Whenever I head to a new city, my first port of call is always to find the best viewpoint of the place. After all, there’s no better way to get a good idea of a city’s layout than to glimpse a bird’s eye perspective from above. And when it came to my recent travels to Narbonne, a former French town which was once vital to wine trade during the Roman era, my plans were no different. Here’s a quick guide to visiting the Donjon Gilles Aycelin and where you’ll find the best view of Narbonne!
First commissioned in 1295, completion of the square Narbonne tower wasn’t completed until over a decade later in 1306. The project was presided over by Archbishop of the time Gilles Aycelin and the structure once sat opposite from the Viscount’s Tower, a middle ages building which was destroyed in 1939.
Today, the Donjon Gilles Aycelin (Giles Aycelin Tower) sits at a grand total of 42 metres high and offers breathtaking views of Narbonne and the surrounding countryside. Think lots of vineyards and plenty of sun! Scaling Narbonne’s tower is easily one of the best things to do in Narbonne, and that’s saying something considering the city’s many small museums and little winding lanes!
Where to Find the Best View of Narbonne: Donjon Gilles Aycelin
Should you wish to see the best view of Narbonne for yourself, you’ll have to purchase a ticket from the front desk, which is located just steps away from the Roman ruins in the main town square. Elsewhere in the heart of Narbonne, there’s a pretty waterway, lots of meandering pathways, as well as the traditional shuttered houses you’d expect to see in the south of France.
Once upon a time, Narbonne was a thriving Roman fishing port, trading with other towns throughout the Mediterranean, much like the nearby coastal town of Cassis. However, during the past two centuries, silt and sediment has built up to such an extent that the sea now lies some 15 km from the city centre. During antiquity, one of the most important roads of the Roman Empire, the Via Domitia, also passed through Narbonne.
After buying your ticket, you’ll wander through a series of displays about Christianity in the south of France, with particular reference to the dissemination of knowledge in the Middle Ages. From the 5th Century right up to the 15th/16th Centuries (and the invention of the printing press) the Church was in control of most of the histories which were recorded and the knowledge which the general population would have access to on a day-to-day basis.
Then, head through a narrow passageway and duck under a small stone archway. Then, a spiralling staircase of 60+ steps will whisk you up the tower towards its very summit. Along the way, there’s the chance to see a fully fortified watchtower room. Once at the top of the Donjon, you’ll be rewarded with picturesque views of the Narbonne Cathedral. Or, more accurately, the part of it which was actually built!
Narbonne Cathedral: An uncompleted Gothic Choir in the Heart of Occitanie
In actual fact, only the choir of Narbonne Cathedral was ever built. Dedicated to Saint Justus and Saint Pastor (Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur), construction of the cathedral began in 1272. While the ecclesiastical building may be in the heart of Narbonne today, during the middle ages it was built right next to the city wall. However, by 1332 the choir was finally finished and it was decided that… that was it!
No more of the cathedral was to be constructed. Time constraints, changing fortunes in the finances (and importance) of Narbonne and the realisation that to complete the cathedral were all factors in why the structure was never completed. Today, the nave of the church reaches to a height of 40 plus metres and is supposed to evoke images of the great cathedral in the North of France.
Elsewhere in the cathedral, the treasury holds all sorts of special items; including a middle ages manuscript and a particularly finely carved piece of ivory. For a more in-depth look at Narbonne, including strolling along the river and experiencing more of the city’s history and other ecclesiastical buildings, check out my free and self-guided Narbonne walking tour.