Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.
Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.
Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there. Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.
It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.
The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).
You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”
Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière, because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).
More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.