The coast of Languedoc, with resort towns and wide sandy beaches strung alongside each other like beads on a glittering necklace, is breathtaking. From Cap d’Agde, a holiday apartment city, south to Vias with its camping, then across the Aude estuary to St. Pierre and Narbonne Plage, with their markets and holiday shops full of buckets, spades and plastic sandals, then south past Gruissan with its ancient Barbarossa tower, one is truly spoilt for choice.
Next along the necklace is Port la Nouvelle, and here comes something quite different.
The Canal de la Robine, coming across the étang and then flowing out to sea, cuts the town in half. The majority of the southern half (but by no means all!) is dedicated to its career as a holiday resort and doing very well. I love the variety of restaurants to suit all tastes.
Try the Tequila Bar with its huge head of a Red Indian outside. The bar overlooks the sea and is decorated with a strange mixture of esoteric, Mexican, Egyptian and modern statues, plus a varied menu to suit all tastes and prices. In the evening the joint fairly hums with young people.
For the more sedate among us, the Hotel Mediterranée a bit further along offers special lunch menus of Parisian hotelstyle cooking for about 15€ each, with pink linen serviettes and comfortable armchairs. There is a beautiful beach (banned to dogs) with lifeguards, there are funfairs and restaurants, and a huge place near the sea where markets are held in the day and rockbands play on summer nights. Just by the jetty – you can walk out to the lighthouse overlooking the sea from where you can see Canigou – is the huge Tourist office and there you can find leaflets and publications about much more than holiday apartments. Your explorations take on a new bite!
You might like to visit the church, Notre Dame de Bon Voyage. It has some interesting stained glass windows, showing fishermen with haloes hauling in their catch, while one of the altars is a boat! The church was built when the commune was created in 1844 (before then it was part of Sigean) and completely renovated in 2007.
The bank along the Canal de la Robine (called at Port La Nouvelle “La Chenal”) used to be a fisherman’s port, and still today, even if a market is being held, you can buy fish at seven in the morning fresh off the boats. You can go into the café across the road and see pictures on the wall of life in this village in the 1920’s and 1930’s and drink pastis with the fishermen at eight in the monring. The same family have owned the place for generations. Then refreshed, you can wander outside and watch all the boats coming up La Chenal – Russian rusty hulks, lifeboats, fishing boats, Morroccan traders, tankers, from all over the Med. There’s also a “port de plaisance” for privately owned sailing boats.
On the northern side of La Chenal is a large industrial port, and I love its workaday atmosphere. You can drive through it and see all the warehouses and petrol stations along the road. One of the biggest products of Port la Nouvelle is flour, left over from the days where grain from the Lauragais came to Truilhas, near Sallèles d’Aude, to be ground into flour, which was then exported through this International port – the second largest on the French Mediterranean coast.
When you reach the end of the road through the port, you will see a parking for tankers on the right, and after that, a beach where are often campervans and dogs, for it is not regulated like the town beaches. It is wild and open, the seabirds cry.
You can drive along it northwards towards Gruissan, and indeed you could, in the summer, go all the way to Gruissan, except for the little inlet, only four feet deep and about five metres across, where the water goes in and out between the étang and the sea. And here comes your first surprise; after about five kilometres, there are the ruins of buildings here, Roman remains have been found, and this miniport or hamlet is called; “La Vielle Nouvelle.”
This is strange, as Port la Nouvelle is called Port la Nouvelle, and everybody thinks it means “New Port.” The truth is that the word “nouvelle” was a derivative of an Occitan expression, novas bellas, which translates into French as nouez les voiles, meaning tie up your sails before you enter the étang; and so there was the old nouvelle and the new nouvelle.
The original port was an entrance into the étang that existed in Roman times and until the 20 place with a lot of atmosphere; to park up, and take a barbecue and some sardines out of the back of your vehicle, and eat the roast fish, and drink the local wine, while the wind blows and the sun burns – this is an experience wild and yet eternal.
In Roman days the whole of today’s “étang de Bages et Sigean” was one huge port where the boats unloaded at La Nautique, or Port Mahon (near Sigean) or Bages, or Ste. Lucie. Thus we are entering a whole new area of history and geography associated with Port la Nouvelle which is quite distinct from the holiday village aspect.
For the local fishermen, life in the étang was the whole of their existence and if we look at the étang instead of the holiday village, a whole panorama of life, everyday life, of the fishermen, opens up. They lived by the tides, by the fish, by the climate.
Not far from La Vielle Nouvelle is the island of La Nadiére. It is tiny, 50m by 100m, and yet before the last World War, a whole community there lived throughout the year, whatever the weather, with no fresh water (they went by boat to Sainte Lucie to get it) and just a few neighbours, and their lives revolved around fishing and the weather.
La Nadière was abandoned in 1939; and yet to visit is an emotional experience giving us an insight into life as it was “yesteryear.” There are still remains of a wooden causeway across the water to the marshes to the south of Ile de Sainte Lucie. The water, as it has for 2000 years, is getting more shallow every year. With some 30 small houses,La Nadière really needs a millionaire, or a local council, to buy La Nadiere as it is today the island and rebuild it. However, it is classified as a monument historique . . .
Near Port La Nouvelle is another island – Sainte Lucie. It is a nature reserve – dogs, cars and smoking are banned – and you can walk to it from the station at Port la Nouvelle. Truly back to nature, you are expected to stay on the path but with all vehicles banned, except for pushbikes on the canal towpath, it has an unspoiled, peaceful atmosphere. You can can cycle beside the canal from Port la Nouvelle to Narbonne – quite an experience.
Equally wonderfully, you can take the peniche, moored up between the passerelle and the Pont des Marchands over the canal at Narbonne, and make a day trip of it, with chicken and chips on board and a guide on the island telling you its history.
The island is heavily protected, but unique, with rare plants and birds. In Roman days it was called Cauchêne and there was a port and a monastery there, dedicated to St. Martin, an early Roman saint, built on the ruins of a Roman villa. It was protected by Louis 1 Charlemagne. A ninth century document describing it still exists. At low water can be seen the remains of a Roman aqueduct that took fresh water from Narbonne across the étang to the island, and the Canal de la Robine now follows the longest side of Ste Lucie to join La Chenal at Port La Nouvelle.
From the northern end of Sainte Lucie you can see the Ile de l’Aute, which sheltered the Roman port of Port Mahon, which served Sigean. The Roman pillars that marked the entrance to the port are still there at low tide. All these small ports and islands were on the Etang de Bages- Sigean, at the northern end of which was La Nautique, which served Narbonne. It is true to say that the whole étang was once a port, with smaller stopping off places for all the large boats that came into this vast sheltered natural harbour, with Mediterranean produce on board but prepared to pick up local produce on the way.
Now all that remains still in use commercially is Port La Nouvelle . . . it was founded in 1743, at the place where the Canal de la Robine met the sea, a triumph of haudraulic engineering at the time.
When you visit this “holiday town with cement works” you are merely scratching the surface of 2000 years of history and you will want to spend much more than a day’s visit there.