The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                        PAGE SIX
Notes from Narbonne . . . Big City in Little Narbonne
                                                                                                                                             by Marlane O'Neill
Marlane O'Neill
How I like the big cities ~ London, New York, Paris, and Barcelona ~ the pleasurable memories of good food, passing an afternoon while watching people walk by, great art exhibitions, fascinating architecture and the transient pleasures of mass transportation. Oh, and the shopping! Yes, 'shopping 'til you're dropping' fun.  So, when I hear leading questions from newcomers to Narbonne such as: "Wouldn't you rather be in Paris?",  or "Are you going to stay here forever?", I have to catch myself. After all, I am a native New Yorker, born in Manhattan's Greenwich Village! I should stand up for my big city roots!  Should I check my metro-pulse?  But, my New York is now a rich person's haven for bankers and stockbrokers who edge out the artists and musicians more and more due to the high cost of living.  Paris has endless gray days filled with rain, more than the city of London. London is terribly expensive and social problems are rife between the 'haves and the have-nots'. I have lived in every one of these cities and more, thus I have personal experience from which to draw.  But, I digress from Narbonne and the cities like it.

Let's take a walk around Narbonne for a brief tour that goes back some 800 years.

Donjon.  © 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.

We start at the center and find ourselves at Le Donjon Gilles Aycelin in the heart of the La Place de la Mairie. From our apartment we have a good view of this imposing tower which was designed around 1290. From the top is the best view of the city, the mountains beyond and even the sea on a clear day. Tourists can usually be spotted leaning over the crown and peering down onto the Via Domitia or overlooking the flying buttresses of the neighboring cathedral. The donjon was used to keep arms, and I suspect it had a few prisoners there as well; a couple of names with dates from the 17th century have been deeply etched into the stone – that takes time! In the evening this structure lights up with golden lamps, and if there is heavy fog in the morning it simply disappears behind the heavy mist leaving us with an eerie gap over the red-tiled roofs.

Museum ceiling    2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.Unfinished cathedral.  © 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.

                                                       Ceiling of the Museum inside the Cathedral                                      The unfinished Cathédrale Saint Just

Next to the donjon is the Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, usually referred to simply as Cathedral Saint Just, is named after two young Spanish martyrs who died in 304. Their relics were transferred to Narbonne in the 11th century. The present day cathedral is the third or fourth church to have been built on this site where construction was started in 1272; however, what is most remarkable is that it remains unfinished. This photo shows the unfilled windows and open rooms that permit the sky to be part of the cathedral interior.  Most people say they prefer it this way; it lends a je ne sais quoi to the building and the photos taken of it as well.

Step out to the cobblestone road which leads you back onto the Place de la Mairie and you are standing in a very large white stone plaza where you can find dozens of tables and people lounging about, drinking a glass of wine or a coffee while they also drink in the sunlight and fresh air. They're sitting on the Via Domitia, the original road that Roman soldiers trudged as they spread out into northern and southern Europe. It is the official crossroads of southern Europe and an original piece of the rough stone lined street is preserved in a marble cadre about 20 feet square where children love to play.

Place de la Mairie.  © 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.
Place de la Mairie

Le Petit Moka café shares the prime sitting spots along with Le Soleil Noir bistro. The waiters are professionals at dealing with their varied clientele; tourists from all over the world, rich and not-so-rich locals, families, teenagers and retired people.  All assemble in appreciation of the setting and the people watching as well. Lined along the plaza are some delightful restaurants. One of my favorites, l'Agora, features a daily lunch special for only €7.90,  and it is always beautifully presented and delicious, too. Their fois gras and pommes frites are particularly good as they are fait maison.  In the corner, next to the cathedral, sits an Italian restaurant with pizzas and pastas and menus in four languages. Their dishes are enormous and tasty.

Take a look at two fine jewelry stores that would be at place in posh streets in Paris, London or New York. One features Breitling watches, some sell for over €10,000 apiece. They also have fabulous rubies, diamonds and emeralds that sparkle in the sun.  The store is always busy with customers, most likely those Narbonnais who drive the Jaguars and Mercedes through town.  Across from this shop is a green and gold jewel box of a shop, the Piccadilly, which is my favorite because they sell stunning, one-of-a-kind, estate gold and gems. The window is a glimpse into the old Narbonnaise family treasures.  Presently they have a display of large apricot-colored cameos and huge solitaire diamond rings in antique settings.

Once you have sipped your  pastis, paid the waiter and need to stretch your legs ~ just continue through the plaza along the rue de L'Ancien Courrier, a pedestrian road with an eclectic collection of the latest hip clothing, designer jeans, Parisian  prêt-a-porter, high-end children's wear, and antiques. There you can find Dior, Yves St. Laurent or any other designer wear you like. It stretches on for several blocks and also features about a half dozen restaurants with a variety of menus. There is even a non-stop tea shop to please the fustiest of British shoppers. My favorite spot is an antique store that has been there for over 35 years. The windows are chock-a-block with silver sets, ancient hat pins, porcelains, lace, pearl necklaces, gold baubles and paintings. Although it is tiny, there is such an enormous amount of things to ogle that I once whiled away an afternoon chatting with the friendly owner and scored three solid gold hat pins for a song.

Canal de la Robine.© 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.Turn right at the end of this pedestrian road to the Canal de la Robine.  If it is Thursday, then it is market day and a hundred or so vendors have set up their booths on les barques. You can find wares from all over the world and also local items of olive wood, Provençal ceramics, bedding sets decorated with olives, antiques and junk as well. The Canal de la Robine is an extension of the Canal du Midi and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Check out:

Continue up the canal, return to the Place de la Mairie and go up le rue Droite which lies along the Via Domitia.  Here we have another pedestrian-only street with shops that feature more offbeat goods such as crystals, salt lamps, handmade clothing, piercings, and local designer wear. If you turn left at the Cathedral and continue two blocks you will be at the Maison de la Jeunesse et la Culture also known as the MJC for short. An annex next door has a small theatre that recently hosted a Fellini Festival that was put together by a visiting Italian woman from northern Italy. She also hosted several Italian food festivals in the MJC restaurant in which we were delighted to partake. One of the delights of my French class is the continual rotation of people from all over the world who come to Narbonne to finish their language studies or to live permanently. Last year we had a German university student who was preparing for his graduate studies in international marketing. This year we have a Russian, an American, a Scot and an Italian to round our international group in addition to our stable foundation of English expats.

This leads us to one of Narbonne's unique characteristics – it is a polyglot city. I delight in speaking with my Italian and Russian classmates because French is the only common language we share.  Thus we have to practice our adopted tongue together, much to our mutual benefits.
Ernesto.© 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.With so many newcomers arriving to live here, we form impromptu bands of polyglots. One of our evenings led us to meet Ernesto, a lover of the language of Occitan.  I wasn't very interested at first, but his passion and tenderness for this language was infectious, and he had us all listening to ancient Langue d'Oc poetry that he translated along the way. I learned that 'oc' means 'yes' or 'oui' in French ~ sounding similar to the first syllable in the word 'accord' which is the same in French and English and means 'agreement'. My interest in Occitan stuck with me and I attended an Occitan humor evening in the Café de la Poste the next week. There is a revival of interest in speaking Occitan, but it's rarely heard in the streets where Italian, German, Spanish, Arabic, Swedish, Creole, and many dialects I don't recognize are spoken daily. On a trip to Carcassonne I found my attention snatched by a best-selling novel written by Kate Mosse called Labyrinth which is actually set in the old city of Carcassonne. The novel is called the smart person's answer to The DaVinci Code. I am enthralled by the medieval tale of the Occitans and their horrific encounter with the Crusaders and the mysteries that remain until today.

I am not the only one to be fascinated by this history of which Narbonne is a large part. Recently we attended a play in the MJC theatre – less than 200 seats, but nicely designed so that everyone has a good view. The play is called Le Cauchemar de Trencavel’ or 'Trencavel's Nightmare' and is a two-person act concerning the Land of Occitania - now known as France's Languedoc region, (the language of Oc – the region where Narbonne is located) during the time of the Inquisition or L'Hoste as the Crusaders were known in Occitania.  Occitania was an ancient land that encompassed the border between Spain and France and was also the home of the Cathars. Trencavel was the Viscount of Carcassonne, Beziers and Narbonne in the 13th century; his domain was shattered by the Inquisition in their quest to seize land and gain power over the Cathars who did not believe in paying taxes or in other material endeavors.  We are accustomed to our modern borders, but they obliterate the old cultures and countries that used to occupy gray zones between them.

The play was extremely well acted, the audience appreciative and it was followed by a gregarious social gathering next door at the MJC. We were able to chat with the actors and meet our fellow audience members. I was reminded of the off-Broadway theaters for which New York is famous.

Narbonne is putting out new cultural tendrils that draw life from the stories set in the old stones placed over a thousand years ago by a people we have mostly forgotten. The Mairie, I am happy to say, has been attentive in sending me invitations to various art openings as they spring up. There are several interesting exposition centers in Narbonne: La Poudrière, named so because it used to house the gunpowder for cannons, the Office de Tourisme, set on the banks of the canal, the Chapelle des Penitents Bleus, a small chapel next to the cathedral, and La Salle des Consuls, an ancient meeting hall inside the Mairie itself.  I have trouble attending them all, they change constantly and all are interesting.  Presently, in the Mairie's office, there is an exposition on the events in Narbonne during the French Revolution.  During the opening soirée we hear fine speeches from the city's political leaders and a healthy serving of sweet muscat wine and apéros is offered.  Other subjects have ranged from classical oil paintings of southern France from the 1950s to avant-garde sculptures of giant sea urchins.  Don't ask me ~ I still can't figure that one out. I also remember a mid-August recreation of a traditional Arabic wedding ~ it felt like a real one to me, especially with the lack of air conditioning.  But no one else seemed to mind, and there was standing room only.

Cathedral Garden.  © 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.

The Cathedral garden from inside the Art Museum

Let's leave the artwork behind as we go up Avenue Carnot to the train station ~ Narbonne not only claims the ancient crossroads of Europe, it also has the modern day version as well.  Many of our B&B guests come to visit Narbonne because they have so often passed through the train station on their way to Barcelona from Paris; eventually they become intrigued.  My last guest mentioned he had been through the Narbonne train station 28 times before finally deciding to disembark in Narbonne itself and visit. The TGV will soon make Paris a mere four-hour journey away, and Barcelona will be about one hour travel time: commuting distance! Then Narbonne can consider itself an arrondissement of Barcelona and a banlieue of Paris. However, Narbonne has something that Paris can only wish for in the summer: an enormous beach 25 minutes away for the price of one euro on an air-conditioned bus.

If it's the United Kingdom you're after then RyanAir is the answer.  With three airports from which to choose (Beziers, Carcassonne and Perpignan), Narbonnais residents fly back and forth regularly with tickets as low as €12 round trip!

Could it be there is a big city in little Narbonne?  Let's look at the boxes we checked: good food, passing an afternoon while watching people walk by, great art exhibitions, fascinating architecture and the transient pleasures of mass transportation.  Oh, and the shopping!  Hmmm, will high living costs, pollution and crime follow?  For the moment, we're living in the best of both worlds. Think I'll take a break and go for a drive in the country to visit a sun-drenched domaine where we will partake in a dégustation des vins. Above all, every great city must have its getaway!

Rob at Chβteau de l'Hospitalet. © 2011 Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.The domaine Château d'Hospitalet is only ten minutes from Narbonne's city center and nestled in a huge nature reserve called La Clape which is situated right next to Narbonne's beach. It has been there for decades and features award winning wines created from grapes grown on some of the best terroirs in the Languedoc. It is a beautiful winery decorated with many fine works of art, has an elegant hotel and a village of small shops. The large open stone cellar is perfect for wine tasting and sales. In the summer Château d'Hospitalet hosts regular jazz soirées with dinner and wine included. Our charming host is a bilingual British university student who is spending a year interning at the chateau; he is delighted to be there and it shows in his enthusiasm and knowledge of the wines. We weren't prepared for the expansive variety of cépages offered for tasting. Thus, after spending a most pleasurable two hours tasting the wines (we didn't even get to the vins doux) I decided my favorites are the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir 2009. I wasn't wrong; they taste even better at home when paired with good food.  Visit their web site: for more information about this beautiful domaine.
  Rob O'Neill tasting the wines at Château d'Hospitalet

Note:  The June 15, 2011 issue of Wine Spectator includes 3 of Gérard Bertrand's wines in its New Releases section:  Côtes du Roussillon-Village Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons 2007 (red - rated 93), Côtes du Roussillon-Village Tautavel Grand Terroir 2008 (red - rated 90), and Limous Aigle Royal 2009 (white - rated 89).  

French Vocabulary

la Place de la Mairie – the mayor's offices

le donjon – a tower where arms are kept, also prisoners during battles

je ne sais quoi – something indefinable

cadre – a frame

foie gras – literally translated means fatty liver. Geese and ducks are fed a special diet which enlarges their liver. It is delicacy in France and very expensive

pommes frites – French fries

fait maison – made by the restaurant itself; literally means ‘house made’

pastis – an anise-flavored liqueur mixed with water and ice

les barques – the esplanade surrounding the canal, decorated with trees and park benches

Maison de la Jeunesse et la Culture – House of Youth and Culture; every city in France has one

La Poudrière – the Powder House

La Salle des Consuls – The room of consulates

Muscat – a sweet white wine.

prêt-a-porter - ready to wear clothing

apéros – appetizers

banlieue – suburb

soirée - evening party; theater reception

arrondissement – France's large cities are divided into numbered neighborhoods.

dégustation de vins – wine tastings

cépages - vines

vins doux - sweet wines

For additional information about living in or visiting Narbonne 
by land or canal boat, or for a lovely bed & breakfast stay with the O'Neill's
[] contact

Please visit the Style de Vie page of the FRANCE On Your Own web site to read
Marlane's account of their life on the Canal du Midi.  And read Marlane's earlier
Notes on Narbonne in previous issues of FRANCE On Your Own.
To access them, visit our Archives page and scroll down to the bottom.

  [Photo credits:  Marlane O'Neill 2011.   All rights reserved.
Mouse over photos for additional descriptions.]

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