In France we have found people to be somewhat understated. For example, our Parisian son in law remarked that we are so excited about everything. Wow, the food is amazing, look at that incredible building, this wine is fantastic, and so on.
So we asked, “What do you say when something is really great?” His reply of “pas mal,” meaning not bad has become an ongoing family anecdote.
When we relayed the tale to the crew of the Clair de Lune on our Barge tour across southern France, they said that pas mal is a very common French thing to say. With that in mind we began saying it a lot, although it was generally in jest.
But when we made it to Narbonne, we could no longer say it, we had to adopt the rather un-French-like c’est si bon instead. Which means it is so good, for the non-Francophobes.
Our so good day in Narbonne began at an ancient church, which is often the case in Europe, but this was not just any old church. The Basilica of Saint-Paul-Serge has several extremely unique quirks.
First we played find the frog. Our guide Antoine gave us that instruction as we entered and we dutifully searched high and low with no success. Turns out the little amphibian was hiding in plain sight right where we walked in, on the bottom of the holy water stoup.
There seem to be quite a few legends as to how he got there. Most involved some supernatural force called upon to turn him to marble and included priests, bishops, saints, and/or choirs, but none have taken hold as the accepted legend.
Our next surprise was much less fanciful. Antoine got special permission for us to descend a small, out of the way staircase and we found ourselves in the middle of a crypt. Just in case that wasn’t strange enough, several of the graves were open!
Turns out that back around 250 AD the original church was intentionally built over the grave of St. Paul Serge. But the site was also a burial ground for residents going back to the time well before Christ, and that’s how we managed to come face to face with a two thousand year old Roman.
There was one more Roman reminder in the Basilica. Unlike most churches that have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, Saint-Paul-Serge incorporated the original Roman walls, brickwork, and arches into the renovations. These are easily identified along the inner wall that was left standing even after the church was expanded in size.
Our next stop was more delicious than quirky, Les Halles of Narbonne. This classic covered market opened in 1901 and reminded us very much of the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, La Boqueria Barcelona in Barcelona, and the Östermalm Food Hall in Stockholm.
This one may be a bit newer than those, only a little over a century old, but it certainly has all the ingredients for a fantastic food experience. Dozens of booths offering everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to every sort of meat and seafood imaginable, and several of them will even cook it right on the spot. What a way to grab a quick lunch!
From the hall it was only a short walk across the canal to go way back in time, all the way to the Roman Empire again. Narbonne was founded by the Romans in 118 BC and soon became their most important city in Gaul, in part because it was located on the Via Domitia.
This was the road from Italy to Spain, a sort of ancient super highway across southern Europe, and legend has it that this was the route once travelled by Heracles. Whether that is fact or fiction has no bearing on the reality of us getting to walk on a part of it that remains almost perfectly preserved in Narbonne.
An excavation of about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide holds a section of ancient paving stones and is open to the public. We were awed by our ability to stand on the very rocks where countless centurions from Caesar’s armies had marched.
The tiny stretch is displayed right in front of the The Palais des Archevêques, or Archbishop’s Palace, which now serves as the City Hall and a museum.
Just behind the palace is another of city’s historic oddities, the Narbonne Cathedral. This towering ornate structure is actually only half a building because it was never finished. During the construction of one of France’s most impressive churches, the powers that be in the city refused to allow for knocking down the city wall.
This meant that only the sanctuary, sacristy, and choir were completed. We can only say that the result is unique to any of the countless churches we have visited across Europe over the years, with a feeling like it might be taller than it is long.
There was one thing about Narbonne that was not very c’est si bon for us; it was where we finished our trip. That was not even pal mal, it just felt plain old mal.
But even as we were ready to leave, waiting on the train to Paris on our way to fly home, we found an array of Roman ruins just a few blocks from the train station.
The site, known as the Clos de la Lombarde, was unearthed during some construction and became an archaeological excavation beginning in 1973. As more and more frescoes, tile floors, and walls were discovered the find was designated a historical monument in 2007.
While the ruins aren’t spectacular when compared to coliseums or temples we have seen in other parts of the empire, they certainly made for an engaging send off.
C’est si bon
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
A big thank you to France Cruises for helping with this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.