The main square of Narbonne is quite small, with Roman ruins in its centre. On the square and to its north-west side are found the main historical edifices of the city – the Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral St Juste.
Despite its enormous size, we stumbled into the cathedral by accident. We were lost in some back streets when we heard the bells going at a quarter to six (that common hour for bell ringing) and, a park with benches being nearby, we stopped to listen to have a listen. They rang out for several minutes, reaching a peak and then slowing down, down, til it was one bell per 5 seconds, 10, 15 seconds… and then nothing. Silence.
We discovered then that we were directly behind the cathedral. We walked round a corner and stepped into the Choir.
I stopped dead.
I am no architecture aficionado, but I do like cathedrals, particularly Gothic ones. This was like no cathedral I’d ever seen. Where was the nave? Where were the aisles? Where was the transept?? Five astonishing chapels radiate out from the altar, but other than that nothing was as it should be. It’s like the builders forgot what they were doing and stopped half way.
And that, it turns out, is almost exactly what did happen. Halfway through construction, the city councillors decided that they didn’t want to knock down the ancient Roman wall, which was necessary to complete the building. Years of litigation followed, then came the Black Death, some raids from a nasty prince, and finally someone stuck up a wall at the end of the finished bit and said, ‘That’s it. Job’s done.’
If you stand in front of the cathedral, you can see this quite clearly. The massive central pillars which should have held up the structure are still in place, showing exactly where that missing nave would have been. There are two lonely chapels, starting and ending nowhere in the empty yard. The aisles that the chapels should have been attached to do not exist – and never will.