By
Cecilia Díaz Betz

Surrealism has returned in the form of a historical-gastronomic-theatrical trip to the neighboring French city of Narbonne. The first Roman colony outside Italy in the year 118 a.C., today it has become a stage of worship, a place to indulge in hedonism, to escape the vertiginous urbanite life and to be overwhelmed by perplexity. The formula is simple and effective: lower the speed and enjoy mundane pleasures like eating, drinking, contemplation, laughing and resting. Don’t think we have gone mad and that this is an astral rather than a real journey. This appetizing kit includes “a deluxe bacchanal in an unusual place”, a place that is close and that won’t empty your wallet.

The first Roman colony outside Italy in the year 118 a.C., today it has become a stage of worship, a place to indulge in hedonism

To start in style, two good pieces of news: only two hours separate Barcelona from Narbonne and you won’t have to drive your car and deal with the GPS.  Renfe-SNCF  takes you there in a very comfortable fast train where you can relax and enjoy wonderful views of the marshland it crosses. Once there, you will discover that Narbonne is not a small and well-cared French town anymore. It has an excellent history of 2,500 years that is reflected in its streets, corners, bridge, canal, and monuments, especially its one-of-a-kind cathedral, and several museums. Ideal for people who like to walk and to learn history. Everything is flawless, the atmosphere and the climate are friendly and it has the rhythm of a small provincial town.

PLAN MONUMENTAL 2009

However, after so much walking and sightseeing one begins to wonder “where will all that surprising surrealism be hidden?” It’s mid-morning and your stomach is crying for an appetizer. The good thing is that one of Narbonne’s must-visits is the main market, a sort of a lively underworld with lots of food and drinks, an ambiance worthy of study. A retired rugby player, an odd Mickey Rourke clone and a gastronomic lover runs one of the most famous bars in the county. It pays to taste delicacies such as horse meat steak tartar that will make you cry, to be washed down with rosé wine produced by himself. In the meantime, you will hear him order ingredients to other stalls in the market via megaphone and see how they are delivered in no time by being launched at him with dazzling precision. This is indeed a perfect to whet your appetite and also to be amazed.

A retired rugby player, an odd Mickey Rourke clone and a gastronomic lover runs one of the most famous bars in the county

The visit to the market leaves you with a pleasant feeling in your body and your soul. It is the ideal anteroom to the city’s great hidden secret: Les Grands Buffets -now your face is the living image of the perplexity and we know it, but don’t be alarmed beforehand and let’s go step by step. We say “secret” and “hidden” because this restaurant is located on the outskirts of Narbonne, in an unpretentious spot, tucked inside a leisure and sports center, with an incomprehensible pyramid at the entrance that emulates the Louvre’s. When you get there, your heart will be in your boots and you will feel as if someone has just slapped you in the face while having a laugh. However, that rosé you had in the market comes to the rescue and unleashes your sense of humor to turn the grotesque into a kitsch piece worthy of study (yes, we already have two theses on Narbonne). When the intoxicating effects begin to disappear, you enter this place et Voilà! Your eyes will see a flamboyant and elegant hallucination in the 30’s style, with all kinds of details, light and color, as well as many and varied dishes exquisitely presented. Oh! And a scale! Welcome to Les Grand Buffets.

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One of the largest buffets in Europe (it has different rooms, and outdoor are with a garden and capacity for 500 diners), it takes guests on a long culinary journey through the French gastronomic tradition with top-quality products, accompanied by a spectacular wine selection that you can in its entirety by the glass, as well as the largest variety of cheeses in the country, 70 to be exact. A priori, everything is excellent; however, the main reason that makes Les Grands Buffets a must-go at least once in a lifetime is the almost theatrical experience it offers. To give you a clearer idea, if Willy Wonka had set up a buffet rather than a chocolate factory, it would certainly be Les Grands Buffete.

If Willy Wonka had set up a buffet rather than a chocolate factory, it would certainly be Les Grands Buffete

As in the tale, this is also the work of an extravagant ideologue, the project’s mentor Louis Privat. A Dalinian character who makes sure nothing is missing here and that every detail has been taken care of. Excellence and innovate on are two key words that define this project. So in favour of this unusual restaurant we must say that, despite our mostly deplorable idea we have about free buffets, this one has been the great exception in 25 years. This eccentric project makes you feel like an early-20th-century bourgeois. However, you can eat as much as you want for only € 32.90.

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This culinary journey takes travelers to all the key stops in French gastronomy. La Mer serves Gruissan oysters, mussels, prawns, horns, smoked salmon and other delicatessen. La Rostissérie, a panoramic grill where dishes are cooked to order and to the diner’s taste, ranging from entrecots, tournedo, ribs, duck magret, lobster to a wide variety of omelets; The hit of Les Grands Buffete is La Fromage and its great variety of cheeses. And then comes La Pastissérie, which serves the great classics of French pastry – more than 100 varieties – accompanied by a chocolate fountain. Add to all this a wide range of cooked dishes such as stews, vegetables, meats and fish and the large buffet of foie gras.

The hit of Les Grands Buffete is La Fromage and its great variety of cheeses

There’s so much food you’d better go slowly to make room in your stomach for as much food as possible and to avoid turning your visit into baroque tragicomedy. A good idea to get distracted is to enjoy the art hanging everywhere (even in the kitchen!). Then you can have a siesta on the train back to Barcelona with a stomach full of delicacies. The perfect end to this surrealist culinary trip!