In November 2019 we are on our way back from Spain (Hospitalet de l’Infant) to Switzerland with an overnight stop in Narbonne. In late afternoon, we arrive in the friendly Hotel de France in a quiet side street just ten minutes away from the cathedral of Narbonne.
Source: Google maps.
First impressions from strolling through the city center adorned for Christmas
After having settled in our cosy hotel, we stroll through the city center. The Canal de la Robine has been adorned for Christmas. The Christmas market is ready to open along the shores of the channel.
Narbonne has its “Ponte Vecchio”, a bridge with houses and shops crossing the channel. The bridge of Narbonne is called “Le Pont des Marchands”.
Now we are on the bridge of the merchants (or Ponts des Marchands). I cannot believe that we are on a bridge.
The people from Narbonne do seem to love Christmas. The donjon of the Archbishop’s palace shines like a rectangular parcel with glowing red bows.
The Cathedral Saint-Just – in principle just an amazingly high choir – emerges from the narrow streets. Accompanied by sacral music, a roller-skater dances elegantly in front of the gothic arches. Very mystic and solemn atmosphere.
The backside of the choir looks like a cathedral in ruins. Well, this Cathedral of Saint Just consists just of the choir. In the 14th century, the city started to build the transepts, but had to stop, because of lack of money or because constructing the transept and the nave would have required to open the town wall which was not a good idea during the Hundred Years’ War (1347-1453). This is why, the cathedral of Narbonne ends with the “ruins” of the transept and two towers that were added here later.
A small bookshop is open on this Sunday evening. I find a pretty book about Narbonne and the area around it (“Narbonne et le Narbonnais” by Chantal Alibert and others). Then we have dinner in a brasserie and look forward to discovering Narbonne at daylight tomorrow.
Cathedral Saint-Just: Just an amazing choir
The Cathedral Saint-Just with its choir – 40m high- is also impressive at daylight. From outside the buttresses and pinnacles supporting the choir give the cathedral some airiness. Instead of the transepts (never accomplished), two towers of 71m have been added in the 15th century, at the place, where the transepts should be. They look a bit odd to me.
Inside, the elegance of the gothic vaults is just overwhelming.
I cannot stop looking.
The impressive organ has been built by Moucherel, in 1739.
The treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral is on display in the “new” chapter room from the 15th century (well, the “new” chapter room is 500 years old and, nevertheless, it is called “new”). I am particularly impressed by the finely carved ivory plate with the crucifixion, completed in the entourage of Charlemagne at the School Palais d’Aix-la-Chapelle (before 815 AD).
The museum leaflet says that Narbonne’s treasure is one of the ten richest treasures of France, among the others being Conques, Troyes, Paris and Chartres.
Archbishop Palace and Via Domitia
In daylight, the donjon of the Archbishop Palace has become a more sober Christmas parcel with plain red bows.
In front of the Archbishop Palace (or town hall) part of the Roman Via Domitia has been dug out. Narbonne was the capital of the Roman province Septimania. This was the first Roman province outside Italy, installed in 118 BC. Narbonne was a port then and located at the intersection of the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania. Roman Narbonne thrived, but only little of that is left today, such as these cobbles of the Via Domitia in front of the Archbishop Palace. In December it has become a convenient place for Christmas trees and more equipment.
It has recently rained at Narbonne. The Archbishop Palace reflects in the puddle…
… and so does the donjon with the red bow.
Lively city enter, friendly for pedestrians and their dogs
Narbonne’s Pont des Marchands reflects in the Canal de la Robine.
It is early morning. The streets – reserved for pedestrians – are still quiet.
At the Place des Quatre Fontaines (square of the four fountains), the fountain has four mouths or apertures for the water, as the name suggests. Now the four mouths are hidden behind the Christmas decoration.
This is, what the fountain of the four “mouths” looks like without Christmas trees – we found the image in the mirror of the Brasserie des 4 Fontaines nearby.
Narbonne is a welcoming, friendly town and the large pedestrian area invites to stroll around discovering charming corners one of them being the “Chien-Chic”…,
… a dog trimmer that was champion in various years.
A pity that I do not own a dog – I would take it to “Chien-Chic” for toilettage.
Market from 1901 – les Halles
The covered market place, les Halles, is an Art Nouveau building inaugurated on 1st of January 1901. At that time, trade and wine made Narbonne thrive.
Inside local “flavors” (saveurs) are on sale.
Not all booths are open, as it is Monday morning. One stand offers tripe, just tripe. This is why it is called “triperie”.
Furthermore I discover that also the south of France has its black pigs (not just Spain).
In the 19th century, the chain of shops called “aux Dames de France” was opened in smaller cities of France. The label does no longer exist today. The buildings dating from that time are now protected monuments, as this one across the Archbishop’s Palace. “Aux Dames de France” (for the ladies of France) is engraved under the roof.
Around Narbonne – vineyards and endless beaches on the Mediterranean Sea
Next we set out to discover the area around Narbonne. It is called “the Narbonnais” and adds to the charm of the city.
We drive through the easternmost vineyards of the Languedoc AOC region “La Corbières“.
We reach the Mediterranean Sea near the fishing village Gruissan. Rows and rows of cottages with closed shutters (now, in November) and endless beaches facing the sea. The area must be very, very busy in summer.
We dream looking at the waves and say good-bye to the Mediterrannean Sea, as we will return to Switzerland, far from any sea.
The small fishing village of Gruissan…
… is located between two “ponds” called “étangs”, with flamingos…
… and a saline that offers salt tasting. Salt tasting – that sounds interesting to me; I am more used to wine tasting.
We cross the rough Massif de la Clape with a beautiful view of the sea and the Languedoc and the Pyrenees in the background. The Massif de la Clape belongs to the AOC Côteaux de Languedoc.
The domain “Château l’Hospitalet” is a busy place with guest rooms, a restaurant (now closed) and corners for wine tasting and buying. Also “my” Johnson-Robinson mentions this domain in their World Atlas of Wine. They say that the Massif de la Clape allows to grow wines that resemble more Bordeaux than Southern Rhone.
We now cross the impressive canyons of the Massif de la Clape to take the motorway heading north to Valence.
Looking back to our experience in Narbonne, I cannot agree with the snippy remarks of Ralf Nestmeyer in his Müller guidebook: “Too much you cannot expect: Narbonne is – despite its great name – a relatively limited provincial town… Unfortunately the city fathers … carelessly dealt with the historical buildings. The wrecking ball raged without mercy… Apart from the area of the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace, the city offers only few places of interest.”
I cannot agree, because we liked the manageability of the city center – it was pedestrian friendly and very welcoming. In addition we were fascinated by the surroundings of Narbonne, called the Narbonnais. We agree more with the book “Narbonne et le Narbonnais” that praises the area already with its subtitle “regards sur un patrimoine” (glances at a patrimony)… (qui) est donc bien une invite à admirer” (p. 10, which is an invite to admire). And on p.33 the authors continue “A la différence de Nîmes et Tarragone, “la première fille de Rome” a conservé peu d’élements spectaculaires d’architecture antique… mais le charme de Narbonne et de la région qui l’entoure est ailleurs… Il faut savoir passer d’un monde à l’autre… passer presque sans transition des cabanes de pêcheurs au Palais des Archevêques, des salins à l’abbaye de Fontfroide.” (Different from Nîmes and Tarragon, the “first daughter of Rome” has kept only few spectacular elements of the antique architecture… but the charm of Narbonne and the region around it is elsewhere… you have to be able to switch from one scenery to another… to switch almost without transition from the fishing huts to the Archbishops’ Palace and from the salines to the Abbey of Fontfroide).
Yes, the magnificent photos of “Narbonne and the Narbonnais” do look enticing. We think of accepting the invite to return and take more time to explore Narbonne and the Narbonnais, in particular the Abbey of Fontfroide to the west of the city and the wines of the Massif de la Clape.
Sources: Ralf Nestmeyer, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015; Chantal Alibert et al, “Narbonne et le Narbonnais – Regards sur un patrimoine”, Loubatières, Portet-sur-Garonne 2010; Leaflet handed out in the Archbishop’s Museum, Mairie de Narbonne, “The Treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral”; Narbonne Tourisme, “Plan Monumental”, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine”, 5th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group 2005.