Narbonne, Languedoc, France

Another Ancient Outpost of Rome

May 20th is the 12th Kalends (or calends) of June (an old way of counting dates based on the Roman calendar). What does this have to do with Narbonne ? S.V.P., please read on. The Græco-Roman world had already known Gallic peoples for hundreds of years in both warfare and trade, before Rome established Narbonne first as a colonial outpost. The earliest known settlement in the area was the oppidum (a defended Iron Age village) at Montlaurès, about 4km north-west of the present city centre (of Narbonne).

We know the Greeks were in the region, too. Between 734-580 BC, seafaring Ionian peoples of Greek heritage from Phocæa on the northwest Turkish coast established ports in Mediterranean Gaul to acquire metals and other raw materials. Massalia (Marseille), France's oldest port, was founded about 600 BC beside the marshy coastal-lowlands of the Rhône, in order to conduct trade with the native Iron-Age settlements upriver. By the late 7th century BC, two other Phocæan sites, Saint-Blaise and La Couronne, were occupied near the mouth of the Rhône, evidenced by coins minted at Massalia, and Greek pottery from Rhodos, Ionia, Athens and Corinth (as well as Etruscan ware). Other Greek setlements along the French Riviera included Taurœntion (Le Brusc), Antipolis (Antibes), Nicæa (Nice), and Olbia. The Phocæans also founded Aléria on the island of Corsica around 560 BC, where refugees from Massalia fled when the Persians invaded (544 BC).

Narbo Martius, the Roman colony for retired soldiers (a colonia) and port city, founded in 118 BC, became the wealthiest city in southern Gaul (the Roman Province of Transalpina). Under Augustus it became the capital of Gallia Narbonnensis, a larger portion of now conquered Gaul, stretching from Tolosa (Toulouse) to Geneva. Even at this early date, Narbo Martius' extensive vineyards furnished strong competition to those in Italy. By 92AD, the emperor Domitian had instructed that half of these foreign vineyards be destroyed. While this may be an early example of the results of free trade gone mad, it may also have been necessary for quality control or increased food production for a growing population. The vines removed would have been those prospering in rich soil, more suitable for wheat. A Resource of Pictures of Narbo is here. At the Archaeological Museum, you can admire all the treasures of a magnificent ancient dwelling: you will find the second largest collection of fresco paintings after that of Pompeii and an outstanding ensemble of bas-relief, sculpture, and mosaic depicting administrative life, the gods, the temples, the amphitheatre as well as early Christian times.

In the Corbières (near Narbonne), on the 12th calends of June 1093, Vicount Aymeric II of Narbonne authorised a community of monks to live in a protected, isolated site in the foothills {accroché au Massif des Corbières} of the Pyrénées (near to today's Spanish border). Called Fontfroide, it lay at the confluence of two cold, bolder-strewn, rushing mountain streams, from which the site derives its name. This community observed the rules of Saint Benoît, the only Order at the time, practiced in the west. Construction on the permanent Abbey began some 50 years later (cloisters and chapter house), after the group affiliated with the Order of Citeaux in 1145 ( The Abbey was an outpost in the fight against the Cathar heresy of the 12th and 13th centuries. One of its abbots, Jacques Fournier, was elected Pope under the name of Benoît XII (1334 - 1342). This proved to be its zenith in influence.

Fontfroide lost its protector, Pope Benedict XII upon his death in 1342. The tough economic years began as the harbor at Narbonne silted, compounded by the arrival of the plague. Three-quarters of the monks were lost to the Black Death. By 1476 the cistercian abbeys throughout France had all but been abandoned. The Abbey at Fontfroide was put on prebend. Over the next several hundred years, a succession of three noble families enjoyed the title (income and rents) of Abbot of Fontfroide (including de la Rochefoucauld from 1667 to 1717), without having to become priests in the Catholic Church (les abbés commendataires). In 1764 Louis XV consented to the extinction of the title and for the local episcopate to have jurisdiction.

The Révolution forced abandonment of most Church property, forfeit to the State. Fontfroide was no exception. On February 14, 1791, the last monk left, and the structure enjoyed a secular existence. From 1858-1901, a new Cistercian community flourished, but upon the death of its leader the Abbey once again closed. Today it rests in private hands. In the early 20th century it attracted painters such as Odilon Redon, Burgsthal, Bauzil, Henri de Montfreid et Aristide Maillol, as well as, composers like Maurice Ravel and Déodat de Séverac. Nestled in a green valley in the Languedoc region of southern France, the Abbey of Fontfroide is one of the most complete abbey complexes preserved in the post-modern world, because of some unique bends and twists in history, pruned now and again.

Recovery of the cultivated vine of the ancients, which was lost with the collapse of the Roman Peace, came many centuries into Narbonne's history -- in XIth century with the Benedictines, and then from the XIIth century with the Cistercian Order of the Abbey of Fontfroide. The monks allowed vines to take over their food-crop rights and planted grapes adjoining numerous granges (farmhouses) throughout the region. The Abbey still produces wine of the Corbières Appellation (Terroir de Fontfroide). Vines, like stones of the Abbey, have become immutable witnesses of past centuries.

Le Château de Caraguilhes: Ce domaine occupe une place à part dans l'histoire de notre région (Department Aude). Depuis l'apogée de l'abbaye cistercienne de Fontfroide au 12° siècle, dont ce domaine de 600 hectares était l'une des granges, la vigne n'a jamais cessé d'y être cultivée. Miraculeusement épargné à travers les âges, le domaine ne sera jamais morcellé, et restera longtemps le fief des Seigneurs de Montredon, qui construisirent l'actuel château sous Henri IV. Le vin ne sera pas l'unique ressource du Château de Caraguilhes, outre la chasse et les moutons, on y cultive les céréales, les arbres fruitiers, les oliviers, le potager, et on y élève les vers à soie. Le domaine vivra ainsi en quasi-autarcie jusqu'à la fin du XIX° siècle. Aujourd'hui, régulièrement primé dans tous les concours, c'est un des grands crus, les plus renommés de notre terroir. Travaillé à l'ancienne, avec un roulement en jachère de 7 ans, pour ne pas épuiser la terre, et sans aucun traitement chimique de synthèse, le vin de Caraguilhes possède l'estampille écologique, ECOCERT, depuis 1990.

Les Deux Rives (from the Val d'Orbieu) is a good example of a red Corbières that you can find in the USA. It possesses traces of berry (black cherry, cranberry, and red raspberry) and other subtle flavors. Serve cool, but not chilled, goes well with cheese, works with anything off the grill, including fish. Les Deux Rives means "the two banks" (like those of a water-stream), in this case the two banks of the Canal du Midi, a canal built in the 1600's (and which is seen on the label). An example (from 2006 or 2007) would represent a traditional bend of several types of grapes. It is ready to drink now (2010).

City Centre Narbonne.

Narbonne Cathedral remains unfinished since the laying of the first stone in 1272. The plans required the partial demolition of the town wall, but the town council, fearing English invasion, refused to allow it. This, coupled with wars and epidemics, has left Narbonne Cathedral with only the choir and transept in a finished state of being.

In 2008, Foix (to the west) was just about a day's ride from Narbonne -- at least if you were a participant in the Tour de France. Situated at the heart of the department of Ariège, Foix is best known by the three towers of its castle. Standing atop a rocky perch, the castle (10th-15th centuries) recalls the Counts of Foix (and Viscounts of Béarn), notably the flamboyant Gaston Phœbus (1343-1391), who composed a livre des oraisons (Book of Prayer) and livre de la chasse, a writing related to the hunt. A statue of Gaston stands outside the Château de Pau. Foix remains a small town, but it benefits from the nearby Toulouse (north), Spain and Andorra (south). More pictures from and information about Foix -- here & here. It is probable that the 2011 Tour passed through Foix, as it did in 2008.

Center of the UniverseBéziers and Narbonne were on the route for the 2009 Tour de France during stage 5 (ending at Perpignan (in the Pyrénées-Orientales)). Southwest of Narbonne is Durban, which is one-third the way to Perpignan. Durban was on the Tour route in 2009, and it visually demonstrated the stark beauty and isolation of this portion of the Corbières region.

Settlement in the area goes back to Roman times and a town 10km due west of Durban, Termenès, was the terminus of Roman settlements. At this time, the Via Domitia was a coast-following road that came from Italy and went to Spain; however, the town of Perpignan seems to have been founded around the beginning of the 10th century and soon was part of Aragon. La Palais des Rois de Majorque, or the palace of the king of Majorca, was built in the 1200s for Count Jaume I. It is a stunning example of medieval Catalan architecture. Besieged and captured by the French during the Thirty Years' War (September 1642), Perpignan was formally ceded by Spain 17 years later in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was begun in 1324 and finished in 1509. Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí declared the city's railway station the center of the Universe, saying that he always got his best ideas sitting in the waiting room. Many pictures are HERE.

The Tour entered Spain the next day after leaving Perpignan (for 2 days). Then it was a few hard days in the Pyrénées, before emerging at Tarbes at the end of Stage 9.

Besançon -- Colmar -- le Saint-Suaire -- Lörrach -- Avignon -- Carcassonne -- Toulouse -- Béziers -- Montpellier -- Nimes -- Arles -- Orange -- Castres & Castries -- Tarbes -- Pau

Celtic/Frank History -- Germaniæ Historicæ -- Anglo Saxons -- Reformation from a French-Protestant point of view -- Current Newsletter

New: 04/30/08