WHAT springs to mind when you think of the Mediterranean coast of France?
Sun, sea and St Tropez, perhaps? Or the cinematic glamour of Cannes? Soaking up the opulence of the principality of Monaco while watching the Formula 1 Grand Prix, or weighing anchor in Marseille during a luxury cruise?
It’s understandable that the French Riviera is the first place many people look when thinking about a holiday in the south of France.
But you may do well to cast your eyes a little bit to the left of the Cote D’Azur on the map, where you will find a relatively undiscovered country to the west that comes with little of the pretension and definitely without the designer price tag.
Narbonne, nestling in the crook of the country just as it plunges south and rushes headlong into the Pyrenees, is a jewel in the crown of a part of the world that, as far as many tourists are concerned, has hidden its light under a bushel for far too long.
Now, however, the time has come for the sun-soaked and historic town to step out of the shadows of its more illustrious neighbours to the east.
But, traveller, beware. Narbonne sneaks up on you.
You may think you’re only visiting, and that you can leave it all behind at any time. It is at this point the town casts its beautiful and ancient spell. Before you know it, a little piece of your heart will be forever Narbonnais.
It’s not just the town’s long and illustrious history. Although, there is an awful lot of it.
Two millennia ago, Narbonne became the first Roman colony outside Italy, was the location for the start of the first Roman road in Gaul, the Via Domitia, and later the ancient Empire’s largest Christian city. Julius Caesar even garrisoned his 10th Legion there and made plans to develop the port while the residents of Marseilles were in revolt.
One small part of the Via Domitia is permanently on display slap-bang in the middle of the city’s main square, where you’ll also find the beautiful gothic Archbishops’ Palace, the current home of Narbonne’s archaeological museum.
It offers an astonishing display in a fitting venue, but the best is yet to come. In 2016, a new museum – designed by thoroughly modern British architect Norman Foster – will house the many finds from the time of the old Empire.
Over the course of the next few centuries, Narbonne was invaded, colonised, settled and generally taken over by – in no particular order – the Visigoths, Moors, Jews, Cathars, and Catholics.
They have all left their mark.
But it’s not just the history. It’s not just the culture, either. Although, as you can imagine, there is quite a bit of that, too.
Century after century of varied influences cannot help but have an effect on the place. You can see it in the buildings – such as the stunning gothic 13th-century St Just Cathedral or the city’s only surviving Roman building the Horreum – on the streets, and in the parks and squares.
Nor is it just the atmosphere of the place. Narbonne – like many towns and cities in France – just loves to make the most of the summer sun to celebrate the joie de vivre.
Every August, it celebrates the life and career of one of its favourite sons, singer Charles Trenet during its summer programme of events Tempos d’ete. If you’re in Narbonne during the summer months, don’t be surprised when you turn a corner during a gentle perambulation to walk straight into a surprise concert, ball, historical show, festival, or even a dancing lesson.
And it’s not just the food, either. This is south-west France, after all. To paraphrase a famous line from Liverpool FC legend Bill Shankly: food is not a religion here, it’s much more important than that.
That said, it would be tantamount to treason not to mention two must-visit eateries.
There’s Bar Chez Bebelle, just one of many cafes in the indoor market, the Halles de Narbonne. The menu may be limited – a few variations on a theme of steak and frites, chicken and frites, or horse and frites – but don’t be put off.
Your order is boomed out over a megaphone – by, if you’re lucky, owner and Narbonne rugby legend Gilles Belzons – to the nearest free butcher across the hall, who then throws your chosen meat back over your head for the chefs to prepare. Not surprisingly it’s hugely popular, even with the locals, so make sure you book a table in plenty of time.
Then there’s another Narbonne institution – Patisserie Combot, on Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, which is famed for its gooey, artery-clogging cakes.
Even if you’re on a health kick that bans you from trying one of those, don’t leave town without trying their bouchons du Languedoc, rustic biscuits of honey and almonds and a generous helping of pine nuts. You could probably even argue they’re healthy – at least until you’ve eaten the first five or so.
And it’s definitely not just the relaxed attitude to life, which is probably due in no small part to the the 3,000 hours of sunshine that Narbonne enjoys every year… although, that certainly helps, as does the presence of the Corbieres wine region and its beautifully spicy, piquant vintages right on the city’s doorstep.
No. It’s the history, and the atmosphere, and the culture, and the food, and the relaxed attitude to life, and the 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, all rolled up into one remarkable, wonderful and astonishingly compact package – that is itself neatly wrapped up in its six museums, 16 classified monuments, UNESCO World Heritage Site the Robine Canal, and a national park.
It’s not joie de vivre. It’s art de vivre. All this and the Mediterranean, too. Who needs the Cote D’Azur?