If France is synonymous with one thing, it’s food. From garlic to baguettes, and from luxurious wines to scrumptious ciders, the gastronomy industry in l’Hexagon could not be more integral to the country’s life, culture, and tourism industry. So, if you want to get a literal taste of the real France, then you should consider a visit to ‘Les Halles’ (covered marketplace) of any French city. Here’s what it was like to visit a traditional covered food market in France!
Visiting a traditional covered food market in France
While on my solo trip in the South of France, I spent a magical night in Narbonne, a city first founded by the Romans some two millennia ago. Though it was once a port city (each settlement along the Mediterranean specialised in a specific industry; i.e. wine, ceramics, etc), silt and sand have built up in the River Aude over the centuries to the extent that Narbonne now lies some 15 km from the sea.
And so, if you were hoping for a beach holiday, then I highly recommend looking elsewhere! A little further down the coast (less than a half hour train ride to be precise) the working fishing town of Sète is characterised by its nearby oyster fields, while the coastal towns of Provence (i.e. Cassis, Marseille, La Ciotat) are always worth a visit, and perhaps even a stay.
Furthermore, while little of the Roman roots of Narbonne remain to this day (if you do want a glimpse of antiquity, then check out the former grain store ‘Roman Horreum’ in the centre of the city, or a slice of the Via Domitia just outside the city’s cathedral), there remains plenty of interesting attractions in Narbonne to enjoy.
Highlights of the city include it’s semi-complete cloisters turned cathedral, proximity to the Canal du Midi, as well as its food hall. Known as ‘Les Halles,’ my host at the Hôtel du France assured me that if there was one thing I must do in Narbonne, it would be to take a lunchtime trip to the covered food market. Which, he assured me, was among one of the most authentic, as well as the best bien sûr, in all of France!
Les Halles de Narbonne
Literally translated as ‘the halls’, Les Halles of Narbonne lie alongside the picture perfect Canal de la Robine, an offshoot of the Canal du Midi which is stylised by its covered bridges featuring merchant houses, as well as the countless floral display which line its two banks.
While I’m not a meat-eater (I’m a proud vegetarian of over a decade), I recognise that for most people, the draw of a food market lies in its meat and seafood-inspired sections (or so my family and boyfriend try and assure me!) Wander inside Les Halles of Narbonne and you can expect to find dozens of food stalls ranging from freshly caught fish from the nearby Mediterranean to all kinds of local wines, olives, and other fruits and vegetables.
The fresh food market is open on a daily basis between 7 AM and 1 PM (though operating hours may vary during National Holidays) and comprises of over seventy food stalls. Local and authentic merchants sell all sorts of things including patisseries, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, delicatessens, and wine merchants.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, then it’s also possible to dine within the halls at one of the main four restaurants. While in my hotel, the owner explained to me that many of the bars and bistros within Les Halles cook everything fresh. As in, you’ll order your food and fresh produce will be thrown over from all the relevant stalls, straight to where they’re cooking your meal- right in front of your eyes!
A brief history of Les Halles de Narbonne
If you’re in search of an authentic and fresh food market in the Languedoc, then Narbonne is the city to visit. The market itself was first opened in 1901 and at least one of the stalls has been in continuous operation (and run by the same family) since Les Halles was first opened to the public all those years ago!
The idea for creating a pavilion within the heart of the city was first decided upon in the mid-1800s, though construction work did not begin until around 1898 due to financial and logistical reasons. Agreement to build a covered pavilion was only agreed in 1894, several decades after the idea was first proposed. Several centuries prior to this, the Narbonne cathedral was also never completed for similar reasons!