Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #5 Part Two: Be Wary of Locals Advice

I have a passion for architecture, especially buildings that are not the usual tourist hot spot.  When I was in Tuscany, I experienced a bad case of grand cathedral overload.  There are so many lovely churches in the wonderful medieval towns that my eyes couldn’t take in any more spectacular detail after the 30th church.  So I’m well aware of how locals can become complacent about the beautiful architecture they walk by everyday. So when I ask a local if they know of a fabulous historic building, sometimes their eye’s glaze over.

Case in point, my trip to the city of Narbone in the south of France. It’s a delightful place with the stunning midi canal running through the center of town. The city dates back to Roman times and even has the remnants of a Roman stone road in the main square. The buildings that line the square are from the medieval era including a large cathedral that peaks out from behind several imposing government buildings. 

I took an ancient architecture class in college so I love when I see elements I studied in class.  The cathedrals upper level is supported by a series of flying buttresses. Now, I’m used to seeing the impressive buttresses at ground level, like at Notre Dame, but this was the first time I had seen them so high up on a building. I thought the cathedral must be very special. Unfortunately, I had plans to see some of Narbone’s other wonderful attractions so the church wasn’t on my sight seeing list. Besides the grand churches of Paris had once again given me cathedral overload.

After going to the fabulous market and having a yummy lunch with a view of the canal, I told my friend I wanted to do a bit of shopping.  Who knew Narbone would be filled with so many incredible knock offs of the fashion I had seen in Paris but couldn‘t afford?  After we filled our bags full, we had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with our friends. The sight of the flying buttresses still haunted me. So I decided to ask a local if it was worth rushing over to see the cathedral since we had some time.  

I approached an older woman carrying almost as many bags as we had. In my broken French I said, “The church by the square. Is it beautiful?”

She looked at the shopping bags filled with clothes and souvenirs our American cover was blown. In a heavily accented English she said, “The cathedral is very old but simple. Not very nice.”

How could a place with such an elaborate buttress system be simple? “Really. It looks quite large and impressive from the square.”

She wrinkled her nose. “No. Not worth your time. Do more shopping!”

And with that pronouncement she marched off toward the market to do just that. I looked at my friend. “Something in my gut tells me we should go take a peak.”

She gave me a smile. “My empty wallet agrees with you.” 

We speed walked up the street to the cathedral. My jaw dropped the second I caught a glimpse of the impressive height of the façade.  “Wow, no wonder they need buttresses on the top. This church is ridiculously tall. My neck hurts trying to find the roof.”

The entrance to the cathedral was quite plain as the woman said, but when I walked through the impressive doors, the shear grandeur and volume of the space was overwhelming. One hundred and thirty feet of vaulted majesty accented by enormous stain glass windows. Although the cathedral didn’t have the cache' of it’s larger sisters like Norte Dame, standing in the nave gave me goosebumps.

I turned to my friend. “This place is simple? What the heck was that woman talking about? They must put something in the water.”    

Moral of the story, always follow Fish Out of Water Rule#5, Be Wary of Advice From Locals.  You might miss out on a spectacular architectural wonder. Besides your wallet will thank you.


  1. Yeah, it's easy to be blase when you walk past something fabulous every day. Kinda like when I lived in NYC, I would knock gawking tourists over in Times Square when I was rushing to an audition!

  2. That cathedral looks amazing. Like, really amazing.

  3. Thanks for the mini-break, Anne! Sounds like a wonderful place to visit.

  4. I'll have to use this technique when I'm in France. Thanks, Anne.