Our food scene revolves around Les Halles de Narbonne, a splendid covered market and architectural gem from the late 19th century. It is open every day and is everyone’s favourite meeting place. More than a market, it has wine bars, bistros and tapas counters, plus fishmongers where you can feast on plump oysters and shrimps. I go there every Sunday to do my shopping. When I played rugby for Narbonne, the “third half” would sometimes carry on until morning, when we would arrive at 6am for a steak. And you’ll still find this ambience in Les Halles – along with great grilled meat – at Chez Bebelle.
Elsewhere, L’Auberge des Jacobins in the town centre serves traditional Narbonnaise cuisine. In summer I love to head out to La Cambuse du Saunier on Gruissan’s salt lake, where you can watch the water changing from pink to blue while feasting on sea bass baked in salt, or freshly gathered razor clams fried in parsley and garlic.
When I need peace and quiet for reflection, I sit down in the shady cloister of the Cathédrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur. It is a timeless place: you never know which century it is. Close your eyes and you could be in the middle ages or the Renaissance. Narbonne was one of the world’s most important ports 2,000 years ago, and you can picture this when you climb to the top of the tower at the Palais des Archevêques, which has panoramic city views as far as the Mediterranean. Here you can also feel the wind, a crucial element to understanding Narbonne: 13 “winds” blow through our streets.
My neighbourhood is Narbonne Plage, a three-mile stretch of sandy beach that may be nine miles from town but remains an essential part of Narbonnais life. In summer there’s a regular bus, but the hour-long bike ride through the salt flats and wetlands is wonderful. I learned to swim here as a boy and trained for rugby by running on the beach. Families come here with their kids. This quiet resort has avoided ugly development, and visitors can enjoy sunbathing and swimming at a beach club, or ice-cream at a seafront glacier such as Bakoua, while nightlife carries on late at L’Insomnia disco. In town, the Quartier de la Charité is worth a wander: it has been gentrified, with bistros, pâtisseries, boutiques, tea salons and a modern exhibition space.
A small green oasis in medieval Narbonne is Le Jardin de la Révolution, where my mum used to take me to play. The flower beds and mown lawns have not changed a bit. The town is surrounded by the parc naturel régional de la Narbonnaise, which encompasses wetlands, hills, garrigue heathland and lakes. My favourite spot is the Massif de la Clape, where I cultivate my vineyards, and hikers and bikers can discover wild orchids, thyme, rosemary and marjoram, and glimpse rabbits, hares and wild boar. It is also a paradise for birdwatchers. Don’t miss the Étang de Bages-Sigean, with its fishing village, where the water is incredibly still, a marked contrast with the waves and movement of the sea on the other side of the lagoon.
The towpath along Canal de la Robine has been transformed in the past few years, and the Promenade des Barques is lined with late-night spots: Le Rive Gauche and waterside terrace of Le Centaurée, live concerts at Cadence and craft beer and excellent wines at Macar Bar, whose host is Anthony Hill, an Aussie rugby player who ended up staying. If you want to party late, head to the aptly named Avenue des Noctambules in Gruissan, with dance clubs Formentera and La Villa, or Paparazzo right on the beach.
Just behind Narbonne station, l’Île du Gua (doubles from €128) is a design hotel in a renovated watermill on the Canal de la Robine.