Basilique Saint-Nazaire in Carcassonne, France

Basilique Saints Nazaire et Celse in Carcassonne

The Basilique Saint-Nazaire was, hands-down, my favorite pilgrimage site in France. It is right in the heart of the medieval walled city of Carcassonne and is known as the “Jewel of the City.”

It isn’t the most famous sacred place. But it is beautiful. And when I went inside the basilica, it felt holy. Much like the first time I went to the Louvre, it moved me emotionally, and I just wanted to stay there and take it in. 

The Basilique Saint-Nazaire was mere steps away from the hotel, making the walking part of our pilgrimage short. Once in, it was cool and quiet — a perfect place to wander and reflect or pray.

Inside the Basilique St Nazaire

A Little History: The Basilique Saint-Nazaire & Carcassonne

Carcassonne’s variety of architecture reflects its rich history.

Carcassonne was originally constructed as a Roman outpost to maintain security of the trade between Narbonne and Toulouse along the Via Aquitania. They began construction in the 1st century AD and continued adding on for the next 300 years. 

As it changed hands over time, more was added to fortifications up to the 12th century AD. The Visigoths occupied and added to Carcassonne in the 5th-7th centuries after the Romans left.  

Saracens had it next, but they left it as-is. Merovingians and Carolingians made their contributions, but little is left of what they built.

Then the Trencavel dynasty resumed construction in the 11th century. Raymond-Roger Trencavel died in captivity, having attempted to stand against the Albigensian Crusaders. Saint-Nazaire was burned during the "Day of Butchery." Some of its Romanesque parts survived, but those sheltering inside it died.

The grand outer walls, or barbican, came into being in the 13th century. After the Albigensian Crusade, Carcassonne fell into royal hands, but the people of Carcassonne liked their freedom as a feudal state. So they built the walls. 

Along the walls of Carcassonne

In the end, the king did take over the city. The rebels were expelled from the citadel, but the king allowed them to move into the surrounding area. And once the walls were finished, Carcassonne was so impregnable, it was never attacked during the Hundred Years War. 

So basically, fortifications run the gamut of architectural styles from different times and owners.  

Historian Ina Caro’s The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France has a great chapter on the stories behind Carcassonne and its architecture. We used her book as a homeschool history text to guide our on-site explorations in French history a couple of years back, and it’s full of interesting details.

Sometime in the 1800s, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did some restorations. It’s easy to analyze and find fault with his stylistic authenticity—there are northern-style conical caps on the decidedly southern turrets, and themes in the stained-glass windows of the basilica were completely changed. Yet the effect remains magical. 

The Basilique Saint-Nazaire (officially the Basilique Saints-Nazaire et Celse) is the “Jewel of the City.” It was originally a cathedral with its stones blessed by Pope Urbain II, but it lost its cathedral status in 1801. In 1898, Pope Leo XIII reclassified it as a basilica.

The Latin cross-shaped building was originally completed in the 1100s, but it has been redesigned many times. The Basilique Saint-Nazaire is now a harmonious blending of Romanesque and Gothic styles, with beautiful stained-glass windows. The best time for viewing these is around 12:30pm when the light shines through.

The windows themselves are a source of minor controversy. In former times, a largely illiterate populace depended on the pictures in the stained-glass to tell them the stories of the Bible. The original focus of the “Tree of Life” window was grace, and it contained the four rivers of Paradise.  

When Viollet-le-Duc commissioned restorations for the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, the lower panels of the Tree of Life window were missing. With illiteracy less of an issue at this time, the artist focused largely on visual effects. He replaced the missing panels with Noah’s ark and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Ideologically, God’s judgment replaced God’s grace in the window.

Things to Know

Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in close proximity to yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi.

The Hôtel de la Cité in Carcassonne, right next to the basilica

There are many good hotels and Airbnbs near Carcassonne. However, the only lodgings within the walls of Carcassonne itself are at the Hôtel de la Cité, on the site of a former bishop’s palace. That’s where we stayed, and I recommend it highly.

We could see the Basilique St Nazaire out the window of our top-floor room at the Hôtel de la Cité. We didn’t take advantage of all the amenities like massage and spa, and since we went in the off season, its famous Barbacane Restaurant was closed. But the staff was wonderful and very patient with my imperfect French, and the suite was comfortable and elegant.

The Hôtel de la Cité had a sophisticated, historical feel to it. The style is a mix of neo-gothic and 1920s art deco. There’s also a library, a swimming pool, and private paid parking outside the walls (the hotel provides a ride up for guests and luggage). Since bookings were light at the time, they surprised us with a complimentary upgrade on our suite.

There are also campgrounds with sites and cabins nearby.

How to get there:

  • Drive: You can easily drive to Carcassonne, but you’ll have to walk within the city itself. Traffic is very limited within the walls. 
  • Fly: Flights to Carcassonne operate via Ryanair, with shuttles from the airport. 
  • Train & bus: There is also train and bus service to the lower town. 

Weather is pretty good for visiting year-round. However, tourist attractions tend to be closed in winter and into early spring. The most is going on during summer, but that’s also when it’s most crowded, so weigh your priorities.

Also, restaurants tend to have limited dining hours. These hours aren’t always published. They seem to be intuitive to French people, but they remained a bit mysterious to my American sensibilities. (I’m used to something being open whenever I want to eat.)

Outdoor dining area in Carcassonne

Instead, it seems dining hours are somewhere around noon – 2:30(ish) for lunch and 7 or 8 – 10pm for dinner. You may find little crêpe shops open in between, and they’re well worth trying. If you have small children, you may want to carry some snacks along, just in case you and the dining hours aren't in sync.

All sacred sites within La Cité should be reachable by walking, but there’s also a little tourist train that runs around the whole of Carcassonne. This can be fun to try, since it gives a varied view of the place with its architecture from different time periods. 

The Basilique Saint-Nazaire is open every day: Monday – Saturday 9am – 8pm, Sunday 9am – 10:45am & 12:30 – 8 pm. Mass is at 11am on Sunday. Visitors may enter freely but are asked to remain quiet to allow believers to worship and pray.

Other Stuff to See & Do in Carcassonne

  • The Canal du Midi is nearby. As another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s worth seeing. 
  • Play the game Carcassonne … IN Carcassonne. (This was my son’s big goal. He carried the game in baggies all the way from home, up and down stairs in metros, just for that purpose.)
Playing Carcassonne (the game) in Carcassonne (the city) :)
  • Do a self-guided tour of Carcassonne’s churches, including Temple Protestant, Eglise des Carmes, Saint Vincent Church, Jesuit Chapel, St Michael’s Cathedral, Chapelle des Dominicains, Chapelle Notre Dame de la Santé, and Eglise Saint-Gimer (a little over 3 km).
  • Walk out through La Cité, the walls, and the count’s castle
  • Visit the Eglise Protestante-Baptiste Berriac-Carcassonne — less historical ambience but ongoing Protestant services, including monthly(?) Bible studies in English.
  • Let your imagination run wild!

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