Narbonne presented a much different face after the grim and terrible beauty of the Cathar castles. An ethereal pale stone cathedral seemed nearly to float above the low buildings of the city as I drove along the A9 autoroute. Located just off the Mediterranean where the coast turns south toward Spain, the city has a pleasant brick-paved old quarter which glowed golden under a brilliant blue sky during my visit. Late on a weekday afternoon, its narrow pedestrian passages were full of people visiting the shops to pick up groceries for dinner or out walking their dogs – the French love their dogs!
The ancient Roman city of Narbo was a major stop on the Via Domitia between Rome and its colony Spain. In fact, it was so important that the Romans brought the Mediterranean Sea twelve miles to the town: they dug a canal, diverted a river, and dredged the intervening marshy saltwater lake, creating a harbor and making Narbonne a seaport. Narbonne was the first major colonial city to be abandoned to the advancing Visigoths when the Roman empire began to collapse. It was later rebuilt as a medieval religious center which forms the heart of the modern city. A storm in 1340 returned the river to its natural bed and caused the harbor to silt up, ending Narbonne’s affluent days as a port city. The canal was later restored and is now part of the Robine Canal, which drifts right through the middle of town, crossed by footbridges adorned with flowerboxes, its banks lined with plane trees and its green waters with narrow houseboats.
Footbridge across the Robine Canal
I parked in a garage on the opposite side of the canal from the cathedral. It was easy to find my way, as the cathedral’s towers and flying buttresses soared well above the town. I came first to the Palais des Archeveques, the Archbishop’s Palace, a stark and imposing building looming menacingly over a large place paved with blond brick. The impression it makes is more fort than palace, flanked as it is by three powerful fortified towers, a testament to the civil unrest that followed the Cathar crusades as these southern lands were brought forcibly to the heel of their new northern masters and the Catholic Church. The cathedral is behind and to the right of the palace, and a passage on the right side of the palace leads to the courtyard between housing the entrance to the group of museums I’d come to see.
Palais des Archeveques (Archbishop’s Palace)
I’d been drawn here because of the Roman mosaics in the Musée Archéologique and Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. In their typically warm climates, wealthy Romans had elaborate mosaics installed as flooring in the public rooms of their homes, in those days before wall-to-wall carpeting. These mosaics had more imaginative designs than mere geometric patterns; often they portrayed mythical or historical events in stunning detail, with shading in tiny tiles that would rival many paintings. The best Roman mosaics I’ve ever seen are in the Museo Archeologico in Naples, but if you won’t be there soon, this is a good place to stop and look at some. The star of the collection is of a story about Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, kidnapped in his (presumably drunken) sleep by pirates; waking, he turns his captors' mast into a grapevine which strangles them. Unfortunately, no photos allowed!
My very favorite item in these museums is another work with a reference to drinking, apparently a common theme in ancient Narbonne, even then a major wine-making center. This is a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Silanus, the drunken tutor of Dionysus (Greek god of wine), which was found when the Robine Canal was dredged. Compared to most Greek and Roman statues, which typically idealized the human form or at least idealized the subject, this Silanus is dissolute, comical and repulsive, with a coarse, broad-featured face and a thatch of hair on his chest and pot belly. By itself, this statue is worth the price of admission, and if you like ancient sculpture, it’s also worth making a special stop in Narbonne if you’ll be passing by.
My last stop was the Cathédrale St-Just et St-Pasteur. Its original Gothic design called for a much larger building, but when the city’s economic fortunes reversed when the harbor silted up, it was walled off around the already completed chancel. What remains, though it has a modest footprint, is still impressive, with tapestries and sculpture and stained glass windows, feeling surprisingly airy due to the filtered light glowing above in the lofty vaulting. What would have been the transept is now a courtyard connecting the cathedral with the archbishop’s palace.
The flying buttresses and stained glass windows
of gothic Cathédrale St-Just et St-Pasteur
Narbonne would also make a nice stop for an ice cream or a pastry before continuing on your way – preferably eaten in the shade of the plane trees lining the canal.
Practical Information for Visiting Narbonne
The train station is located perhaps three blocks from the cathedral, so convenient that it is preferable to come by train if you can. If you are driving, follow signs to "Centre" and look for parking when you can see the cathedral. All the sights described here are located in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral.
For information on visiting the museums of the Palais des Archeveques (the Musée Archéologique and Musée d’Art et d’Histoire), call 04 68 90 30 54.
Admission: €5, good for all museums of the Palais des Archeveques for three days
April through September: 9:30-12:15 and 2:00-6:00 daily.
October through March: 10:00-12:00 and 2:00-5:00, closed Mondays.