6 amazing ancient walled cities
Before heading to a major, modern city this summer, venture off the beaten path to one of these ancient, walled cities. The preserved antiquity of these castles, villages and convents hidden behind military fortresses impress and educate visitors of all ages on some of Europe’s ever-changing history of conquest, invention and survival.
On a hill in Languedoc- Roussillon sits 2,000-year-old Carcassonne, the largest walled city in Europe that also inspired Disney’s castle in “The Sleeping Beauty.” Behind its two miles of double rock walls, drawbridges and 50+ watchtowers is a town in two parts; above is La Cité, a castle and fortressed city, and a larger city below, called Le Ville Basse. Its architecture covers Roman and medieval times. For centuries, the fortress was a powerful military stronghold along the then-border of France and Aragon (modern Spain) that also guarded an important trade route between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.
Visitors should see the ramparts, climb the towers overlooking the Aude River, discover the city’s museums, and enter the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, the city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral. Bus lines and cabs offer rides between La Cité and Le Ville Basse.
For daytrip ideas, head 45 minutes east for a dip in the Mediterranean on the quiet beaches of Narbonne. Or, an hour south is the mysterious village of Rennes-le-Château, shrouded in secrets and legends about Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail and more.
A half mile off of the coast of Normandy and dominating the horizon is Mont Saint-Michel, another walled marvel. Originally a Gallo-Roman fortification, the Roman Catholic Church sanctified a monastery on the island in 709 A.D. During the French Revolution, the abbey was converted into a prison, to be restored to its previous purpose 100 years later. Today, Mont Saint- Michel is still an active monastery and peaceful retreat. Its beauty, history and unique setting make the island a must-see tourist location. Europe’s highest tides are recorded at Mont Saint-Michel, some as great as 45 feet.
While on the beaches of Normandy, consider visiting World War II battle sites, beaches and American cemeteries. Many local tour companies provide transportation and information for each site.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Situated on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River in Bavaria is this quintessential German town with its half-timber construction and cobblestones. The castle was built in 1070, the town founded in 1170, and the fortified wall built in the 1400s. Considered a prosperous, free imperial city in the Middle Ages, Rothenburg reached populations greater than Frankfurt and Munich yet the Black Plague epidemic and the Thirty Years’ War depleted the town of much of its population and stopped its growth. Today, while the town is small, its preserved historical architecture attracts worldwide tourism, even utilized in many stories and films. Scenes from two of the “Harry Potter” movie series were filmed in Rothenburg, and the town inspired the artist’s sketches for the village in Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Pinocchio.”
Rothenburg’s medieval Christmas market rivals as one of the country’s best. In warmer weather, tourists can take balloon rides for unmatched views of the town’s red-top roofs and the Bavarian Alps. Visitors should also consider a walking city tour that follows the fortress wall, and climb Rödertor Tower to see the city. Then, for the darker side of medieval times, tour the Medieval Crime Museum with the largest collection of medieval law enforcement equipment in the world. The four floors of exhibits will send a chill down one’s spine and leave guests thankful they didn’t live – and break the law – during the Middle Ages!
Atop a volcano plug in Italy’s Umbria region is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. From its cobblestone alleyways, winding streets to its exceptionally designed cathedral, there is much to marvel visitors in Orvieto. The ancient city was populated in Etruscan times (700 B.C.), and under Roman rule in 300 B.C. Orvieto’s position above the road between Rome and Florence helped the city become a valuable location for trade and security, and led to its wealth and exploding population of the day. Orvieto was sitting on a secret, however. Modern archeologists discovered an ancient underground maze of tunnels, rooms, stairs, cellars and more, all created to help citizens seek shelter during siege. Homes of prominent families had escape routes to the tunnels, with exit points emerging well outside of the city walls. Today, visitors can take guided tours through the mazes and see artifacts found during excavation.
Another jewel of the city is the magnificent Orvieto Cathedral. Its intricate façade of millions of hand-laid marble mosaics and prized interior chapel frescos will leave visitors breathless.
Traveling to Rome? Orvieto is only an hour’s train ride away and a great day trip. Or, for those heading to Rome, don’t risk driving in the city. Orvieto has a safe and inexpensive covered parking garage with daily rates. Park, ride the funicular to the train station below the town, then it’s off to Rome, worry-free about the car.
Ávila and Segovia
Two Spanish walled cities worth seeing are both UNESCO World Heritage sites and easy daytrips from Madrid. Visitors will enjoy the historically significant architectural sites offered by both.
Ávila’s most prominent architectural structure is its beautifully preserved medieval wall. Built in the 11th century, the spectacular wall and impressive Alcázar and San Vicente gates demonstrate the stature and wealth this fortified town once held in Spanish society. Visit the 10th century Cathedral of Ávila and the Four Posts just outside of town for picture-perfect views of the city and wall. And, make a trip in October for the month-long Festival of Saint Teresa. Events include concerts, bullfights, a fairground with rides and regional foods, parades and a large mass.
Segovia, a Celtic civilization that later transferred to Roman rule, is significant in Roman, Spanish and American history. Tour the Alcázar castle, where Queen Isabella I was crowned and where she promised the finances to Columbus for his American voyage. Marvel at Segovia’s Roman Aqueduct, the largest and best preserved of its kind anywhere in the world. Also visit some of the city’s Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, including Segovia Cathedral, the last Romanesque cathedral built in Europe. Segovia has more cathedrals than any other European city. Then, tour the world’s oldest manufacturing plant, The Segovia Mint, who began minting coins in 1583.
With hundreds more walled cities to see across Europe, check out the suggested city list in the sidebar for your own explorations. Who knows, perhaps you, too will discover one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
Other walled cities to explore:
- Bruges, Belgium
- Dubrovnik, Croatia
- York, England
- St. Malo, France
- Füssen, Germany
- Rhodes, Greece
- Gradara, Italy
- Naarden, The Netherlands
- Óbidos, Portugal
- Toledo, Spain