting (over-16s only).
FLY TO GLASGOW (PRESTWICK) FROM 26 DESTINATIONS, INCLUDING FARO, MALAGA AND RIGA. VISIT www.RYANAIR.COM
BURG HOTEL COLMBERG, GERMANY
This 1,000-year-old castle has a Ford Model T in its lobby. If that’s not enough to make junior say “Cool”, there are real suits of armour dotted about, and the restaurant serves food caught by local hunters.
FLY TO KARLSRUHE-BADEN FROM NINE DESTINATIONS, INCLUDING BARCELONA (GIRONA). VISIT www.RYANAIR.COM
DREAM CASTLE HOTEL, DISNEYLAND PARIS
Although not the castle-like Disney hotel at the entrance, this wallet-friendly four-star is a short, free shuttle ride away and has medieval-themed rooms, fantastic gardens and great views.
FLY TO PARIS (BEAUVAIS) FROM 27 DESTINATIONS, INCLUDING SHANNON. VISIT www.RYANAIR.COM
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CARCASSONNE
600BC: Carcassonne’s hilltop site first used as a trading post.
100BC: Romans fortify the site.
AD725: Visigoths lose the Cité to the Saracens.
1355: Edward, the Black Prince fails in his attempt to take the fortified town during the Hundred Years’ War.
1853: A major restoration at the Cité begins, which takes the best part of 50 years. Though not entirely authentic, it is deemed a great success. Today it pulls in 2 million people a year.