two hours' drive from the Spanish border, located in southern France, surrounded
by vineyards and next to the Mediterranean Sea, lies a beautiful city that
was founded by the Romans in 118 as the first outside of modern Italy.
It was known as the crossroads of southern Europe for many centuries. Colonia
Narbo Martius was its first name which then became Narbono and finally
Narbonne. Although the city was located about twenty-five kilometers
from the sea, it was an important seaport because of the powerful Aude
River that ran through it connecting it to the ocean enabling ships to
access the city due to the river's deep draft. For many centuries
Narbonne remained a significant harbor. Then a curious thing happened
to alter the course of the city's history.
The Aude River was changing. It was well known to overflow its banks on a regular
basis. Slowly, the course of the Aude started to move due to increased silting
which thus drastically altered navigational access. No longer could the heavily
laden, enormous ships come to Gerry Niewood and Coleman Mellett Narbonne as their
draft was too deep for the ever silting river bottom. By the 14 th century, the
city had fallen into a slow decline due to the decrease in trade. Over time,
as the Aude river fluctuated in flow rate, orientation and depth and as the Mediterranean
sea level slowly rose, the 'seaport' aspect of Narbonne ceased to exist completely
and it no longer served as a port. Narbonne ’s population decreased significantly
and, while it remained a city, it did not have the social and political power
of earlier years.
MANY WALLS IN NARBONNE ARE ADORNED WITH POETRY
Let us fast forward two hundred years to the 16 th century when there is
furious work digging the canals of Europe in order to facilitate the
transport of goods. Inside France the fruits of one man’s dream, Pierre Paul Riquet, are about
to flower. The Canal du Midi, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic sea, has
just been completed. The people of Narbonne , anxious to maintain their link to
important trade, begin the costly work to the vestiges of the Aude River ’s
access to the sea so that it will remain navigable to a limited draft
vessel and also serve as a link with the Canal du Midi, which was
then known as the Royal Canal . This major undertaking of works finished
with the construction of the Canal de la Robine, which eventually
linked with the Canal du Midi via the Canal de Jonction in 1776.
Hence, despite its decline from Roman times, Narbonne managed to
hold on to a vital but limited importance as a trading route, particularly
in the recent centuries. The Canal du Midi was recognized as a world
heritage site in 1996 by UNESCO.
MARKET IN NARBONNE
Today the Canal de la Robine is now the heart of Narbonne ’s busy and picturesque
city center. Being one of the most lively market areas in the Languedoc , people
from all over the region come regularly to the huge street markets and also to
Les Halles, at 101 years the oldest indoor food market in France . The centuries
of trading in the area makes one imagine the ancient Romans in place of today’s
street merchants and lively tradesmen and women of Les Halles.
Seventy-two vendors have permanent stalls at Les Halles which includes
one or two owned by the same family since the market’s inauguration on January
1, 1901. Les Halles is open every day from 6am to 1pm and located in an elegant
baroque pavilion on the south side of the canal. The scene inside is lively and
there are several restaurants which offer a wide range of foods which are local
to the region. Oysters from the nearby etangs (salt water lakes), various seafood/shellfish,
meats (including horse and duck), and beautiful colorful vegetables from nearby
Spain and France are on display. Of course, regional wines, pastis and beer are
all available to taste and tastings start early in the morning and continue to
A good time to go to Les Halles is during lunchtime while shopping is winding
up and the ‘aperos’ (pre-meal drinks) are being passed around. There
are no strangers here. You are part of the scene as soon as you sit down and order
your meal. You are immediately pulled into the market’s conviviality as your
restaurant proprietaire fills you in as to exactly where the food on your plate
comes from. Meaning which stall.
During our lunch, we discovered that our oysters
(6 with a glass of white wine for six euros) came from the fishmonger a few rows
down, our pasta was homemade by the mother of the friendly marchand across from
us and our wine came from our host’s hometown in the nearby region known
as La Clape. The customers are boisterous and do their share of banter and trading
jokes. Lunch at Les Halles is anything but dull.
THE CLASSICAL ARCHED ENTRY TO LES HALLES
Stepping outside from Les Halles into the bright sunny day, you are on the stylish
banks of the Canal de la Robine, the heart of Narbonne ’s city center. Large
barges filled with goods have been replaced by pleasure cruisers both privately
owned and commercially for hire. This is a perfect time to step down from the balustrades
and fountains and take a stroll along the canal to admire the boats. You can take
quite a long walk, for miles in either direction.
Several dozen privately owned canal boats are wintering over, many with their
owners living aboard. We’re appreciative, having lived in our own canal boat
on the Canal du Midi we remember the romance of onboard life and the delight of
living afloat. But, never mind, we are landlubbers now and anticipating our new
life in a 200 year old renovated apartment, in the historic city area known as ‘de
Bourg’. We are content with a view of the canal and ‘centreville’.
In a few weeks all of our stuff in storage will arrive so that we can feather our
In the meantime we are living in a four hundred year old Bastide, also in the
center of town in the section known as ‘le Cite’. Narbonne is divided
into two sections, each on the opposite side of the canal, ‘le Cite’ on
the north side and ‘de Bourg’ on the south. ‘Le Cite’ is
older, visibly so, with winding tiny streets and thick ancient buildings surrounding
the crown jewel of Narbonne , the Cathedral. The streets are so tiny that many
of the corners have been scalloped so as to accommodate vehicles that wish to turn
without scraping their bumpers. Alas, many cars seem to have accepted their battered
fate attested by multiple scrapes and broken side mirrors. Drivers apparently become
impatient with squeaking by and just make do with body contact. It’s a daily
part of living in this lively place. Luckily there is ample underground parking
if one wishes.
STREET IN NARBONNE'S LA CITÉ
Bastides make up much of le Cite and many survive today, protected by new historical
district laws. The Bastide we are in is particularly well preserved with a very
large interior courtyard. It has a lovely brass plaque at the large blue exterior
doors which is engraved: La Brigade.
Life at La Brigade is always lively. Our neighbor facing us across the courtyard
owns the largest part. His apartment is eclectically elegant with a large stuffed
tiger gracing his enviably grand foyer. He is a quirky type and gets around town
on a Segway. We are staying in a grand apartment with 15 foot high ceiling covered
in ‘poutres’ or exposed beams. There is a huge fireplace and two enormous
windows looking out to the courtyard. The stones there have been laid out with
a replica of the city’s shield. On the other side of our apartment several
windows open out onto one of le Cite’s ancient streets. It is always occupied
with local gossips, hanging out and creating spontaneous drama. The echoes of their
voices and laughter have a theatrical air bouncing off of the thick building walls.
Everyone seems to have been here forever.
However, it is not just the Narbonnais that enjoy their fair city. The place
has a quiet but important trade in tourism due to the magnificent Cathedral, some
splendid Michelin star rated restaurants, the nearby beaches and 300 days of sunshine
per year. Not to mention the wonderful Cathars region and the hundreds of wineries
to visit nearby.
It is the beginning of spring, the flowers are everywhere, festooning the canal
bridges and the fountains. Tourists have already begun to flock into Narbonne .
Restaurants that have been closed all winter are open for business. A small white
train has magically appeared on the banks of the canal, waiting to fill its seats
with sightseers. Narbonne is ready for its close up and we can’t wait to
.....on to Summer
WHERE TO STAY IN NARBONNE : firstname.lastname@example.org
For additional information about living or visiting Narbonne,
by land or canal boat, contact www.francehelp.info
or email email@example.com.
[Photo credits: Marlane O'Neill 2009. All rights reserved.
Mouse over photos for additional descriptions.]