A historical city that welcomes newcomers – Narbonne in Languedoc-Roussillon has something for everyone, writes Carolyn Reynier
Narbonne is the sous-pr�fecture of the Aude department in south-west France. I’m sure you’ve heard of it but you may have trouble actually placing it because it doesn’t have an airport. B�ziers, however, in the department of H�rault, 35km to the north-east on the A9 does, and Perpignan, capital of the Pyr�n�es-Orientales, about double the distance to the south on the same motorway does too. And, at 60km due west on the A61, so does Carcassonne. So now you know how to get there.
What will you find when you do? The city has a population of around 53,000 and is just a few kilometres inland from the Mediterranean. It lies on the northern border of the Parc Naturel R�gional Narbonnaise M�diterran�e – 80,000 hectares made up of the maritime Corbi�res and a vast lagoon complex including the lovely �tang de Bages-Sigean, all reeds and wooden boardwalks and flamingos. It is one of the last large nature conservation sites in France.
The surrounding land is, in general, flat. A pretty 15-mile drive from the city, the coastal townships, overlooking the Golfe de Lion – St-Pierre-sur-Mer, Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan, backed by gentle hills splendidly named the Montagne de la Clape – lie within the regional park, as does Port-la-Nouvelle at the southern end of the �tang de Bages-Sigean.
The Canal de la Robine, a lateral branch of the Canal du Midi, runs through Narbonne and on to the Mediterranean. It was built in 1686 by that great French military engineer and Marshal of France, S�bastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, known simply as Vauban.
Not only does the canal run through the city, but you’ll also find the Via Domitia, one of the oldest Roman roads in the world, linking Rome to Cadiz in Spain and part of a road network of more than 70,000 miles, built by the Romans over the course of eight centuries. It runs from one end of Languedoc-Roussillon to the other and was constructed in 118BC by a proconsul known somewhat less simply as Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, around the same time as the Romans founded their first colony in Gaul – Narbo Martius, now Narbonne.
And not only do the Canal de la Robine and the Via Domitia run through Narbonne. At the end of the 5th century so did the Visigoths, followed, briefly, by the Arabs during the 8th century. Eight hundred years later, Narbonne became part of the Kingdom of France, playing a key role in the defence of the Languedoc province against Spain.
The city subsequently lost its strategic role and although viticulture provided a brief economic upturn in the 19th century, the inter-war period saw a distinct downturn in Narbonne’s fortunes. However, thanks to the European Union (and its euros, presumably) things are now looking up. Well, that’s what the mairie says – and they would say that, wouldn’t they?
V�ronique Marquier at SM Immobilier deals with property in Narbonne and surrounding villages within a 15km radius. Unlike most other towns and cities with an ancient past, the centre-ville of Narbonne – attractive stone and timber buildings, lower prices than elsewhere – is not the most sought-after sector.
Communities of gypsies, les gitans, live here in spite of council attempts to move them away. They are not aggressive, says Marquier, but they have an unconventional lifestyle. By all means take advantage of the lower prices if you are looking for a bargain, but be aware why they are lower. And think about the resale price of your property. Caveat emptor (buyer beware), as Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus might have said.
If the gypsy life is not for you, head for those areas within close distance of Les Halles, the city’s splendid covered market, and the Th��tre/Sc�ne Nationale de Narbonne (where new arrivals to the city are welcomed at the beginning of each year and can find out about Narbonne, its services and infrastructure).
Check out the quartiers of La Mayolle, Baliste and Gazagnepas. You can find just about all types of accommodation, reports Marquier. Studios start from around €40,000; expect to pay €160,000 to €180,000 for a small townhouse.
Most folk moving into Narbonne are retired. “There were lots of British buyers prior to 2008, but we’ve hardly seen any since,” reports Marquier. Prices are now stabilising and although it is hard to give a price per square metre for old buildings – much depends on location, state of repair etc – new programmes are available at €3,000 to €3,300/m�.
The Loi Scellier scheme continues to encourage investment purchase for those paying French tax. There is, too, an active yearly rental market. Narbonne is home to the Facult� des Sciences Juridiques et Economiques for the Universit� de Perpignan Via Domitia – think of all those students looking for accommodation…
Marquier, whose agency also manages rented accommodation, says monthly rent for a studio is around €270/€300 while a T4 (three-bedroom apartment) is circa €700/€850 per month. And you can move in when the students move out in the summer.
Also, have a look at some of the surrounding villages. Vinassan is 6km to the north-east of Narbonne and 12km from the beaches. It has “its feet in the Narbonnais plain and its head in the massif de la Clape,” says mayor Didier Aldebert on the village’s informative website.
And if you have young folk in the family, during the summer the local authority, known as Le Grand Narbonne, offers, sensibly, a free shuttle service to the various coastal discos and nightclubs and into Narbonne itself (the motto is g�che pas ta vie/don’t ruin your life). The buses don’t leave until after midnight and return at five or six in the morning. Just reading the timetable exhausts me but I suppose I kept those hours, too – once.
Just add water
To the south of Narbonne, overlooking the eponymous lagoon you come to the gorgeous village of Bages, perched atop a hill with cracking views across the water; certainly worth a visit although properties here are hard to come by.
Continue along the delightful D105, which skirts the �tang, and you’ll pitch up in Peyriac-de-Mer. Here you can buy a 180m� four-bedroom house, with a 300m� garden and vue imprenable over the lagoon for €370,000. Work on the property is still in hand – en cours d’am�nagement – but it does have a new roof, not an insignificant advantage with all those winds (Agence du Soleil Sigean).
If coastal living appeals, property prices range from around €2,500 to €3,500 per metre square. In St-Pierre-sur-Mer, apparently the site of a beach for naturists, an 18m� sea front studio with views over the Golfe de Lion could be yours for €64,000 (Agence du Golfe).
Nearby Narbonne-Plage has a pretty marina with berths for 600 boats. Here, as elsewhere along the coast, you can take up every nautical activity known to man – if you can do it in, under, on or above the water, you can do it here. And if you don’t want to faff around with furniture, you can buy a 49m�, two-bedroom apartment with a superb’ view of both sea and the residence’s pool for €133,000 – vendu meubl�.
Further south brings you to delightful Gruissan and Gruissan-Plage surrounded by the �tang de l’Ayrolle. The narrow lanes of the old fishing and wine growers’ village wind their way round the ch�teau and Barberousse tower.
There’s a port and four fine sandy beaches including the famous one with chalets on stilts, featured in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film 37.2 le matin, where the tourisme gruissanais first began. And there’s a property with potential on the market in the sector known as the Gruissan chalets – two bedrooms, veranda and garage, � relooker et � voir! and yours for €190,800. (Agence des Plages).
If you can’t be bothered to relooker your purchase, you could buy a well-situated’ four-bedroom village house in Gruissan that has been bien relook�e (although, of course, there may well be lots of clear blue water between your idea of bien relook�e and the current owner’s). Be that as it may, the price is just under €265,000 – and, says the blurb, you can live in it all year round, which presupposes that in some properties you can’t (Agence des Plages).
Our last port of call on the Narbonne roundabout is Port-la-Nouvelle. It is one of the younger communes at only 160 years old although the first buildings mentioned date from the 16th century, including a modest chapel, Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle. The town is a seaside resort, but it is first and foremost a port. And it was to emphasise this that the town’s original name of La Nouvelle was changed.
I am writing this on a Tuesday in September. The town’s website gives the week’s menu for the restaurant scolaire. Today the children are eating feuillet� hot-dog, omelette with pomme saut�es, followed by fromage and mini roul� fraise. Sounds delicious. As does the brochette de poisson avec jeunes carottes � la cr�me coming up on Friday. Our two countries may only be separated by a narrow stretch of water but our cultures are oceans apart, n’est-ce pas?
You can find a rather pretty village house very close to the town centre – 76m�, two bedrooms, small courtyard, and not yet completely renovated – for €149,800, which is under €2,000/m�.
Or if you just want a ready-to-move-into pied-�-terre near the sea at Port-la-Nouvelle-Plage, a third-floor 30m� studio cabine with loggia comes furnished and priced at €55,000 (Agency Jany).
A few kilometres inland at Sigean, in the village centre, there’s a delightful 280m� semi-detached maison vigneronne on the market for a very reasonable €246,000 (your calculator will tell you that’s under €900/m�) – because it requires renovation. It has four bedrooms, open fire, leafy garden of 105m�, large garage and unspecified nombreuses possibilit�s.
At the other end of the scale, also in Sigean, what about 290m� of living space in an 18th-century south-west-facing seven-room renovated stone bergerie? The price is €787,000, which includes grounds of 8,100m� in a sheltered location, outbuildings and adjoining studio, with vue imprenable over les Corbi�res. The nombreuses possibilit�s have been identified here – ideal for g�tes or B&B. Oh, and it has an automated watering system (Agence Jany).
The sine qua non of Narbonnais life is the daily Midi Libre; the local wines are Coteaux du Languedoc between Narbonne and the sea, Minervois due west and Corbi�res to the south-west; the prevailing winds are many and strong – there’s the Mistral and Tramontane and then there’s the Cers, Marin, Autan… Look out for the words site prot�g� when looking for property. What you’re protected from are the winds.
Narbonne has, somewhat bizarrely, been twinned with Eccles, now a suburb of Salford, since 1957. So any Mancunians tempted to nip over to Narbonne will surely get a particularly warm welcome. Les Cl�s de la Ville! is an informative guide for the nouvel arrivant (providing the newcomer reads French); you’ll find it on the mairie’s website.
Readers who relish the idea of their children eating four-course meals at school may be considering a permanent move to the Narbonnais. The city is keen on promoting business tourism so there may be work opportunities there; conferences and seminars are coordinated by the central service Narbonne-Congr�s (see the mairie website for more details). The chamber of commerce and industry has a comprehensive website too (www.narbonne.cci.fr).
As I write, I am listening to the late, great Charles Trenet, the famous po�te musicien who was born in Narbonne. His house is now a small museum. La Mer, Que reste-t-il de nos amours? – never mind that they were written before I was born. It seems they are airs I have always known. One of his best-loved songs is entitled Y’a d’la joie. And this is indeed a joyous part of the world. Narbonne is indubitably the place to be – bar none.