CARCASSONNE, France -- From the window of the train, the medieval town of Carcassonne appears on the horizon like an apparition from the past. Crenellated stone ramparts and cylindrical towers with pointy-capped roofs sprout from the hilltop above the Aude River, as do visions of damsels in distress, troubadours with lutes, and flag-wielding crusaders laying siege for a cause. Next stop: the Middle Ages.
Well, almost. The railway station is in the ''new" part of town, the Bastide Saint-Louis, established as recently as 1247. Also referred to as ''Lower Carcassonne," this town of 45,000 residents seems positively modern compared with La Cit Mdivale (the ancient city) looming on the upper plateau. Bastide Saint-Louis is nice, in an ordinary French-town kind of way, but La Cit is what you want to see.
Each year, more than 3 million tourists visit this oldest surviving medieval city in Europe. Fans of military architecture and castles flock here for the 52 towers, an almost 2-mile double ring of walls, the palace with its museums, and to gleefully use words outside their everyday lexicon: battlements, ramparts, barbicans, moats, arrow-slits, putlog holes, machicolation, portcullis..
Indeed, stepping through the Narbonne gate, flanked by towers 82 feet high, is like entering a time warp. Ironically, the authentic restoration gives the town a theme-park feel. Cobblestone streets wind past almost too-cute shops selling crafts, baked goods, souvenirs, antiques, foie gras, and other regional specialties. La Cit has about 120 inhabitants, who live above their shops and are part of the tourism industry.
To fully appreciate La Cit, it helps to know its history. There's no brief way to summarize a town whose inhabitants span two millennia, but here's a synopsis: In 122 BC, the Romans settled here and occupied the region until the fifth century AD, when the Visigoths took control. Then came the Saracens, Pepin the Short (a Frankish king, the father of Charlemagne), followed by the feudal era and the dynasty of the Trencavels. Between 1082 and 1209, the town came into its glory, patronizing troubadour culture and the literature of chivalry.
Raymond-Roger Trencavel's generosity and tolerance, however, were also his downfall. By allowing the Cathars -- a Christian sect reviled as heretics by Rome -- to live protected in his territory, he unleashed the fury of Pope Innocent III, who launched a series of Crusades against the town, ultimately delivering the land to the king of France in 1224. Under successive royal reigns, the second defensive wall was built, and the ''new" town was created on the plain below.
By the mid-17th century, the border between France and Spain had moved, ending the town's importance as a strategic frontier. As the new town prospered, the old town decayed. In the mid-1800s, a renewed interest in the Middle Ages led to the meticulous restoration of La Cit by Eugne Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who restored Notre-Dame in Paris.
The history comes most alive through architecture. At the pinnacle of the town is the Castle, built in the 12th century by the Trencavels. Guided tours wind through the castle, inner ramparts, museums, and towers. One can stand along the battlements and imagine scanning the landscape for an invading army, see the giant round stones in the museum that were dropped on enemy heads, climb the grim Tower of the Inquisition and ponder humanity's ageless self-righteousness and intolerance, and wonder what the place smelled like in the 13th century with a population of 4,000 soldiers and medieval sanitation.
Also within the double city walls, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse spans architectural styles from the 11th to the 14th centuries, with a Romanesque nave, a Gothic transept and choirs, and intricate stained glass windows. A polished wood organ in the nave dates to the 16th century.
The true magic of the town is experienced at night. When most tourists depart, your steps echo against the stone walls, illuminated after dark. When the shops close, there's a choice of restaurants near the old town's hotels.
Carcassonne, it seems, is a victim of its own success, often overrun with visitors in summer. If you dislike crowds, choose another season. If you like to be in the thick of things, however, the town comes alive during the Festival de Carcassonne, with music, theater, and dance every night in July. For three weeks in August, the town is awash in medieval spectacles of jousts, concerts, parades, street festivals, and food fairs.
On the night of July 14, Bastille Day, the city appears to be under siege again during one of the largest fireworks displays in France. As the last rockets burst, the lingering smoke settles and glows red above the ramparts, and the medieval city appears to burn.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.