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Medieval Cities of France

8 September 2015

Proudly sitting atop a hilly precipice, looming out of the Southern French countryside is the fortified city of Carcassonne. The city is famous for its fully restored medieval fortress, one of the best remaining examples of its kind. Its concentric design includes a mighty 53 towers, which made it a terrifying and difficult prospect for any would-be attackers. The striking stronghold boasts UNESCO World Heritage Status and on a stroll through the narrow alleyways and heavy gatehouses behind the walls, it is easy to see why. Accessed by the Pont Marengo bridge, jutting out over the shimmering waters of the Canal du Midi, historically, Carcassonne was the first fortress to adopt a 'hoardings' system of defence in times of siege, wooden structures were fitted to the upper reaches of the ramparts so that the castle's defenders had extra protection whilst they could lean over the walls and drop rocks, hot tar and other projectiles on the assailants below.

Perhaps the most famous of France's medieval cities is the bustling hub of Lyon. Birthplace of modern cinema and self-professed gastronomic capital of the nation, ancient Lyon has much more to offer a would-be tourist than the fantastic restaurants it has become synonymous with. Lyon has a rich and long-spanning history, stretching back to the ancient Roman era. There is a plethora of medieval architecture throughout the city, with many areas protected by UNESCO Heritage status. The impressive Cathedral of St John boasts architectural elements of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, whilst the imposing Gothic Eglise Saint-Nizier dates back to the 1400s. Perhaps the most inspiring medieval area of Lyon is the 'Vieux Lyon', the Old Town, where Renaissance and medieval buildings intermingle with shops and cafés along the narrow, cobbled walkways of history. Although not from the medieval ages itself, the white-washed colossus of the Basilica de Fourviére, finished in the 19th century, dominates the cityscape and occupies the spot of the erstwhile Roman Forum. The Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have personally intervened in order to save the city population from the Black Death during the height of the Bubonic Plague epidemic.

Any time spent in Lyon cannot be spent well without experiencing the city's world-famous gastronomic specialities. Home of the 'buchon' style restaurant, which specialises in meat and other charcuterie, a vast indoor food market and surrounded by the renowned wine-producing regions of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône, it is not surprising that Lyon has produced as many award-winning chefs as it has. Be sure to taste internationally famous local specialties like coq au vin and Cervelle de canut, a cheese spread dip made with white cheese and seasoned with shallots, vinegar and herbs.

Find out more about these fantastic locations and more on Rail Discoveries' wonderful selection of escorted rail holidays across France and beyond.