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Day 13: Narbonne

When I previously lived in France my friend Nico once drove the pair of us all the way to Narbonne and then all the way back. That was a round trip of over 300km late one Saturday night. I'm not sure what the point of this was and I doubt that many could beat that for spontaneity, but it at least put the idea in my head of a place to visit all these years later, now that we had some free days. And so we decided to visit the beach of Narbonne. Our day would be a disaster.

Narbonne's a lovely little town, with the Canal de la Robine running straight through the centre of it.


There were plenty of Roman remains visible from the days when it was the crossroads of the Via Domitia (the first Roman road in France, connecting Italy and Spain) and the Via Aquitania.


We stopped for lunch, which was probably the most memorable one on the entire holiday. Unfortunately, this wasn't for a good reason; there was a cockroach in Clare's spaghetti carbonara. The cook was extremely distressed and apologetic. I think we ended up getting our food free. He was also desperate for us to help ourselves to the digestif, but I can't handle any form of spirit, the legacy of trying to impress a girl at 16 by drinking everything she proffered from her parents' drinks cabinet, with entirely predictable results and a lifelong aversion to licquor.

Still, we'd come all the way to Narbonne to see the beach and that's what we resolved to do. My map indicated an arrow pointing off the bottom of the town plan marked "Narbonne plage". I couldn't see it signposted anywhere though, so we popped into the tourist information office to ask for confirmation of the directions.

The lady behind the counter indicated the route on her larger map. Bear in mind that it was clear that I was a tourist and extremely unlikely that I was travelling by car. How do I know the lady knew I wasn't a local, much as I might like to pretend that my French is indistinguishable from the locals'? Well, not only did I look like a tourist courtesy of my backpack, but she also asked me for my nationality so that she could record it. Anyway, the point to bear in mind is that she confirmed on her larger map the direction to follow to head to the beach.

We found out through five hours of walking, never daring at any point to turn back because "it can't be much further", that Narbonne doesn't have a beach. There is a place called Narbonne beach but it's not part of Narbonne, which lies 15km inland.

Good grief, what an experience that was. We walked along dusty and winding roads, saw forests and rocky outcrops (which I tried to scale to see where the beach lay), and even headed into wine country. It wasn't until four hours into the expedition that we finally espied the beach. And even then it took a further hour to arrive at it.

We knew we were in trouble as soon as we found a bus timetable and realised that we'd missed the last one of the day. The French tend to take the whole month of August off, which meant that we were extremely unlikely to find accommodation. So concerned were we about what we were going to do that we didn't even dip our toes into the Mediterranean, Clare's first time there, for fear that the five minutes spent doing it might cost us a taxi.

Our attempts to find a hotel room proved just as fruitless as we would have hoped and we were fast running out of time as the sun faded. I remember pointing out to Clare that we could buy a beach towel from one of the stalls and bed down on the beach. She wasn't as relaxed about this as I was, and so we had no qualms about trying to book a tent for the night as soon as we saw a campsite. Unfortunately, they don't work like that; you have to have your own tent or caravan. We really were in trouble.

Our saviour arrived in the form of the camp attendant, to whom we explained our problems. He was quite understanding about our inability to grasp that Narbonne and the beach named after it could be a five-hour walk apart. He called a taxi for us and it dropped us off at the train station in Narbonne.

Of course, we didn't have tickets for the train. Ours had departed several hours before, which meant that we were looking at a hefty fine should the conductor on our sparsely filled train spot the error. Here came the conductor. I elected to tell him the truth rather than getting caught out, backing up the story with our pedometer (showing the 30km we'd walked that day), the photos we'd taken and, crucially, my destroyed feet, which looked like hovercrafts, given the amount of swelling on the sole. He was a nice man and let us off the fine.

We arrived at the railway station and the longest part of the day was about to start; the ten-minute walk back to our hotel became an agonising experience for me as my shredded feet, aware that the end was in sight, gave up after over six hours of walking that day.

Although we'd have liked to have an easy day afterwards we couldn't do, since we'd already bought the tickets to Foix. We'd just have to cope, and rue the idiot who thought it acceptable to name a beach after a town that's 15 or 16km away.

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