Shaped by a Tumultuous History
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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 (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).
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.
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.
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.