23 March 2009

Narbonne -- Day 1

From Barcelona (population ~1.6 million) to Narbonne (~47,000) via Laroque-des-Albères (1,941 exactement, according to the community website--I wonder if this surprisingly precise number includes us and other on-and-off residents or not).

Narbonne may be a medium-sized town these days, but there was a time when it was a major urban center in Gaul or, as the province was called in Roman times, Gallia Narbonensis. In 118 BC Narbo Martius was founded along the route the proconsul Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was building to link Rome with territories in what would become France and Spain. A segment of this road, the Via Domitia, was discovered in 1997 during construction excavation and has been beautifully preserved in Narbonne's Hôtel de Ville (town hall) square. Looking at the smooth surface of the huge cobbles, you can imagine legions tramping past. It must have been rather uncomfortable, though, to bump along the uneven paving in a wheeled vehicle.

Excavation is still ongoing:

In its glory days, Narbonne was a bustling port. Julius Caesar settled veterans from his tenth legion there in 45 BC; then came the Visigoths (410-719 AD), the Saracens (719-759), and the Franks, led by Pépin le Bref [doomed to relative insignificance not by his small stature, but by being sandwiched between a famous father (Charles Martel) and even more famous son (Charlemagne)]. Narbonne prospered until the early 14th century, when its port silted up. The change in course of the River Aude, the Black Death (1347-1350), and the depredations of England's Black Prince (1355) put an end to the city's dominance. In 2009 Narbonne is charming but slightly shabby, just like the hotel where we stayed.

Views around town:

The last photo above is of a less ancient cobbled street, rather more user-friendly than the Roman variety. Obviously the Narbonnais have continued to be seriously interested in working with rock, judging by all the stone buildings and pavements inset with marble parquet. We were surprised to find out when we visited the archaeological museum that the Romans had imported stone to Narbonne from all over their empire: Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Spain, to name a few places from the long list of sources. To Rome, yes, but to Colonia Narbo Martius? This may help explain why Martial described the province of GalliaNarbonensis as "the most beautiful" and Cicero, a century earlier, had said it was "the boulevard of the Latin world" (thank you, Michelin Green Guide, for the quotations).

And now for the more quotidian -- here's MacDonald's as you've never seen it before:

It was market day, and just so that you don't think the French are always tasteful, elegant, and refined, here are two photos of some of the goods for sale:

We did manage to find a stall selling minerals--or, I should say, crystals with supposed health-giving properties. We picked up piece of native copper (from Michigan!) and a lump of polished carnelian, plus a lovely example of labradorite, with its fugitive glimpses of kingfisher blue, that we had promised Emily.

Next stop was Les Halles, the fantastic indoor market. Borough Market, a short walk from our London flat, is only open two and a half days a week, but the lucky gourmands of Narbonne have access to their gastronomic mecca Monday through Sunday, from 7 am to 1 pm. The blown-up vintage photos you can see on the façade are from the 1907 protests against the collapse of wine prices that almost saw the Languedoc-Roussillon area secede from France and establish an Occitan-speaking state. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/languedoc-looks-back-in-anger-when-frances-wine-growers-saw-red-451367.html)

We were going to squeeze in a little culture before lunch, but the Lapidary Museum, housed in a deconsecrated 13th century church, was closed--of course!--from 12 to 2. We'd had breakfast at seven to get to Narbonne in good time, so it wasn't hard to convince ourselves that a leisurely lunch might be a pleasant method of whiling away the two hours.

In addition to their Green Guide, we had with us the 2004 Languedoc/Midi-Pyréneés edition of Michelin's Les Guides Gourmands. Les Cuisiniers Cavistes was listed, but as a purveyor of wine and homemade delectables in jars. We left with bags holding both of these, but the "épicerie fine" is now also a very good restaurant. For our first course we shared langoustine (similar to crayfish) cannelloni with butternut squash purée and asparagus; Michael then had scallops and I had loup (rockfish, seabass??--I'm not quite sure what this is other than a very tasty, moist white-fleshed fish), both served with the foam that seems to be de rigueur these days (we like it even if it is trendy), roast potatoes, and an al dente collection of snowpeas, carrots, courgettes, and florets of green cauliflower. All was delicious, including the bread from the bakery on the premises.

Below is the dessert plate. I wasn't so enamoured of these offerings, but I am a finicky, nit-picking dessert eater. The chocolate-filled choux pastry was the best.

In the sunshine, as shown below, we drank the house white and red, from Mas du Soleilla, which we visited the next day. A woman who was clearly one of the restaurant/bakery/deli proprietors greeted us with a cheery "bonjour" as she walked onto the patio and kissed all the other guests on the cheek. Small town life has many perks.

By now the Lapidary Museum was open and there is no question that it alone was worth coming to Narbonne for. The vaulted nave of the 13th century former church was lined with rows of Roman funerary monuments, mostly carved blocks that fitted neatly into stacks.

Here are two of the most memorable carvings, the one a touching family group, the other a rather disturbing openmouthed woman. I'm not sure of the significance of the latter, which was a recurring motif on several carved blocks. Any ideas, Paola?

The stripped-down nave and 1,300 monuments were impressive enough, but for an admission price of only a few euros there was also the best son et lumiére show we've ever experienced, created by the Italian master of the art, Gianfranco Ianuzzi. Images of Roman statuary and mosaics were projected on all four bare walls of the church, with the sounds of tramping legions in the background. The light show continued through medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, flames for the Inquisition, paintings, stained glass--all accompanied by Gregorian chants or whatever other soundtrack was appropriate. I can't recommend this highly enough should anyone ever find themselves in the Narbonne vicinity.

We return to the 21st century with a stop at the local torréfacteur for some coffee beans (yet again, nowhere near as good as those Hans-Jörg and Cheri bring Michael from Germany) and then head back to the 14th at the Cathédrale St Just et St Pasteur, the tallest in southern France. This was never finished, due to lack of funds and lack of forward planning--building the nave and transept would have meant breaching the old ramparts that were still part of the city's fortifications. As a result, these photos are really of half a cathedral. Like most of Narbonne, it's constructed from the local limestone and, according to Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architect who "restored" Carcassone, designed Narbonne's Hôtel de Ville, and desperately wanted to be allowed to finish the cathedral, it pushed the technical skills and knowledge of the time to their limits.

After a pit stop at the hotel to drop off our purchases, we hurried out again to get to a couple of other museums before they closed. First the underground Horreum (Latin for "warehouse"), where goods were stored for the market near the forum.

Then we were distracted by a visit to a toy shop. The owner was a collector of British antique games and generously showed us his rare specimens of Snakes and Ladders boards going back to the 19th century. We weren't tempted by those, but did buy a portable wooden cribbage board from the 1920s, a Victorian leather dice shaker, and a set of dice from Las Vegas. The proprietor was much amused that an American bought the Nevada dice.

From there we rushed to the archaeological museum in the Palais des Archevêques (Palace of the Archbishops). We thought it closed at 6pm, but that's only in the tourist season. Doors were firmly shut. Off-season hours are 10-12, 2-5, a very civilized schedule for the employees. This was a must-see, so we plan our next morning around coinciding with opening time. The whole Palais area, Vieux (7th century AD) and Neuf (14th), was wonderfully atmospheric. Here's the main cobbled alleyway, the Passage de l'Ancre; unfortunately you can't see in this photo the rusted old anchor from port days mounted on the wall as you enter.

Viollet-le-Duc's Hôtel de Ville, below on left, and a more ancient part of the imposing edifice that once housed generations of archbishops. [Michael is always looking for sandstone--far more successfully in Barcelona--but here he at least found some of the calcareous variety (i.e. sandstone comprised of grain-sized fragments of the limestone that dominates the town).]

We wandered around a bit more, past lots of students from the local lycée, chatting with each other and into mobile phones, just like high school kids everywhere. The only way you'd know they were French was the cheek-kissing that took place each time a group including girls dispersed.

We trekked up to the train station to check out the recommended restaurant there, but decided instead to have our evening meal--not that we really needed one after lunch--at the bistro near the covered market. Here, a couple of hours later, we tucked into hearty fare, sausages and pommes frites for Michael, the catch-of-the-day plate with garlicky aioli for me.

In closing (after somehow mysteriously losing several paragraphs I'd written before)--a few final first-day photos of Narbonne. First, two additions to Michael's weathered door collection:

Plus a view of the second door in situ:

And, for our musical daughter, the only two photos I took on this trip, of a glorious embellishment that was part of the stone entrance to another fine old building:

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