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The labyrinthine streets of Carcassonne

Sometimes when you're shooting the screen version of a novel, the best location is quite simply the actual setting of the book. That is clearly what three-time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott thought when he took the crew to Carcassone in the heart of France's Cathar country to shoot a new TV miniseries based on the bestselling novel, 'Labyrinth'.

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The director, who is behind recent TV series The Good Wife and The Pillars of the Earth, as well as movie greats including Thelma and Louise and Blade Runner, has described Labyrinth as "a wonderful puzzle". The award-winning novel, the first of a trilogy by the British writer Kate Mosse, is set between modern and medieval times in the Languedoc area of France, and centres on the search for the Holy Grail.

Whether or not you've ever had the chance to visit Carcassonne, the city may seem familiar: capital of the French department of Aude, it possesses one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, a fact which may explain its popularity as a movie location. The city is the third most visited place in France, after Paris and Mont Saint-Michel and has served as backdrop for films of all types, including Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and the French comedy fantasy Les Visiteurs.

There are really two separate towns at Carcassonne: the original fortified Cité, and below it, on the opposite bank of the river Aude, the Ville Basse. The medieval walled town was superimposed on the Roman town, which had itself obliterated an earlier settlement. In the thirteenth century Carcassonne reached its peak as a thriving haunt of artists, jugglers and troubadours who sang their ballads in what we know as Occitan or langue d'oc, which gives its name to the modern French region Languedoc-Roussillon. 


When the strategic position of the town was no longer a matter of importance, the Ville Basse spread unchecked in the plain, and is the real modern-day city. La Cité was practically abandoned and allowed to crumble away until the mid-nineteenth century, when work on restoration began, narrowly averting the need for demolition.

The tourists' goal is the walled city of Carcassonne, but it is worth taking time to pause and admire the scene from a distance in order to appreciate the panoramic view of this picture-perfect fortified city on a hill. There it stands, with its double ring of concentric walls protecting the old town, 18 towers on the inner wall and 26 on the outer wall.

In fact, the beautiful medieval town that makes such a perfect film set today is not entirely authentic: it owes some of its features – including the delightful conical turrets – to the creative imagination of the prolific architect and restorer Viollet-le-Duc. Despite this, it was still considered worthy of inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.


The Narbonne Gate, flanked by twin towers and a drawbridge with portcullis, gives access to the well-kept maze of medieval houses, where cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops abound. Essential stops include the twelfth-century Comtal castle, where one of the towers housed the Catholic Inquisition and a modern Musee de la Torture displays some of the original instruments of torture.

The old cathedral of St Nazaire and St Celse is an architectural gem with beautiful stained-glass windows; it houses the siege stone, a bass-relief fragment illustrating a siege and said to commemorate the death of Simon de Montfort. This is just one of the reminders you'll find of the role the city played in the Cathar Crusade in the early thirteenth century, a heritage that was a clear inspiration for Kate Mosse's Labyrinth.

Further information:Carcassonne Tourism French TourismKate Mosse Labyrinth

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