Friday, December 11, 2009

Day-Trip To Narbonne

After last month's surprisingly affordable trip to Arles with Jack, I promised myself I'd impose a sort of tithe on any large checks that came in. In other words, I'd take care of the immediate emergencies like rent and so on, and then dedicate a bit to a trip. So when my check from Fresh Air came on Monday, I knew it was time. I researched the ticket online and discovered that for only €22 round trip I could go to Narbonne, whose indoor market had come highly recommended, and whose name I keep seeing in histories of Montpellier. It's down to the southwest, with the Canal du Midi bisecting it, and, most importantly, it's a place I'd never been.

My first surprise came at the train station: as I nervously watched it get later and later for my 10:08 departure, I managed to get to the window just at 10, and was sold a round-trip ticket for €14.20. My budget included a four-museum pass for €5, and some lunch, so I was already ahead. The trip down was fun: it follows near the shore, stopping in Frontignan, another place I've never been, Sète, Agde, Béziers, and finally Narbonne. Béziers has a huge church atop a hill, and several other attractions, but this was psychological: I'd stopped in Béziers a few years ago, and I wanted absolutely virgin turf.

The train station wasn't in the center of Narbonne (they generally aren't; Montpellier's is an exception), but right across the street was a sign for pedestrians, saying Les Halles, the market, was 20 minutes by foot. The signs were placed well whenever there was a question where to go, and, although it wasn't the route I'd mentally prepared after looking at maps, it got me there. Outside was a huge market with lots of cloth and cheap pots and pans, but inside was a typical grandiose French market hall, with loads of stands. It may have been the season -- a place which depends on fresh vegetables isn't going to be at its best in December -- but for the most part I wasn't tempted. If I were living in Narbonne, on the other hand, the fish on display was amazing, a far larger selection than I've seen here, including razor clams, and tiny crabs, about three inches across, all proving the cliché about crabs in a basket -- but what would one do with such tiny things, I wondered. The meat counters, too, were out of this world, several of them offering single-portion cassoulets ready to be popped into the oven.

But it was almost noon by the time I made the circuit, and I doubted that I could haul a cassoulet around all day without major damage, so I stepped outside and spied a huge pile of stone, the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lamourguier. I walked around it until I found a door, and entered into lively conversation with one of the two women behind the cashier's window. This church had been turned into the lapidary museum, she said, and I could buy the museum pass from her, good for this museum and three others. €5.20 got me in the door, and I was confronted with stones. Hundreds of stones: 1300, to be exact. From what I could make out, they were nearly all Roman, and that's when I started figuring out Narbonne, even though the other woman from the cashier came over to chase me out. All the museums in town, she told me, were closed from noon until 2, but if I came back, on the hour there would be a son et lumière presentation about the stones.

With two hours to kill, I made my way along the canal to a footbridge and crossed over into the main part of town. The tourist office was open until 12:30, and I went in and copped the map I recommend to anyone else going to Narbonne: the plan monumental, which accurately shows, in a sort of cartoonish form, the main layout of the city. Knowing I wouldn't be getting lost, I wandered to the largest church I could find.

And there I figured out the second thing about Narbonne: the reason it appears in the Montpellier history is that this structure is the Archbishop's Palace, and Montpellier only rated a bishop. The only way you could do this thing justice is to shoot it from the air: you've got the Cathedral of St Just and St Pasteur, the Archbishop's Palace, and all the attendant buildings, all jammed up into one huge complex. This photo is from the gardens, and only shows a little bit of it. But it's a very strange complex, too: they went broke in the middle of building it, so that it's huge and pompous, but also truncated. Big as it is, it feels like there should be more.

What happened, I found, was that the Aude River, which emptied into the Mediterranean and was a major route into the center of France, provided the Archbishops with their wealth from taxing the traffic. And there was a lot of traffic: Narbonne is surrounded by wine, with the Corbières appellation to the west, Fitou to the south, Minervois to the northwest, and La Clape along the shore. But in 1320, the dikes which made the river navigable broke, and the river silted up to the point where it was useless. The Archbishops went broke, and the cathedral was never finished. Right around this time, the city also made the stupid mistake of expelling its Jews, who had a large scholarly community. Then along came the Black Death, and that was about all she wrote.

But it was the end of a longer story than I'd suspected: although there were locals living near the current city, the Romans came and built Narbo Martius in the current location as the first colony outside Italy in 118 BC, the capital of Transalpine Rome. As such, it was wealthy and had many well-off inhabitants, as I figured after 2, when the Archeological Museum, located in the Archbishop's Palace, opened. There are some pre-Roman antiquities here, including some pieces of Greek pottery (it's commonly asserted that the Greeks were the first to systematize wine-growing in France along the Mediterranean coast), but the bulk of the collection tells the usual story: lovely mosaics on the floors and colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings of well-off Romans' houses (rediscovered many years later when buildings were renovated and new cellars dug), growing alienation from the Roman center and, in particular, the cult of the Emperor, new religions coming in from Mithraism and its bulls to the cult of the Sibyl to the new Christian religion. The quality of the art declines, in come the barbarians, and it's over.

My personal interest, though, lies in what happened after the Romans, which is what lays the foundation for what the region has become today, and in Narbonne, the only way to do that is to read the buildings, which is hard, because anything that's still standing has been modified and modified to where any remaining structure has to be looked at hard to determine its age.

On rare occasions, bits of an ancient building will survive intact: this bit of a Romanesque house is on the rue Droit, one of the main shopping/tourist streets in the old town, which used to be the Roman Via Domitia, which connected this part of the world to Rome. (There's a big hunk of it on display in front of the Archeological Museum, but at the moment it's covered by an artificial ice-rink, all part of the Christmas fair which sprawls along the side of the canal and various other parts of town). Or you'll see a hunk of something and wonder where it came from:

Or a strange detail would appear from a wall.

I have no idea what this guy is, and I can't read much of the inscription, but my guess is this is post-Roman.

Not that the tourist folks are going to give you a clue: Narbonne is all about its Roman heritage, not so much about the rest of it, except for the numbingly-dull architectural analyses of the historical buildings. Which is why, after getting my ticket punched at the Horreum, apparently a series of below-ground Roman warehouses which have only been partially excavated, and bumping my head repeatedly on the passages from one set to another while being assaulted aurally by odd music and disembodied voices (what *is* this supposed to be? No clue from the handout), I'd pretty much OD'd on Romans. I wandered back across the canal to the equally ancient but still somewhat slummy neighborhood where there was another old church with some early Christian stuff, supposedly, but didn't find much. I looked at my watch: I could get the 4 o'clock son et lumière at the Lapidary Museum...or I could wander very slowly towards the train station for my 5:08 train, snapping photos as I went. That's what I did, and I'm glad, because although it had been warm enough in the sun all day -- somewhere around 65° Fahrenheit -- when the sun started going down the chill hit.

I wish there had been a greater spectrum of history available in Narbonne, but it's really a lovely town in many ways and it felt good to wander around it. For my next cheap trip, I'm going to try Béziers and find the place where they roasted the Cathars, but my dream trip is one that'll cost quite a bit more -- more like €200 -- and will involve taking the train to the next major city down the coast after Narbonne, Perpignan, staying the night, and then renting a car for a couple of days to check out what's in the nearby hills. And I also propose to study the train timetables a little more closely: who knows where I could get to inland from here, and what's there? I aim to find out.


  1. This is a great post, Ed. I have never been to Narbonne. I knew about the church because Locke mentioned the story in his journal.

  2. Thanks, Ed. Perpignon I have seen but only the train station at appox. 2AM. It is the first station between Spain and France and these fuckers still have different track guages, so you have to layover and catch a new train. And people wonder why I don't travel without liquer or wine...And, BTW, I'm sure you know this, but every train station in the world is the same at 2AM> Cheers.

    Kevin Wheeler

  3. Great to read that you got to Narbonne so soon. My recollection of Les Halles de Narbonne may have been slightly gilded by youth and time, but it's still a pretty impressive daily market for a moderately-sized provinicial town.

    Interesting that things always seem to go downhill in towns/city-states after they expell the Jews...

  4. On a different note, how come Fresh Air always finish with "Ed Ward lives in the south of France". I'll stop at comments about the fresh air........

  5. @Kevin: You know that Dali called the Perpignan train station the center of the universe, right? They used to actually have a little monument inside locating the exact center, but I'm told it's gone. Of course, I don't trust Dali's opinion on anything.

    @Graham: American radio people have a horror of mispronouncing words, especially on NPR. Some day I'll see Terry and teach her how to say Montpellier, but that'll probably lead to people thinking I live in the capital of Vermont, which only has one l and is pronounced mont-PEEL-yer.

  6. Ed, have you visited the blog "Les gens de Montpellier" ?

    Doris, the webmaster, has also a website about les gens de Montpellier too.


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