The Via Domitia was constructed in 118 BC around the same time the first Roman colony in Gaul, Colonia Narbo Martius (Narbonne) was founded. The Via Domitia connected Italy and modern day Spain. The road crossed the Alps by the Col de Montgenèvre, followed the valley of the Durance, crossed the Rhône at Beaucaire passed through Nîmes and headed for Narbonne, where it met the Via Aquitania (which led toward the Atlantic Ocean through Toulouse and Bordeaux).

Narbonne had soon become a crucial strategic crossroads of the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania, an important place in the Roman Empire. After their sack of Rome in 410 AD, the Visigoths made Narbonne their capital. In 711, Muslims came to Spain from North Africa and in 720 the Saracens occupied La Septimanie, as Narbonne was known in the ancient Visigoth Provence.

In June 732 Sultan Abd el-Rahman conquered Bordeaux, laid siege to Poitiers and marched on Tours. In October 732, The Sultan was defeated and killed by Charles Martel’s Frankish Army at Moussais-la-Bataille (Vienne), 20 km from Poitiers (the Frank’s heavy cavalry wiped out the Saracen’s light cavalry). This didn’t stop the Narbonnaise Saracens attacking Provence and the Rhone valley from 732 to 739. In 739, the son of Charles Martel, Pepin, and Liutprand, king of the Lombards, crushed the Saracens at Marseille and threw them out of Narbonne. The Saracens remained in the south of France until 983 when Guillaume, Count of Provence, captured the Saracen stronghold of la Garde-Freinet.

Narbonne remained relatively peaceful and prosperous until the 14th Century when a change in the course of the River Aude combined with the plague and the effects of the Hundred Years War led to a decline in the city’s economic situation. Today, the city is once again an important transport hub where thousands of people, including me, change trains from the Barcelona – Montpellier line to the Narbonne – Bordeaux line. TGVs serve both lines.

The place to head is the Archbishop’s Palace, or Palais des Archeveques, in the centre of the city where evidence of the Via Domitia have been found. The Palace’s architectural period ranges over 700 years right up to the 19th Century Hotel de Ville built by Viollet-le-Duc, the man responsible for the reconstruction of Carcassonne. When I visited, the courtyards and some of the rooms of the Palace were being used for photographic exhibitions as Euro 2016 was on and there were pictures of previous European championships as well as images of girl’s football teams from around the world. In another courtyard a series of pictures depicted the great era for Narbonne Rugby Club, when the Spanghero brothers were playing for the team. There were similar sports photographic exhibitions by the Canal de la Robine, again in the open air. In Narbonne, they were expecting it not to rain and that no vandals would cause problems, both of which say a lot about the city in the height of summer.

The archaeological museum in the Palais Neuf at the Palais des Archeveques has one of the finest collections of Roman paintings anywhere in the world. They mainly came from the archaeological site of Clos de la Lombardia to the north of the city where they adorned the homes of the wealthy.

Some of the paintings come from the House of the Genius. This dwelling covered 975 square meters, and the living quarters were open to a garden surrounded by porticos. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion were covered with mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius who is carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath. The most amazing fact is these paintings are still in existence given, in the fourth century, the house had a basilica built on top of it.

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker