A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

In the southeastern corner of the Massif Central, the ancient highlands of central France, the Ardèche River carved its scenic way through the limestone plateau over millions of years.

The cliffs of the Ardèche Gorge are dotted with caves.

Before rejoining the Rhone River on its way to the Mediterranean, it created the largest natural canyon in Europe: the Ardèche Gorge. The cliff walls are dotted with caves, some of them still holding remnants of the lives of the prehistoric people who occupied them.  The most famous by far is the Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet Cave).




Discovering the Origins of Art

The Pont d’Arc is the iconic sight of the Ardèche Gorge.

The oldest known stone age art gallery in the world, and one of the most important, the Chauvet Cave was discovered on December 18, 1994, by three speleology enthusiasts, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. They had been aware  for some time of a small cave in the cliffs, a few hundred meters from the iconic Pont d’Arc. Although the rear of the cave was obstructed by a heavy rock slide, they had noticed a trickle of air escaping from a small hole, indicating that there had to be a cavity behind the fallen rocks.

The find brought to light some of the most remarkable  prehistoric cave paintings in the world.

On this day, the three friends decided to attempt to unblock a crawlspace — and found themselves facing a dark, empty space. Using their speleological ladder, they descended into a vast chamber with a soaring roof, filled with glimmering concretions that appeared to branch off into further chambers. Fascinated by the breathtaking geological wonders around them, they pressed on in single file, exploring almost the entire space. They were on their way back when, on a rocky pendant, the beam of Éliette’s headlamp caught the image of a small ochre mammoth. “They were here!” she cried out. 

The three friends had just brought to light, along with some of the best preserved prehistoric cave paintings in the world, an important evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

Who Were They…

… these Stone Age artists that left us such sophisticated images of their time?

These elaborate paintings bear witness to the sophistication of early Cro-Magnon humans.

Based on the latest (2016) radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the earlier, around 36,500 years ago, during the Aurignacian era (i.e. the early wave of anatomically modern humans thought to have spread from Africa through the Near East into Paleolithic Europe where they became known as Cro-Magnons). Although the cave shows subsequent signs of occupation between 31,000 and 30,000 years ago, all the artwork dates back to the Aurignacians. The entrance was then sealed by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago until its discovery in 1994, which helped keep it in pristine condition.

The World’s Oldest Art Gallery

The cave features unique lion frescoes.

The artists who produced these paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and lighter surface upon which the artists worked. Also, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement were achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures.

A pair of woolly rhinoceroses butt horns,

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, representing at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in Paleolithic paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that dominate Stone Age cave art, i.e. horses, aurochs, elks, reindeers, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave favor rhinoceroses and predatory animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. The art is also exceptional for its time in that it includes animals interacting with each other, such as a pair of woolly rhinoceroses butting horns in an apparent contest for territory rights.

The latter occupation of the cave left little but a child’s footprint, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. The footprint, however, may be the oldest human one anywhere to be accurately dated.

The Domain of the Cave Bears

Cave bears also occupied the Chauvet space.

The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants. Cave bears, a prehistoric species approximately twice the size of a modern day grizzly and believed to be largely herbivorous, were clearly present when these painting were being done. The soft clay still holds paw prints, some with traces of pigment on them. There are also unmistakeable claw-marks on some of the animal paintings and “nest” indentations throughout, where bears apparently slept.

A bear skull was found displayed on a stone slab.

Over 150 cave bear skeletons were found throughout the cave, and most dramatically, a bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one of the chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. Although one can only speculate as to its significance, it suggests a form of relationship between man and bear.



Disclosure and Protection

The cave also holds ocher paintings of hyenas and leopards.

Conscious of the exceptional value of their discovery, the three speleologists immediately alerted the Regional Archeology Curator, who reached out to the prominent French Paleolithic prehistorian Jean Clottes, then General Inspector for Archaeology at the French Ministry of Culture, to authenticate the find. 

The artists also left us ocher stamped handprints.

Within two weeks, mindful to avoid the mistakes made at Lascaux, where tourists access had irreparably damaged the cave, immediate protection measures were taken, and decision made to permanently seal off the cave from the public. To access it, selected scholars, preservation experts, maintenance workers and rare guests visitors must comply with the latest protocols to ensure the preservation of the site.




The Identical Twin

Just as challenging as the protection of the cave was the answer to a pressing questions: how could humanity’s first true masterpiece be shared with the general public?

Chauvet 2 is an exact replica of the original down to minute details.

An ambitious project came into being in 2007 as a joint effort of the Regional Government, the French State and and the European Union, to create the largest and most authentic replica of a decorated prehistoric cave ever made. 

All the artwork is reproduced in full size.

Creating the identical twin of the greatest early-human masterpiece, with its floors, walls, vaults, and a whole realistic underground landscape to host human and animal remains, was a massive challenge. Five years of research and thirty months of construction were needed to accomplish this cultural, technological and scientific feat.

Due to the technical impossibility of reproducing the cave in its entirety, the most remarkable elements were identified first. Using a digital 3D survey of the original, a new cave with a floor area of 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) and 8,200 square meters (88,000 square feet) of walls and ceilings was created. The team came up with innovative solutions, using scenographic techniques that had never before been implemented on such a large scale. Despite the Chauvet Cave 2 being two and a half times smaller than the original, the surface of the walls was accurately reproduced to within millimeters. The paintings, engravings and most notable elements, as well as essential paleontological and geological features were reproduced in full size.

The visitors senses are further stimulated by the sensations of silence, darkness, temperature, humidity, and acoustics reproduced to match the original cave.

Timeless Landscape

Chauvet 2 discretely blends into the surrounding wilderness.

Located approximately one mile from the original, Chauvet Cave 2 was designed by the architectural firm Fabre & Speller (Clermont-Ferrand/Paris) and landscape architect Franck Neau (Paris) as a discreet imprint on the wilderness of its 20 hectare (50 acre) wooded site. 

The site features five complementary parts: the Cave, The Aurignacian Gallery (permanent exhibition centre), a pedagogical centre, temporary exhibition space, and a restaurant-gift shop. A stroll through the grounds leads visitors towards the cave and a panoramic viewpoint located on the side of the building, where visitors can get an idea of the breathtaking views shared by their early ancestors.

In one stunning frescoe, over 50 drawings of horses, aurochs, reindeers and lions mingle across 15 meters (50 feet) of limestone wall.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Due to its remote location, Chauvet Cave 2 is best accessed by car: from the North by A7 and A49 via Exit 18, or from the South by A7 or A9 via Exit 19. Then take N7 and D4 to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. It is a  2.5 hour drive  from Lyon, Marseille or Montpellier, 1.5 hour from Avignon, Nîmes or Valence. Free parking on site for cars, buses, and campers.
  • Visiting — Grotte Chauvet 2, 4941 Route de Bourg Saint Andéol, 07150 Vallon Pont d’Arc, can be visited year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and are clearly indicated on the website, where tickets must be purchased in advance. Contact:  tel.+ 33 (0) 4 75 94 39 40,  e-mail.
  • Note — Photography by visitors is prohibited throughout the cave. All interior images in this article are used by permission ©-Patrick-Aventurier—Grotte Chauvet 2- Ardèche.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grotte Chauvet 2

The Other Face of Provence — The Camargue Delta

The Other Face of Provence — The Camargue Delta

Just upstream of the historic Roman city of Arles, the Rhône River forks into two branches to form the largest river delta in Western Europe before reaching the Mediterranean shore.

In Arles, the gateway to the Camargue, the Roman Amphitheater still hosts traditional local bullfights.

This is the Camargue, a 1500 square kilometer (575 square mile), windswept, fan-shaped mosaic of grass-filled marshes, rice paddies, lagoons and sand beaches. Teaming with wildlife, it is the oldest and one of the largest nature reserves in mainland France, first classified as the National Camargue Reserve in 1927. Then in 1977, a vast expanse of its central wetland was designated by UNESCO as the Camargue Biosphere Reserve.




A Unique Nature Sanctuary

Within this exceptional environment, three vivid icons stand out: white horses, black bulls, and pink flamingos

Greater Flamingos are permanent residents of the lagoons.

The Birds — The Camargue is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with over 250 species of resident birds recorded here, including its most recognizable symbol: the Greater Flamingo. The delta is one of its main breeding and nesting grounds in Europe, and thousands can be seen here year-round. However, the best times to visit are the spring and fall, when the area becomes a spectacular gathering point for hundreds of thousands of varied migrating birds.

The Camargue horse is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in the world.

The Horses — The Camargue is also known for its ancient breed of small horses characterized by their striking white manes and molted grey-white coats.They have lived in the marches and saline wetlands for thousands of years, where they developed the stamina and agility for which they are known. They are the traditional mount of the gardians, the local cowboys who herd the area’s distinctive black bulls, giving the region a wild-west atmosphere.

The bulls are thought after for their combative tendencies,.

The Bulls — The Camargue bulls are stocky, never much higher than 1.5 meter (5 feet), with Lyra-shaped horns that point to the sky. They roam relatively free over great swaths of the delta, with the most combative among them selected for fighting in the many of arenas throughout the region. The remainder of the herd is raised for meat. 

But there is more to the delta than its unique variety of wetlands and their hoofed and winged denizens.



The medieval fortified city of Aigues-Mortes has retained its mighty defensive walls.

On the western edge of the Camargue, the walled city of Aigues-Mortes (from the latin Aquae Mortuae or “stagnant water”) rises largely intact from the edge of the marshes. An exceptional jewel of medieval military architecture, its construction was started the 1240’s by King of France Louis IX (later known as Saint Louis) as the staging area and departure point for the Seventh Crusade to the Holy Land in 1248, and the  Eighth — and last — Crusade in 1270.

Sea salt harvesting has been active since Roman times.

Located some five kilometers (three miles) inland, it was at the time linked by a natural channel to the Mediterranean. The city, which had been a center of sea salt production since Roman times, remained an active port until the 16th century. Then the channel gradually silted up, and Aigues-Mortes declined into oblivion until its tourism renaissance in the 20th century. 



Inside the fortified city, stairs provide access to the ramparts.

Within its high crenelated walls, flanked by ten fortified gates and twenty defensive towers, the small city (800 by 400 meters or 2600 by 1300 feet) has retained the checkerboard layout of the bastides (new towns) of the Middle Ages. While its narrow streets are now lined with shops selling typical souvenir items of the region, and an array of restaurants touting local dishes, it has held on to its most striking historic features.



The Tower of Constance

The Tower of Constance is the oldest structure of the city.

Built from 1240 to 1249, the Tower of Constance is a powerful circular keep, 22 meters (70 feet) in diameter, rises to a height of 33 meters (110 feet) at the edge of the ramparts. Access from a fortified courtyard leads to the ground-floor guard room with its soaring rib-vaulted ceiling. Then it’s a short ride up, by  the recently installed elevator, to the roof terrace. From the top, the infinite panoramic view of the region, including the famed salt flats and the sandy shores of the Mediterranean coast is a sight to behold. 

The upper knights’ room features a soaring rib-vaulted ceiling.

Then it’s 136 steps down the tight spiral staircase, first to the upper or knights’ room, also with an impressive rib-vaulted domed ceiling, then down to a mid-level defensive passageway overlooking the lower level guard room, then down again to ground level.





Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Today Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is best knows as a popular summer resort.

It’s an unhurried 30 minute drive east along a narrow road that meander around shimmering marshes and salt flats from Aigues-Mortes to the small coastal city of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (the Saintes Maries of the Sea). Best known today as a popular summer seaside resort, it takes its name from the early christian Provençal lore that three women closely linked to Jesus (in French Marie Madeleine, Marie-Cléophas and Marie-Salomé  — The Three Maries) came ashore and settled here after escaping persecution in Judaea around 40 CE. 

The Church

In the Middle Ages, the churches’ roof  served as watchtowrer.

The origins of the city itself seem to trace back to a village established on the site in the 4th century CE. Its early Romanesque fortified church was built in 9th century. Intended as a shelter for the villagers, in case of Vikings and later Saracen raids, as much as a place of worship, it featured — and still does — a fresh water well. The stone roof, which can be reached by a tight spiral staircase (53 steps) offers the sweeping view of the land and sea, clearly intended to alert the inhabitants of approaching foes.

The columns of the apse are topped with carved capitals..

Besides its foreboding fortress appearance and the Romanesque simplicity of its interior, l’Eglise des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is remarkable for its apse. Built in the shape of a semi-dome, it consists of seven arches  supported by eight marble columns topped with intricately carved capitals. Two of them, representing respectively the Incarnation of Christ and the Passion of Christ, are considered major masterpieces of the Romanesques architecture of Provence.

The Museum

The museum showcases interesting artefacts salvaged from ancient shipwrecks.

The seabed off Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is one of the richest shipwreck sites in the northern Mediterranean shores. With the development of underwater archeology over the past half century, dozens of ancient wrecks, from Etruscans, Greeks and Romans to Normans and  Saracens have been uncovered and excavated in the area. Recently inaugurated on the waterfront, the small Musee des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer traces the maritime past of the region. Displays of some of the most interesting finds shed light on the commercial exchanges among ancient Mediterranean cultures and their influence on the region.

The fortifications of Aigues-Mortes have stood guard over the marshes since medieval times.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Camargue can best be reached by car, starting in Arles, which is located 90 kilometers (55 miles) west from Marseille, or 80 kilometers (50 miles)  east of Montpellier, via Highway A54.  
  • Visiting —  Aigues-Mortes is a pedestrian town, whether you chose to walk its cobbled streets or circumvent it from the top of its 1,65 kilometer (1 mile) long ramparts. The ramparts and the Tower of Constance are open to visitors from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm, September 1 to April 30, and  from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, May 2 to August 31. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Museum, 6, avenue Theodore Aubanel, is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm,  June 1 to September 30, and  from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Wednesday through Sunday,  October 1 to May 31 from. Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. The Church of the Saint Maries of the Sea, 19 Rue Jean Aicard, is open daily from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed to visitors during religious services.
  • Note — In a Camargue bullfight, known as Course Camarguaise, the bulls aren’t killed or injured. The goal of the raseteur (matador), is to pluck a ribbon from between the bull’s horns, a dangerous exercise for the men. A dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to attract the beast. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!


Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

The skyline of Avignon is a mighty fortress that spreads its majestic walls across the sunbaked landscape of Provence. Everlasting witness to the power of the papacy over the Middle Ages, the Palace of the Popes remains the greatest gothic palace in the world. Although the historic town draws well over half a million visitors a year, many of them, other that papal history buffs and French school children, may not be aware how for most of the 14th century this small, heavily fortified southern French city on the bank of the Rhône river came to be the capital of Christendom.

It Began with Charlemagne

The Palais des Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built.

Like most of the major events that shaped modern Europe, it began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (771-814), a powerful Germanic tribe whose territories covered present-day western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A determined expansionist and skilled military strategist, he had by the end of his reign extended his reach across western and central Europe.

A staunch defender of Christianity, he supported the church with funds and land, and extended his protection to the Pope. To acknowledge the power of his benefactor and reinforce the relationship with the papacy, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter Basilica in Rome. In the process, in addition to its spiritual leadership role, he asserted the papacy as a major authority in geopolitical matters. The consequences of this quid pro quo would reverberate throughout Europe for centuries.

The Passion of Christ sculpture- housed in the Consistory – is a remarkable exemple of Medieval art.

Charlemagne’s descendants proved incapable of keeping his vast empire together. By 888, France, Germany and Italy had become separate states. Who then was to be emperor? The nominee of the pope, himself a puppet of Italian aristocratic factions? Charlemagne’s rightful heir, whoever he might be? Or the strongest king in Europe? Centuries of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances ensued, throughout which the imperial crown was habitually set on a succession of Germanic heads. And disputes between the Popes and the Emperors continued, over which of them was the secular leader of Christendom, with the Pope’s side most often bolstered by the French kings.

The Road to Avignon

The main entrance of the papal palace.

By the early 14th century, however,  Pope Boniface VIII and the French monarch, the autocratic Philippe IV, were feuding over Philippe’s decision to tax the considerable wealth of the Church in France to finance his war with the English. The feud turned violent, with Italian allies of the King of France breaking into the papal residence and assaulting Boniface VIII, who died shortly thereafter. A successor who would not be hostile toward Philippe was promptly elected. However, after a pontificate that lasted a mere eight months, Benedict XI died suddenly — poisoning was suspected although never proven. 

Cloister of the Old Palace

His successor Clement V, a Frenchman and personal friend of King Philippe, was in France when elected and thought it prudent to never travel to Rome. In 1309, he decided to establish his Papal Court in Avignon, where it was to remain for the next seven decades.



The Builder Popes

Scaled model of the completed palace.

Clement V (1305-1314) lived simply as a guest in the Dominican monastery of Avignon. Then his successor John XXII (1316-1334) started the process of rebuilding and enlarging the old episcopal palace, which sat on a natural rocky outcrop overlooking the river at the northern edge of Avignon, and convert it into a fortified palace. However, it was John’s two successors who became the main builders of the impregnable fortress that stands to this day.

Cour d’Honneur (Ceremonial Courtyard) of the New Palace.

Benedict XII (1334-1342) built the first pontifical palace, an austere stronghold set around a vast cloister (now referred to as the Palais Vieux, or Old Palace). Then Clement VI (1342-1352) expanded Benedict’s palace with more lavish constructions around a grand internal courtyard. Now known as the Palais Neuf, or New Palace, it became the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe, with 15,000 square meters (160,000 square feet) of floor space.The immense size of the palace facilitated the integration of the Curia (church administration) into the truly central administration of the Church that suited the needs of the papacy.

Life at the Pontifical Court

The Great Clementine Chapel held liturgical events.

More than 20 rooms are open to visitors, including several ceremonial halls of majestic proportions, such as the Consistory, the  Grand Audience Hall with its remarkable ceiling frescoes of the prophets, the 52 meters (170 feet) long  Great Clementine Chapel, which held official events and liturgical services, and the soaring Grand Tinel. The latter was primarily a reception and banquet room, but during conclaves, it was the room where the cardinals assembled to elect the new pope. For the occasion, the room was temporarily walled, with only a small aperture  left open to provide the necessary food. 

Detail of the chambre du cerf (room of the deer) fresco

The visit also includes the private apartments of Clement VI: the papal chamber and private study, commonly called the chambre du cerf (room of the deer), for the remarkable hunting scene frescoes that decorate the walls. The subject matter, while common in secular art at the time, is as unexpected in a room supposedly dedicated to study as it is for a room in a papal apartment.


St John Chapel frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti.

Other highlights include the Saint Martial and Saint John chapels, decorated with sumptuous frescoes by the Italian master Matteo Giovanetti, who had been charged by Clement VI to lead the decoration of the Palace. While a large proportion of these creations were lost in the course of time, several have survived to bear witness to the innovative artistic work created by the French and Italian schools of paintings in the 14th century – and the lavish ceremonial lifestyle of the pontifical court that supported it.

More on Papal Politics

Portraits of the Popes of Avignon – imagined by 19th century artist Henri Serrur.

Three more popes would keep their seat of power in the French city until the last of them, Gregory XI (1370–1378) brought the Avignon papacy to an end in 1377 when he returned the papal court to Rome. However, this departure was not the end of  the Avignon popes. The following year, the Roman Catholic Church split apart when a faction of cardinals refused to recognizes Gregory’s successor, the newly appointed Pope Urban VI. Instead, they elected a rival Pope, and returned to Avignon. Thus from 1378 to 1403, during a period known as the Western Schism, Avignon was the seat of a rival papacy, its popes referred to by the official church in Rome as “Antipopes.”

Avignon – the Palace of the Popes.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —  By Train: Avignon is located in southeastern France, 700 kilometers south of Paris. It is easily accessible in less than three hours by non-stop TVG (high-speed train) throughout the day from Paris – Gare de Lyon to the Avignon TGV station.  The TGV station lies  slightly outside of town, and is connected via regular shuttle trains to the Avignon Central Station (Gare d’Avignon Centre just outside the fortification walls on the southern edge of the old town. The city is also well connected other main cities in France and surrounding countries via regional regional and intercity trains.  These arrive at the Avignon Centre station.
  • Visiting —  The Popes’ Palace, Place du Palais, 84000 Avignon, France, is open every day, all year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Check the website for extended visiting hours during the summer season.  Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 32 74 32 74. Accessibility: due to its multiple stone stairways, the palace is regrettably not accessible to persons with reduced mobility.


Location, location, location!

Palais des Papes

Beyond Narbo Martius — Narbonne Through The Ages

Beyond Narbo Martius — Narbonne Through The Ages

Narbonne (or Narbo Martius as it was then called) was founded in 118 BC as the capital of the first Roman colony in Gaul. Located at the crossroad of the land and sea trade routes of southwestern Gaul, it became one of largest trading center in the western Mediterranean — until the fall of the Empire.

Shaped by a Tumultuous History

The Basilica Saint Paul-Serge illustrates the early Christian past of the city.

During the Middle Ages, a period dominated by christianity, Narbonne became the seat of a powerful archbishopric and a center of political power. The seaport also remained active, and the city relatively prosperous until the beginning of the 14th century when catastrophic flooding altered the course of the river Aude, turning the port into a pond — which explains how, over time, Narbonne came to be located in a wine-growing plain some 13 kilometers (8 miles) inland. Add the dual scourge of the Black Plague and the Hundred Years War, and it is easy to understand why the city experienced a drastic decline at that time

The Canal de la Robine is the central artery the old town.

In the beginning of the 16th century Narbonne emerged from its inertia when it was attached to the kingdom of France and became the most important stronghold in the region. Eager to reestablish its relevance as a commercial port, the city began the onerous work to canalize the remnants of the Aude River’s access to the Mediterranean. The Canal de la Robine was finally linked with the Royal Canal (now the Canal du Midi) in 1787, ushering Narbonne into its golden age of wine-making in the 19th century. To this day, the Canal de la Robine remains the central artery of the old town, and a perfect starting point for a stroll back in time through its winding cobbled streets.

The Basilica of Saint Paul-Serge

The nave of the Basilica Saint Paul-Serge features a blend of Romanesque and early Gothic elements.

Built on the site of a pre-Romanesque church that burned down in the 5th century, the Basilica of Saint Paul-Serge was rebuilt around 1180 as the first early Gothic church in Narbonne and one of the oldest of the south of France. Although its current incarnation is the result of numerous modifications and restorations from the 15th century onward, the structure has retained its remarkable mix of Romanesque and early Gothic architectural elements.

The sculptures on one the sarcophagi shows motifs belonging to pagan symbolism.

However, I found its crypt to be most remarkable part of the Basilica. Built upon the tomb of Saint Paul, the first Bishop of Narbonne, most likely dead in 250, who according to tradition was a converted Roman Pro-consul (Sergius Paulus) and one of seven missionaries sent to Gaul by Pope Fabian (235-250) to evangelize the country. As a sign of great devotion Christians dignitaries then wanted to be buried near his tomb — which explain the several sarcophagi of the Constantinian era (4th century) found in the crypt, including one ornamented with sculpted motifs reminiscent of pagan symbolism adapted to Christian iconography. 

The crypt also holds several amphorae, usually used to bury infants. The remains of Saint Paul, however, were transferred in 1244 to the choir of the basilica.

The Truncated Cathedral

The Cathedral of Saint-Just towers over the city skyline.

Towering above the Narbonne skyline, the Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur is the perfect landmark to ensure you never get lost here. However, although it is now located in the heart of the city, in the Middle Ages it abutted the edge of the defensive fortifications. Started in 1272, the construction of this soaring Gothic structure — the fifth sanctuary to be constructed on the site since the early days of Christendom in the region — was a political statement by Pope Clement VI. Formerly  Archbishop of Narbonne, he decreed that  “this cathedral would equal the magnificent cathedrals of the Kingdom of France” (n.b. keeping in mind that Narbonne was at the time the seat of a semi-autonomous Viscounty nominally under the Counts of Toulouse).

The soaring choir is all that was built of the Narbonne Cathedral.

Thus began one of the most ambitious ecclesiastic construction projects of the 13th century, directly inspired by the great cathedrals of northern France. The choir was completed in 1332. It  boasts imposing dimensions: 40 meters (130 feet) wide, 60 meters (196 feet) long and a vault rising to 41 meters (135 feet) in height, it is surpassed only by Amiens (42 meters – 138 feet) and Beauvais (48 meters – 157 feet). And there it ended. With the onset of what would become the Hundred Years War leading to the reassessment of the fortifications, the city fathers realized that adding the nave and transept would encroach on the ramparts. The cathedral remains truncated to this day.

The Cloister

The cloister connects the cathedral to the episcopal palace.

Adjoining the cathedral and built from 1349 to 1417, on the site of an earlier Carolingian cathedral whose bell tower still remains, the cloister backs up against the 5th century fortifications. It is connected to the episcopal palace, also fortified. Its four galleries are framed by large arcades, with the supporting columns decorated with striking gargoyles.



The Palais des Archevêques

The Archbishops’ dining room is an 18th century masterpiece.

With the Gothic cloister and the Cathedral of Saint-Just, the Palace of the Archbishops forms a monumental complex, both residence and fortress, similar to the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. The Palace of the Archbishops consists of two separate parts: The Romanesque  Vieux Palais (Old Palace, circa 12th century) with its medieval rooms, chapel and oratory was unfortunately closed to the public for major maintenance and renovation at the time of my visit.

The Palais Neuf holds a fine European art collection.

The Palais Neuf (New Palace), built between the 14th and 19th centuries, housed the apartments of the archbishops. Nowadays, it is home to the rich collections of the City of Narbonne: earthenware from the 17th and 18th centuries, paintings from European schools from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and an interesting section of orientalist paintings. The various galleries and their decorations are themselves remarkable, especially the painted ceilings of the large audience room (17th century), the King’s room (17th century),  the Archbishops’ dining room (18th century) and the large reception gallery (19th century).

The Passage of the Anchor connects the Old Palace to the Cathedral.

Under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc the Palais Neuf was restored in 1845 to also house the Town Hall. The Neo-Classical facade is bracketed by two square towers (the 13th century dungeon and the 14th century Saint-Martial tower). A Romanesque passage connects  the Old Palace and the Cathedral. It is the Passage de l’Ancre (Passage of the Anchor), in reference to the navigation and berthing rights once levied by the Bishops from the users of the harbor.


Les Halles

The Art Deco-style covered market is a Narbonne institution.

No visit to Narbonne is complete without a stop at Les Halles, the hugely popular Baltard-style covered market built in 1901along the Canal de la Robine right in the center of town. Its elegant cast iron structure, ornate stone pillars and majestic glass roof have earned for the second year in a row in 2022 the coveted “most beautiful market in France” distinction.

All manners of top quality foodstuff await shoppers in the spectacular covered market.

But more than a landmark, Les Halles are a bustling Narbonne institution, where locals go to socialize and do their victuals shopping. Over 60 vendors have their merchandise on display, and you can find just about anything in their stalls. The butchers and delicatessens are near the main entrance, the fishmongers in the back, and everything else is in between. The best of fresh produce, dizzying arrays of cheeses, breads and pastries, olives, local honey… it’s all there, in irresistibly colorful displays. Caterers, bars and wine merchants are interspersed throughout. Whether you want to purchase fresh ingredients for the day’s meal or settle in for a snack or lunch, stop by daily from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm, including Sunday and holiday, without exception.


Good to Know

  • Getting there — Narbonne is located 850 kilometers (530 miles) south from Paris, in close proximity to the western Mediterranean shore. By air: the nearest regional airports are in Carcassonne, Montpellier and Perpignan, with mainly seasonal connections to major airports in France and neighboring countries.  By train: the centrally located Narbonne train station offers direct connections to Paris, Barcelona, Toulouse, Marseille and many regional destinations throughout the day. By road: Highways  A9 and A6 pass through Narbonne.
  • Visiting — The Basilica of St Paul-Serge, 21 Rue Arago, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors year round Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on Sunday, January 1, May 1, and November 11. The Cathedral St Just, Rue Armand Gauthier, 11100 Narbonne, is open year round from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1, and November 11. The Palais des Archevêques, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, 11100 Narbonne.  The museum is open from October 1 to May 31, every day except Tuesday, from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm and from June 1 to September 30, every day, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.  Closed on major national holidays. Les Halles, 1 Boulevard du Docteur Ferroul, 11100 Narbonne, is open daily throughout the year from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm.

Location, location, location!


Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

In 125 BC, the major Greek port city of Massalia (now Marseille) in the hellenized region of Southern Gaul, threatened by incursions from the Celto-Ligurian tribes of the Provencal hinterland, called for help from its Roman ally. The Senate sent its armies and within a few years, they had subjugated the local populations from Southern Gaul to the Pyrenees. Rome now controlled the vast area linking Italy to Spain.

Virtual reconstitution of the Narbo Martius waterfront.

To secure these strategic territories and ensure control of their trade routes, in 118 BC, the Senate ordered the construction of a thoroughfare, the Via Domitia, and the foundation of the first Roman colony outside of Italy. Two thousand Roman citizens were settled on a prime location of the lower Aude Valley, in immediate proximity to the Mediterranean coast. Colonia Narbo Martius, the present day Narbonne, was born.


A Turbulent History

Slab of decorated marble(circa early 2nd century AD featuring eagles and a central thunderbolt – symbols of Jupiter.

As the capital of the Narbonnaise Province, Narbo Martius became a major merchant port of the Roman Empire. It experienced its heyday in the first two centuries AD, when it spread across nearly 240 hectares (590 acres) upon which rose the various monuments typical of the large Roman city: forum, temples, amphitheater, thermal baths, market. However, among the many temples that Narbo Martius must have had, only the great sanctuary discovered in the 19th century on the site of Narbonne’s high school is known to us. Located in the heart of the original Roman city and looking over the forum, it is now identified as its Capitol —the  temple dedicated to the three deities Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Fragments of the architectural grandor of Narbo Martius can be admired today at Narbo Via.

Unfortunately, the structures of the ancient city almost completely disappeared over the centuries of Narbonne’s turbulent history, starting with the general decline of the empire in the 3rd  century. Then in the 5th century, it fell into the hands of the Visigoths before being conquered by the Arabs in 719 and looted by the Vikings in 859. Through the successive reconstruction efforts, the remains of the Roman past became a convenient stone quarry for centuries of builders. Consequently, although no complete Roman monument has survived, many fragments of architecture that illustrated the splendor of the city have been preserved.

Reviving a Lost City

The lapidary wall is the backbone of the museum.

Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and virtual reconstitution specialists, it is possible to experience what Narbo Martius looked like in the Narbo Via museum, open in May 2021 at the eastern edge of the city. Upon entering the airy, light-filled reception area, the eye is immediately drawn to the spectacular backbone of the building: a soaring gallery lining the entire back wall, covered by a monumental (76 by 10 meters or 250 by 32 feet) storage device, custom designed to showcase the remarkable lapidary collection of Narbo Via. This unique lapidary wall consists of 760 blocks of carved limestone weighing on average 400 kilograms (900 pounds) each. Originally funerary blocks that evoked the profession or the trade of the deceased, they were ‘harvested’ from Roman necropolises and systematically repurposed throughout the middles ages into the successive fortification walls of the city.

Detail of a funerary stele honoring a local personality.

Past the wall, almost 2,800 square meters (29,000 square feet) of exhibit space bring together the collections of two previous local museums as well as recently discovered finds from various excavation projects around the city. With over 580 artifacts, the overall exhibition itinerary helps revive the lost city of Narbo Martius. One part focuses on elements of former monuments and statuary, another features individual funerary steles, sarcophagi and monuments that honored local personalities.


Narbo Martius Revisited

A virtual reconstitution of the original Roman Capitol.

Another high point of the visit is the spectacular 3D, virtual reality stroll through the Roman city, which brings into vivid focus the various themed collections presented throughout the museum. Thanks to the evocative power of three-dimensional reconstitution, visitors can experience the various emblematic landmarks of Narbo Martius: the city and its Capitol, the domus of the Clos de la Lombarde, the thermal baths, the amphitheater. At the center of the route, an immersive projection room with a 180 degree  panoramic screen takes viewers to the key places of the Narbonnaise capital, from the port of Narbo Martius to the heart of the city and along by the Via Domitia.

The Horreum

The tunnels of the Horreum illustrate the architectural expertise of the ancient Romans.

Now five meters below ground level in the heart of the modern city, the Horreum (or warehouse in Latin) is a network of galleries leading to a series of small storage rooms built in the 1st century BC. Used for storing grain, wine and oil, it constituted the foundations of a building, most likely a market hall that has since disappeared. The Horreum remained in partial use as private cellars until it was declared an historic monument in 1961. It was finally open to visitors in 1975. Its well preserved walls are evidence of the architectural expertise and know-how of the ancient Romans. 


The Clos de la Lombarde

The Clos de la Lombarde was a Late Antiquity urban neighborhood.

Along with Horreum, the archaeological remains of the Clos de la Lombarde are one of the only visible – and visitable – Roman sites in Narbonne. Located in the northwestern area of the contemporary city center, the site was revealed in 1910 with the fortuitous discovery of a sarcophagus in a privately owned urban garden plot. However, active excavations didn’t begin until1973, when they then promptly offered a wealth of information about an aristocratic urban neighborhood in the Late Antiquity. Archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse.

A number of mosaic floors have been uncovered.

Archaeological research has shown that the area was occupied from the end of the Roman Republic (circa 27 BC) until the 5th century. It consisted of a large residential quarter along parallel streets, some flanked by porticos (covered colonnades), which were wide enough to conduct business and build small shops. The artisans must have done their work in the adjacent houses. Remains of water conduits and drains have also been found. 



An Opulent Neighborhood

The House with the Large Triclinium featured a marble floor.

Among the many remarkable finds, the ‘House with the Large Triclinium’ with a surface of 705 square meters (7,600 square feet) and  consisting of several units is a typical aristocratic mansion of the 2nd century AD. Three units had access to the garden, one had direct access to the street, and a spacious 90 square meters (970 square feet) room has been identified as the triclinium (dining hall) Remarkable wall paintings and a floor covered with multicolored marble were found here.


The magnificent frescos of the House of the Genius can now be experienced in virtual reality at Narbo Via.

The House of the Genius dates back to the 1st century BC and has a surface of 975 square meters (10,500 square feet). It features an atrium and a peristyle and is comparable to the houses found in Pompeii. Here the living quarters were open to a garden surrounded by porticos, while the atrium, entrance hall and triclinium played a public function. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion had fine floor mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with equally splendid frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath (the protective deity of the emperor Augustus). 

Sarcophagi were found in the crypt of the basilica,

The mansions were abandoned in the course of the 3rd century, and a church was built on top of them in the 4th century. This Paleo-Christian basilica, the first known christian church in Narbonne, covered part of the House of the Genius. Underneath, the crypt and traces of a baptistery have been found, together with several sarcophagi. After the 5th  century, the religious building was abandoned and the area went into decline.

A visit of the site is especially meaningful after seeing the mosaics and paintings originally found here at the Narbo Via museum.

Panoramic view of Narbo Martius created in vrtual reality at Narbo Via.

Good to Know

  • Getting Around — Much of the city centre can be covered on foot. There is also a free shuttle bus (the Citadine – lines 1 and 2) that services the various points of interest every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday  from 7:40 am to 7:20 pm.
  • Narbo Via, 2, avenue André Mècle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 2 through September 30, and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm from October 1 through April 30.  It is closed on Monday and national holidays.  Contact:  tel. +33 (0) 4 68 90 28 90, e-mail..
  • The Horreum,  7 Rue Rouget de Lisle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from May 2 through September 30 and 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm from October 1 through April 30. It is closed on Monday and national holidays.
  • The Clos de la Lombarde — 28, rue Chanzy, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors for guided visits on Saturday mornings only, at 9:45 am and 10:45 am.  Contact: e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!


A Paleolithic Treasure Under The Sea — Cosquer Cave

A Paleolithic Treasure Under The Sea — Cosquer Cave

In 1985, while diving in the Massif of the Calanques, the jagged limestone cliffs that line the Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Cassis, local professional diver Henri Cosquer came upon a cave that caught his attention. Located at a depth of 37 meters (121 feet), it would turn out to be the portal of a deep underwater passageway.

A  Unique Discovery

The Cosquer Cave is a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites and stalagmites.

Over the next few years, he returned to progressively explore the 175-meter (574-foot) long, upward-sloping tunnel. Finally, in 1990, he and three of his closest diving partners emerged onto the hardened limestone “beach” of a vast partially submerged chamber. For the next two hours, they explored a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites, stalagmites, leaning vaults and limestone walls, orange-hued in the light of their flashlights.

The outline of a hand first caught the divers’ eye.

Here the story would have ended, with the discovery of a magnificent cave inaccessible to anyone but the most determined of expert divers, if as they were getting ready to depart, the imprint of a hand hadn’t appeared in the beam of Cosquer’s lamp. In the weeks that followed, the team returned several times and discovered an astonishing prehistoric bestiary, as well as amazingly preserved hearths. In addition to multiple figures of the bisons, horses, ibexes and stags common in prehistoric caves, they also found seals and penguins, figures until then unknown in parietal art.

Bison close-up.

The find was officially reported to the Department of Underwater Archeological Research in September 1991 and subsequently authenticated. Carbon dating showed that the cave had been intermittently frequented from 31,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE by hunter-gatherers from the last ice age, when the sea level was 120 meters (393 feet)  lower than it is today, and the coast eight kilometers (five miles) farther. During that time, the entrance of the cave is believed to have been located high on the face of the cliff, in a landscape surrounded by grassland.

A Treasure in Jeopardy

The penguins panel.

To date, a staggering number of cave art have been inventoried on the vaults and walls, including 200 animals representing eleven species: horses, aurochs (the ancestors of all cattle), bisons, a variety of antelopes (megaceroses, ibexes, chamois and saiga), one feline, seals, penguins and fish. Also discovered are geometric motifs that may evoke other sea animals thus far not identified. There are also a few rare human representations, 65 negative handprints in red (21) and black (44), and more than 200 non-figurative signs: rectangles, zigzags and dots. 


The legs of a horse close to the water are already being swallowed by the sea.

The uniqueness of the site, the wealth and diversity of the engravings and paintings, and its long human occupation during the Upper Paleolithic Period make the Cosquer Cave a site of global significance — and one whose preservation is a matter of urgency. The process of disintegration began some 10,000 years ago: since the end of the last glacial period, the rising sea levels have submerged more than three quarters of the cave. The quarter that has remained dry is now being nibbled away by the effects of climate change and the rise of sea level. As specially trained diver-archeologists race to document the cave’s Paleolithic art treasures, they also note the acceleration of the process. The legs of a horse close to the water at the time of the discovery have already been swallowed by the sea.

An Essential Preservation Project

The spectacular contemporary Villa Méditerranée is now the permanent home of Cosquer Méditerranée.

Given that the location of the Cosquer Cave makes it inaccessible to anyone but a handful of expert and that, in the medium to long term, its submersion is inevitable, it was clear that creating an accurate replica was the only way to preserve this world heritage site and make it accessible to the general public. Unlike other centers of rock art (Lascaux and Chauvet), Cosquer Méditerranée is located in an urban area, in the heart of the Marseille waterfront, and housed in an existing building: the Villa Méditerranée, a spectacular contemporary architecture creation inaugurated in 2013. Fitting the  2,300-square meter (24,750-square foot), figure eight-shaped cave into a square area with a surface area of 1,750 square meters (18,800 square feet) in basement level of the building presented an additional challenge.

Visitors can now experience the cave in 3D and virtual reality.

Using the latest ultra high-precision 3D technology available today to capture hundreds of laser scans and 360-degree high definition images, more than fifty versions were made to produce a replica of the cave and adapt it to the constraints of the Villa Méditerranée, into which an itinerary had to be integrated. The unified model of the cave, which was then validated scientifically and stenographically, was sent to all the key participants in the project, and in particular, the artists who made the physical replica of the cave. Cosquer Méditerranée was inaugurated in June 2022, and now offers visitors the opportunity to experience the cave in 3D and in a virtual reality tour.

A Dive Into The World of Henri Cosquer

The circuit introduces visitors to every types of rock art.

The visit begins in a replica of Cosquer’s diving club, including the gear used by professional and amateur divers at the time of the cave’s discovery, followed by an elevator ride down to the entrance of the replica. Designed to accommodate twenty-four people, the elevator evokes a nautical elevator for divers: screens simulate the descent to 37 meters as visitors are taken to an underwater station in the basement level  to embark on exploratory vehicles.  

Giant Penguin close-up.

Each of these vehicles can accommodate up to six passengers for a slow, thirty-five minute 220-meter (725-foot) itinerary in semi-darkness. Wearing audio headsets that are synchronized with the panels, the visitors gradually discover the rock art panels that light up as they approach. The circuit enables visitors to see all the types of rock art and understand their significance. Everything, including the presence of bodies of water, contributes to creating the illusion of being in the real cave. 

The archaeological interpretation centre features a life-size replica of a megaceros antelope.

Visitors come back up into daylight via a large airy staircase that take them to the vast, light-filled third floor, where the archaeological interpretation centre is located. Here in addition to life-size models of the thirteen animal species represented on the cave walls, they can enjoy breathtaking views of the waterfront and the Mediterranean seascape all the way to the horizon. 

Cosquer Cave Panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By train: Marseille is easily reached by direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). By air: For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city. It has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the center of the city.
  • Visiting — Cosquer Méditerranée is located on the J4 Esplanade, 13002, Marseille.  It is open everyday year round including holidays. Opening hours vary seasonally and are updated on the official website. Contact — tel.: +33 (0)4 91 31 23 12.
  •  Note — Photography by visitors is strictly prohibited throughout the cave. All images in the article are used by permission © Kleber Rossillon&Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur/Sources 3D MC.  

Location, location, location!

Villa Cosquer