Narbonne as founded as “Narbo”, a Roman settlement on the Via Domitia that grew rich from sea trade via its natural harbour.
You can get a feel for the splendour of Norbo’s Roman homes at the Archbishop’s Palace, where wall-paintings retrieved from ancient villas form the largest collection of Roman painting in France.
The medieval palace that contains them is Narbonne’s showpiece, a jumble of towers, halls and courtyards that convey the changing fortunes of the city.
That lucrative harbour silted up in medieval times, but Narbonne adapted with the Canal de la Robine, a green belt of water with historic bridges and elegant boulevards on either side, connecting with the Canal du Midi.
Lets explore the best things to do in Narbonne:
1. Fontfroide Abbey
Founded in 1093, on land granted to Benedictine monks by the Viscount of Narbonne, the history of this abbey really begins in 1145 when it became attached to the Cistercian order.
This made it one of a string Cistercian abbeys in the region and a kind of satellite to the great monastery of Poblet in Catalonia.
The abbey was an important base for the catholic orthodoxy during the bloody crusade against the Cathar sect in this region in the 13th century.
When you come you’ll be startled by just how much of the romanesque and gothic architecture survives, like the chapterhouse, the cloister and the dormitory of the lay clergy.
Fontfroide Abbey is in the Corbières Massif, well-known for its wine, which you can taste at the end of the tour.
2. Archbishop’s Palace
Right in front of this monument in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville there are steps leading down to an exposed fragment of the Via Domitia Roman road, which ran through Narbonne and connected Cadiz in Spain with Rome, spanning the south of modern day France.
The Archbishop’s Palace started out as no more than a simple Episcopal residence, but snowballed into a vast complex of interconnected buildings, with three towers and a romanesque “old palace” and a gothic “new one”. Go in to learn about medieval intrigue and politics, nose around the museums, climb the keep and try not to lose your way in the courtyards and gardens.
3. Archaeology Museum
The first of the two museums in the Archbishop’s Palace reveals the medieval, ancient and prehistoric past of the city via 12 engrossing rooms.
It’s the Gallo-Roman era that takes centre stage, with what is billed as the largest set of Roman paintings in France.
These frescos would have decorated plush villas, and were recovered from the Close de la Lombarde archaeological site.
They’ve been mounted painstakingly on the walls over helpful backgrounds that indicate all of the missing elements.
There are also mosaics, and an evocative presentation of marble from statues, columns, reliefs in buildings and a milestone from the Via Domitia Roman road that passed through modern Narbonne.
4. Musee d’Art et Histoire
In the archbishops’ 17th-century apartments is the palace’s other museum: The Museum of Art and History, which invites you to marvel at the richness of these interiors while also browsing a large assembly of art and ceramics from the 1600s to the 1900s.
A lot of the fun lies in the diversity of these collections; you’ll stumble upon three large cabinets with labelled apothecary jars from the 16th and 17th centuries, and an Orientalist room with a reproduction of the Mosque of Cordoba and some 125 paintings of exotic scenes like Arab souks from the 19th century.
5. Gilles Aycelin Donjon
At the turn of the 14th century the archbishop Gilles Aycelin reinforced the palace with a four-storey keep that continues to dominate the west side of the complex.
It’s a minor attraction, but worthwhile if you have a the Narbonne museum multipass.
The stairway to the battlements on top is one for the sure-footed, with 64 steps that must have designed for small medieval feet.
Emerging into the sunlight you’ll be hit by views to the Corbières Massif, the Clape Massif and the Pyrenees.
You can also look down on Narbonne and see the green ribbon of the Canal de la Robine where it passes under Pont de la Marchand.
6. Narbonne Cathedral
The high gothic 14th-century cathedral is unfinished, which only gives it more personality: The transept (the “arms ” of the cathedral) was never added, because doing so would have meant removing stones from the city’s defences while war was raging across France.
What was built is not just impressive but also very consistent in style because nothing much has been changed.
Look up in wonder at the ribbed vaults over the choir, find the terracotta sculpture of the Entombment in the Chapel of Saint-Étienne from the early 1500s and explore the cloister which has two columns from Narbonne’s Roman forum.
In the treasury, which is above the Chapel of the Annunciation, there’s a rich assortment of medieval liturgical art, like a tapestry from the 1400s woven with silk and gilt.
7. Musée Lapidaire
The former Priory of Notre-Dame de Lamourguier, which was built in the 13th-century is now the solemn home for one of Europe’s largest lapidaries.
There are 1,300 pieces of stone in all, and every single one is an intriguing clue about the city’s distant past.
To illustrate, there’s a shrine and lintel that belonged to the 4th-century Constantinian basilica that stood on the site of Narbonne’s cathedral.
The museum was founded in the 1800s after the city walls had been dismantled; these ramparts contained lots of Roman marble from tomb steles and sarcophagi, and the best pieces were brought here.
8. Gruissan Plage
In a matter of minutes you could be chilling on a sandy beach, and the good news is that the closest one to Narbonne is also one of the best in the region.
Gruissan Plage is a generous sweep of sand bordered by a holiday community without towers or excessive development . There are a few places to get lunch or a snack, and lifeguards patrol the beach all summer long.
Gruissan the town is almost stranded by salt marshes and oyster farms, and is guarded by the 13th-century Tour Barberousse alone atop an isolated outcrop.
9. Horreum Romain
The Horreum is the only Roman structure to visit in Narbonne, and is a 1st-century network of underground galleries served by corridors.
They would have been used for storage beneath a warehouse (horreum), and here and there amphorae have been stacked to help you picture how it would have been 2,000 years ago, while sound effects create the ambience of a marketplace.
In the alcoves between the galleries are small vestiges of art from Narbo, including a carved marble bull’s head, broken fragments of statues, reliefs, and a faint fresco portraying games in the amphitheatre.
10. Maison Natale Charles Trenet
To the uninitiated, Charles Trenet was a singer who had a mammoth career from the 1930s to the 90s, and throughout this time was famous for only recording songs that he had written, which made him a trendsetter.
One of his best-known songs was “La Mer” in 1945, adapted to “Beyond the Sea” in English and covered by hundreds of artists since.
Trenet was born in 1913 in at apartment at number 13 on what has since been named Avenue Charles Trenet.
There’s a statue of the artist out front and many of his possessions decorate the interior, including a transistor radio and grand piano, as well as manuscripts of a couple of his songs.
11. Canal de la Robine
After Pierre-Paul Riquet’s stupendous Canal du Midi opened up trade routes in southwestern France in the 17th-century, Narbonne also got a slice of the action in the shape of the Canal de la Robine in the 18th-century.
This linked with the Canal de Jonction, which in turn linked with the Canal du Midi at the Écluse de Cesse a few kilometres north of Narbonne, and so connected the city to the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of kilometres away.
Hire an electric boat, cycle or stroll to witness some of the 18th century engineering, the bridges decorated with flowers and the proud rows of plane trees on the banks.
12. Pont des Marchands
An unforgettably picturesque sight on the Canal de la Robine is the Pont des Marchands, an arched bridge with houses along its length.
The bridge was built in Roman times for the Via Domitia, and this is where the complicated history of the Aude needs explaining, because the river used to flow under this bridge but was diverted after flooding in the 1300s.
The canal simply used its former riverbed.
The people who live in the pretty houses above the water have the honour of occupying one of the only inhabited bridges in France.
13. La Clape
A raw, natural buffer between Narbonne and the Mediterranean, the Massif de la Clape is a 15,000-hectare mountain range that in fact was an island as recently as Phoenician times.
A typical sight in La Clape is a vineyard bounded by a ridge of exposed limestone with evergreen forest at the base.
Go for bike rides and walks in Mediterranean scrub and fresh-scented woodland of stone pines, cypresses and kermes oaks, or pay a visit to the many wineries in these mountains.
These make wines for the AOCs, Coteaux du Languedoc and Corbières, usually with blends of grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes for reds.
14. Les Halles
Narbonne’s central market is in a handsome art nouveau hall a few paces from the Canal de la Robine.
It was built in 1901 when they ran out of room in front of the Hôtel de Ville on Place aux Herbes.
Open daily from 07:00 to 13:00, there are 70 stalls inside, with butchers, greengrocers, bakers, fromagiers, florists, fishmongers and more selling the best that Aude has to offer.
If you adore good food then you can easily be sidetracked, fawning over artisanal olive oil, spices, jams, lucques olives, vinegar and honey.
And then as lunch approaches and business starts to wrap up, get a seat at one of the restaurants like Chez Bebelle, which sources its meat right from its own butchers’ counter, and has horse meat on its menu.
The vegetation of the wilderness around Narbonnes, in areas like Corbières and La Clape, is known as “garrigue”. This is Mediterranean brush with wild herbs like thyme, lavender and rosemary, and it’s the nectar from these plants that goes into a honey that the Romans rated as the best in the world.
What’s wonderful is that because the flowers bloom at different times of the year the honey can have a different flavour according to the season.
Mentioned earlier, lucques olives, with their faintly elongated shape, are a delicious local produce.
And last of all the Aude department is cassoulet-central, where the rich and tasty pork and bean casserole is one of the first things you have to try.