Have you heard of Narbonne France?
I had no idea that Narbonne France existed until visiting the South of France. Narbonne was a stop on my cruise of the Canal du Midi aboard the Athos hotel barge. We stopped at several tiny towns on our slow drift on the canal. Narbonne was a short drive from where our boat docked the previous night. Narbonne is right along another canal, the Canal de la Robine.
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It’s no wonder that I’d never heard about Narbonne before. Most of its tourists are French or fairly local to the region. While the nearby medieval town of Carcassonne has a huge international draw, the majority of them will never venture just east of it towards Narbonne. In fact, 80% of tourists to the Languedoc region are French. For travelers interested in going off the beaten path to visit this enchanting little town, stunning views and an intriguing history await.
Roman History in Narbonne France: The Via Domitia
Long before France was ever a country, Narbonne was established as the first Roman colony in Gaul as Colonia Narbo Martius (also known as Narbo). Later, it was a capital of the Visigoth Kingdom. Around the 14th century, Narbonne fell into decline due to changes in the waterways, war, plague, and the growth of other ports.
The Via Domitia was the first Roman road that linked Gaul to Italy and Spain, and its route ran right through Narbonne. The remnants of the Via Domitia are very visible right in the middle of Narbonne. You’ll find evidence of this in the main town square, Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Narbonne is a city of layers, and you can see how the modern street was built right on top of the Via Domitia. Venture down and feel this ancient Roman cobblestone road beneath your feet!
Towering over the old Via Domitia, you’ll discover the Archbishops’ Palace (Palais des Archevêques). There are actually two palaces here: the Old Palace (Roman architectural style) and the New Palace (gothic architectural style). Inside the Archbishops’ Palace today, you’ll find the Narbonne Town Hall, the Archaeology Museum, and a Fine Arts Museum. You can also explore the Saint Theodard Bell Tower and Le Cour de la Madeleine (palace courtyard).
Shop on the Merchants’ Bridge
Upon first glance, you’d never imagine that this shopping street is actually a bridge. The Merchants’ Bridge (Pont des Marchands) crosses the Canal de la Robine, and you’d never know that water flows beneath it. It’s a row of colorful houses spanning across the canal with tons of shops underneath them.
The Merchants Bridge is paved with pink marble and lined with shops. If you’re hunting down that perfect souvenir, this is the spot where you need to be. There are only a handful of bridges in the world that are lined with shops and you can visit one of them in Narbonne France.
Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur Narbonne Cathedral
One of the top things to do in Narbonne is exploring the Narbonne Cathedral, Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur Cathedral. I am certain that this had the potential to be one of the most visited cathedrals in all of France. However, there’s only one slight problem. The cathedral was never finished.
Even though the Narbonne Cathedral is super impressive, it’s only a quarter of a cathedral. The choir is finished, but the rest of the building was never completed.
The placement of the cathedral dates back to the year 313, which was the site of a Constantinian basilica. Destroyed by a fire in 441, a Latin basilica was constructed in its place (completed in 445). Not much remains of this church, but you can see two Roman columns in the present day nave of the cathedral dating back to this time period. Yet another cathedral was erected in 890 on the same site, but it fell into ruin.
In 1268, the former archbishop of Narbonne, Pope Clement IV, wanted to build a Gothic cathedral at this site. There were great plans for a massive cathedral in Narbonne. In 1332, the choir was finished, but that’s where construction came to a halt. As the plans for the cathedral were so vast, any further construction would have meant tearing down the Narbonne fortified city walls (which no longer exist). As there were many invasions of cities back in these times, it wouldn’t have been a great choice to tear down the fortifications. Also, financial constraints led to the abandonment of the original plans to build the rest of the cathedral.
Thinking that this unfinished church isn’t worth a visit? Think again! It has one of the highest Gothic naves in the South of France. Marvel at brilliant stained glass windows from the 14th century. Admire many original statues, tapestries, and even an old relief work (rediscovered after being covered by plaster for centuries). On the exterior of the church, there are large and impressive flying buttresses.
Check out the Narbonne Market
The Narbonne Market, Les Halles de Narbonne, is a must visit when you travel here. Dating back to 1901, it’s open every day of the year from 7:00am to 2:00pm. There are 66 local merchants and artisans offering the freshest produce and high quality products from the region. If you’re looking for an authentic dining experience, you’ll want to head directly to Les Halles.
For the vegans in the crowd like myself, the Narbonne Market is a place that’s quite abundant in meat and cheese (it is the South of France, after all). However, you’ll find loads of fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, and bread that are the makings of the perfect picnic. Unfortunately, you won’t find vegan cheese at the Narbonne Market yet (as you might in shops around Paris and other major cities). Perhaps there will be delicious nut cheeses for sale there in the future.
Stroll along the Canal de la Robine
Still looking for what to do in Narbonne? I recommend taking a stroll along the Canal de la Robine. If it’s a warmer day, you can wander paths lined with trees right next to the canal. The bridges are lined with baskets of flowers and the view is quite beautiful. You won’t encounter any crowds in Narbonne as it’s off the main tourist path. Enjoy a serene walk by the water and soak up the spectacular scenery all over town.
Bonus: More Things to Do in Narbonne
Seeking even more things to do in Narbonne France, if you’re planning to stay longer than a day? I only had a half day in Narbonne, so I imagine that you can fit some other activities into your day that I didn’t get the chance to see. Here are a few suggestions:
- Donjon Gilles Aycelin: Climb to the top of the bell tower for magnificent views over Narbonne
- Fontfroide Abbey: It’s about 15km away from Narbonne city center, and it’s a little difficult to access if you don’t have a car. Check out this peaceful former Cistercian monastery if you’re able to visit.
- Narbonne Plage: It’s a stunning resort on the Mediterranean Coast of the South of France. It features a sparkling clean blue flag beach. Build your own Narbonne Plage vacation package for a relaxing holiday abroad.
It’s easy to reach Narbonne France, even if you’re not sailing aboard a canal cruise. There are direct trains from Paris and Barcelona to Narbonne, making the journey relaxing and easy. Book your high speed train trip to Narbonne quickly and easily online.
If you’re looking for a charming city to visit in the South of France, definitely add Narbonne France to your travel wish list. You can easily spend a whole day there wandering the streets and slowly taking in all of the sights. Prepare to be completely enchanted by this adorable small town! If you’re looking for more peaceful towns in the South of France, check out my articles about Marseillan, Pézenas, Minerve and Capestang.