Historic Narbonne

During our 10-day visit to Narbonne, I was interested to learn of its Roman history. The town doesn’t have a well preserved ‘old town’, old city walls, or a Roman amphitheatre but some remnants of its history are still there.

Established in 118BC, Narbonne (then called Narbo Martius) became the first Roman colony in Gaul. It was located along the Via Domitia, the Roman road between Rome and the Iberian peninsula and, at that time, was on the Mediterranean coast and also alongside the Aude River. It was an important provincial capital of the Roman Empire. Later, about 14AD, the Romans built the Via Aquitania to connect Narbonne with Bordeaux. Some remnants of that Roman history are just below the surface.

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Narbonne was an important provincial capital in the Roman Empire

Located 5 metres below the current ground level, the Horreum Romain is a Roman warehouse that was built in the 1st century. The tunnels of the horreum (warehouse) make up the vaulted foundations of a building that would have had several floors. The warehouse had a U shape but only two of the three wings have been partially excavated. For a €4 admission fee, visitors can descend into the horreum and walk where Roman sandals once trod, 2,000 years before. It’s not hard to imagine what the place might have looked like two centuries ago, when it would have been lit by small oil lamps. Long halls provide access to small storage rooms, some of which have been equipped by the museum to aid the imagination.

 

The Roman road Via Domitia crossed a bridge over the River Aude and ran directly through the town centre to a forum and temple. The Via Aquitania road joined the Via Domitia in the town, on the southern side of the river (now the canal), as shown on the map below.

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Map of Narbonne showing the locations of Roman roads and buildings in red

Part of the old Via Domitia, has been excavated and is normally accessible to visitors. Unfortunately for me, at the time of my visit, the area was covered by a temporary ice rink that has been set up for the Christmas period.

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The exposed section of Via Domitia is under the refrigeration units at the centre of the temporary ice rink. The road ran north, along the narrow lane in the top-centre of the photo

In 1982, the 2,000th anniversary of the founding of the town, the city of Rome presented a replica statue of the Capitoline Wolf to Narbonne. The statue depicts the mythical she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus and is a symbol of Rome. The original bronze Capitoline Wolf is in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. Narbonne’s replica is located in the Palais des Archeveques but there is a second copy that can be found on an arched gate that accesses the site of the old Roman forum. The arched gate is at the end of Rue Droit, a narrow lane that was once the Via Domitia.

 

The archeological museum, located inside the Palais Vieux (Old Palace), helps to provide an insight into Narbonne’s Roman history with interesting displays and artefacts. The large collection of floor and wall mosaics from the town are particularly interesting. There is also a room displaying a collection of Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Gaule ceramics and a section dealing with pre-history in the region. There are plans to move the Roman collections to the future Regional Museum of the Narbonne Antique (MuRéNA), scheduled to open in 2019.

 

By the 5th century AD, following the decline of the Roman Empire, Narbonne was under the control of the Visigoths. It was subsequently invaded by the Saracens in the 8th century and occupied by them for about 50 years. By the 14th century, Narbonne was flourishing and had a population around 30,000.

The Gothic Cathedral St. Just was commenced around 1272. It has a very impressive high ceiling. Measuring 41 metres under the arch, it is the fourth highest in France. It is also said to have been one of the most ambitious worksites in post-medieval France.

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The cathedral also features an ornate altar with large red granite pillars and a large organ. Some of the walls are decorated with large tapestries. The exterior is also quite an impressive structure, including the ‘Saint Eutrope Courtyard’ where the unfinished section of the cathedral can be seen. Work ground to a halt after 1340 when the Narbonne consuls were opposed to knocking down part of the city wall to facilitate the completion of the cathedral. The Black Death followed in 1348 and then the city’s river port silted up, causing severe financial hardships. So, part of the cathedral remains incomplete.

 

Between 1295 – 1306, Archbishop Gilles Aycelin had an impressive square tower built at the south-east corner of the Archbishop’s Palace. The tower houses four rooms: the hemispheric room, treasury, king’s chamber and a watchtower. The tower gives a wonderful overview of the town, including the nearby cathedral and the canal. Access is by a tightly winding stone spiral staircase with 162 steps.

 

The old section of the palace contains a 13th century painted ceiling and 14th century frescoes. It also holds the archeological museum described above.

The Palais Neuf (New Palace) was built between the 14th and 17th centuries. It houses a wonderful art museum with paintings and ceramics displayed in beautiful historic rooms, such as the Hearing Room (1634) with its painted ceiling, the King’s Room (1633) and the Grand Gallery (1851). The palace also incorporates a semi-cylindrical medieval tower that was a strongpoint of Narbonne’s defences. In 1628, the archbishop had a monumental stone staircase constructed within the tower to reach the newly added upper floor.

 

I was pleasantly surprised by the art that was on display in this wonderful, small museum. The highlight for me was the ‘Orientalism’ section, where there were some beautiful paintings of North Africa, including some stunning portraits. The entire section is decorated in painted arches that creates a nice atmosphere in which to view these art works.

There was also a lovely exhibition of the works of George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856 – 1929), a relatively unknown painter who was a friend of Gaugin (and an early collector of his art).

The earlier 17th and 18th century paintings don’t have much appeal for me, but I appreciated the beauty of the rooms in which they are displayed, including the beautiful ceilings. Absolutely worth a visit for any art-lover.

In the 17th century, the Canal de la Robine was constructed to connect Narbonne to the highly successful Canal du Midi, the Aude River and to the Mediterranean Sea. The canal runs through the centre of the town, in the same location that the Aude ran in Roman times, before it silted up and changed course. The canal certainly adds a scenic element to the centre of town and, in the summer, it brings in tourists on rented canal boats.
To the south of the Archbishop’s Palace and the square tower, there is a bridge that crosses the canal in the same location as the old Roman bridge. This bridge has a narrow lane with shops and residential buildings on either side. It is reported to be the only inhabited bridge in France.
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The ‘only inhabited bridge in France’
The creation of Les Halles de Narbonne brings us to the close of the 19th century. Until then, there had been an open-air market in the centre of the town, where the town hall is located. But in 1871, the municipality decided to build a covered market that could house all of the merchants. It took almost 30 years to decide where to build, approve plans and obtain the necessary financing, but the new market building was completed in 1900. It opened its doors to the public on 1st January 1901.
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By the 1990’s, the condition of the market hall had deteriorated. Considering the deterioration and the need for improved hygiene and safety standards, the city decided to renovate the building. The renovation took place between 1993 – 1994, in four phases, and cost 9 million francs. The result is a modern market that retains the appearance and character of the original building. Les Halles is now rated as Trip Advisor’s #2 thing to do in Narbonne.
The highlight of my visit to Les Halles was a wonderful lunch-time experience at Chez Bebelle, one of several bars and cafes inside the market. Chez Bebelle is operated by Gilles Belzons (nickname Bebelle), a retired rugby player who is the star of the show at this casual eatery.
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Gilles “Bebelle” Belzons

“Bebelle” has three adjacent premises in the market – a butchers stall, a bar and the eatery, which all operate in unison. As you sit at the eatery, staff from the bar will take your drinks order and you will be provided with a menu. Bebelle will then take your food order. He uses a megaphone (bull-horn) to call out to his butcher across the aisle, telling him what cuts of meat he needs. When the meat is ready, it is wrapped in paper and then tossed across the aisle for Bebelle to catch and pass to the cook on the grill. It creates a lively and entertaining atmosphere.


Meat choices include beef, horse, duck and chicken. Regardless of what you order, it is served with french fries and some salad. We enjoyed our lunch there so much that we returned a few days later to repeat the experience. Eating at Chez Bebelle is a memorable experience that I highly recommend.

It has been nice to visit Narbonne and learn something of its history. Our next stop will be Barcelona.

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