P1010958Are 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.

IMG_2356 2
What lies beneath: a Roman road.

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.

I guess this beats mud.

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.

Just your typical French skyline.

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.IMG_2355The 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 gothic town hall between its two towers.
The donjon looking up.
From the top of the donjon, looking down.

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).

Do you see the bridge with buildings on it? LOVE.

IMG_2348You 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.”

A fountain with a sea theme at the base of the donjon.

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.IMG_2357 2Last 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).

Mussels served in the classic casserole
You use the lid for the empty shells.

More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.


26 thoughts on “Day Trip to Narbonne

  1. I would like to be a beach bum if I had time but I do also love history. And the mussels and Fries I love those the most I had some with Laura when we were in France at a little cafe after we watched others eat them and they were delicious.

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  2. We always drive around Narbonne. Next time maybe a wander through with lunch. I love mussels. Middle of October we hope. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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  3. While we marvel at the old architecture, the 3 ladies walk by the town hall building nonchalantly ignoring it. I suppose they just know it’s there and it will always be there. It’s nice to have the reassurance that despite changes, some things will always stay pretty much the same. I just love how you mirror the intertwined history with the daily, mundane life. Those mussels- they don’t need much besides butter and garlic, don’t they? 🤣


  4. I have just put Narbonne on the To Visit list…. never even heard of Gruissan. Sounds absolutely delightful. I think we‘d probably go there end of October, if ever…. or in May.

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    1. Gruissan is just a little fishing village that has added a tourist/beachy side, but the old village and an ancient fort are still there, very quaint. Narbonne the city is inland by a few miles; Narbonne Plage is almost a separate town, dedicated to beach vacations (so I’m not crazy about it). May can be hot (but the water would still be cold) or it can be cool and rainy; spring is dicey. October almost certainly would be beautiful but cool.

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      1. As I can’t live with too much heat (extremely ‘sun-challenged’, love the sun but the sun doesn’t love me, could therefore never live in C or Toulouse etc.), so in general end of Sept/beg of Oct is fine for me…. Thanks for these helpful detailled infos. Love

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  5. Narbonne! We know it well, second-hand, from one of those Rugby-Types – a friend’s son went over to play some years ago and came back to Sydney with one of the local girls, as you do. It has been on the Visit List for some time after its praises were sung…As to mussels, I adore them, correct or not!

    (My google pic seems to have gone awol today!)

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  6. Great post – Narbonne is such a wonderful place! And Chez Bebelle is still a great place, if you can get a seat along the counter. I wrote about it back in 2012 (https://midihideaways.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/a-walk-through-the-woods-and-the-market-halls-of-narbonne/) much has changed since then, but eating at the counter is still great fun!

    Just one correct – the Aude river used to flow through Narbonne until it changed course at some point, and now it flows farther east. The old riverbed was repurposed for the Canal de la Robine, which connects from the Canal du Midi to Port la Nouvelle, so what you see today is no river but a man-made canal.

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      1. Yes, the villages along the river have often been very badly flooded – probably something to do with the fact that the land is so very flat. With sea levels rising, the flooding there can only get more frequent!

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  7. I am not a beach bum but if there is water anywhere in the vicinity I am drawn to it. As much as I find the historical stuff interesting, my attention span is short and the sites will always be trumped by the chance to be by the sea. Narbonne looks like an interesting town and clearly a good one to visit as perhaps underrated by tourists. Mussels and fries, yum!

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