Montpellier, Our Trial Balloon
February 6, 2014 – February 17, 2014
Sitting in Orlando International Airport we are waiting to board the first-leg flight of our visit to southern France to check out the place(s) where we will want to begin of our long-term adventure. Our destination is Montpellier where we have a beautiful apartment waiting for us to base our ten-day, short-term visit.
Of course, this adventure is beginning a little rough as Jeannie has come down with a minor cold. Just some congestion and a runny nose, nothing that a handful of decongestants won’t hurt. And we hope she’ll sleep the entire flight.
Our thoughts on the destination and duration of the long-term stay are constantly changing. Flexibility is key. As in any research, when you find the answer to one question, ten more appear. Whether it be visas and taxes, or the desirability of locations, we are finding lots of conflicting as well as confirming information. The brain fills quickly.
That being said, we are still undecided as to where we will “land” when we make the big leap. Up until now the “soft” target has been Montpellier, but some interesting and positive recommendations have diverted our attentions. So, we will likely make a trip to Aix-en-Provence which is considerably smaller than Montpellier, yet has a university which is a feature that we desire. It’s about a two hour train and bus trip from Montpellier, and just close enough and just far enough from Marseilles.
As we made our way across the Atlanta airport to the gate for the second leg of our trip, to Paris we noticed that the departure time had been changed from 3:30 to 5:30. This impacted our connecting flight to Montpellier. However, as it turns out, the delay was caused by very strong winds in Europe affecting all flights, and they expect there to be no problem with the connection … just two hours delay (at least).
Nous sommes arrivés …
(We have arrived …)
After a tiresome, bumpy series of flights, we arrived in Montpellier very close to schedule, and Aurore, the property manager, was waiting at the apartment for us … what a sweetheart. She showed us all the essentials, though some were lost in translation. Then she walked us to the ATM for the remainder of the rent and deposit.The apartment is beautiful. Fresh yellow roses on the table and champagne in the fridge, we’re just a little too exhausted to really take it all in at the moment. A short nap is next on the list. Then shopping for the essentials and dinner out.
Le premier jour
(The first day)
We were exhausted after our air travels, arrival in Montpellier, getting settled into the apartment, and several miles of walking about the old section of the city. I made a side walk to the “Monoprix” store around 1:00 for some kitchen items while Jeannie continued to recover from her cold.
I love trying to get lost in places like this. It reminds me of being in graduate school. I’d be in the science library and when I’d get tired of studying, I’d go to the stacks and roam the shelves. Randomly pulling a book down I’d sit on the floor and read. I found some of the most interesting things that way. In the same way I love to wander very old towns. While I may not understand all I see, it so fascinating. It also helps me set my internal compass.
Returning to the apartment with the necessary items in hand, we ate some bread and cheese while listening to Debussy. Outside the sun was breaking out of the clouds as the patrons of the cafe across from our apartment sat at their tables under the trees sipping coffee.
As the afternoon became early evening (about 5:00) our appetites began to return and we dressed and began moving toward the small restaurant on the corner. Restaurants here don’t even think of opening for dinner until 7:00 or 7:30, and if they are open it is primarily for serving coffee or cocktails … not meals. We weren’t going to make it until then, we were tired.
Walking to an area where we might get some decent take-away we remembered Les Halles Castellane, an ancient market now located in a modern building. Composed of a number of local vendors selling fresh, mostly locally-produced foods from flowers to cheeses to vegetables to seafood, including several who have prepared dishes for take-away. We stopped by one vendor to whom I admitted my lack of French language skills, and he also admitted his lack of English (though his abilities were in fact quite good). We had a good discussion and got a bottle of locally produced wine and a delicious meal that we took back to the apartment, warmed and consumed with delight.
And then we slept the sleep of weary travelers …
Torture, c’est de la torture!
(Torture, it is torture)
Those who know me know I have a bad habit, shopping! I have been going thru a gradual withdrawal over the last 8 years, since I left the professional, high-pay, high-stress IT life. And now that we are downsizing, I avoid the temptation to buy things since everything must soon be either sold, given away, put in storage, or fit in one suitcase (size still being debated). So it makes no sense to continue to accumulate.
So how did we time our visit to France to coincide with the first of two annual, government-approved sale events across the country? Every storefront displays banners with large letters declaring “SOLDES”, which means “SALE”. Everywhere I turn the stores scream at me to shop. I can save 30%, 50%, even 70% on really great stuff!
And to add insult to injury, today we walked thru the Polygone (Montpellier’s large shopping mall). But it’s Sunday and all stores are closed!! Buying bread, cheese, and lavender honey does not satisfy the urge to shop!
So my daily mantra must be, just say NO to the soldes. Well, maybe a scarf or pair of earrings, if I promise to bring it with me when we start our nomadic life. Or who do I know with a summer birthday that might benefit from a moment of weakness in Montpellier in February?
Now here’s what my daily torture looks like!
And while Jeannie window-shops …
The term in France for window shopping is lèche-vitrine—literally, “licking the windows”. While she is doing that I make photographs … enjoy.
Un jour de pluie …
(A day of rain …)
Weathermen and meteorologists. You really don’t trust them, but you consult them all the time. Plans are made or not based on their prognostications. But (in Florida at least) they are wrong SO often, AND they keep their jobs. Well, here in southern France The weather forecasts have been similar. The rain chances for say Monday are 100% early in the week, one day later they are 10% then 100% then 100%, the next day until Sunday the rain chances return to 100%.
The forecast was for all of Monday to be a washout. Indeed it did rain, but lightly and only briefly in the morning. We were prepared for a day inside. Besides, a rainy day would have been good for visiting art galleries and museums, but in France they are all closed on Mondays. So what are we to do? We’ll bundle up in rain gear, grab the umbrella and go for a walk.
But first, before the rain began, we got up early to walk about 90 m to the local pâtisserie to buy croissants to go with our morning coffee. Fresh, local croissants are like nothing else you can eat, and in France, well … enough said.
The rain then began, but didn’t last long, and we had a delightful day. We negotiated the trams, traveling out to the suburbs and back. Shopped for some grocery staples, ate crepes for lunch, again stopped by Les Halles Castellane for some homemade soup and fresh vegetables for dinner.
After returning to the apartment to put the foods away, we read for a while with a cup of tea, and then walked the short distance to St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica (the first stones having been laid in 1364). Wandering about for a while longer, we picked up a fresh baguette to go with our dinner. … Yum.
The goal of this trip has been different from any other we have taken before. The singular question is “Could we or would we want to live here, or someplace like it, like this?” It is more difficult than we imagined, yet our enthusiasm hasn’t waned, even though the exercise is challenging. For instance, living in a very small apartment, compared to our very large home will require adjustments that will likely not surface during this first foray into such realities.
On the up side, a full cleaning of the apartment should take only 30 minutes rather than a full day. Shopping for food will be much different, rather than the trip to Costco where we might buy a months worth of pork chops and a mega-sized box of raisin bran, we will likely buy one or two day’s meals at a time. Besides, the freezer is the size of a shoe box, and other storage is just as limiting.
Cooking will be more simple due to a smaller kitchen, a tiny oven/stove, and we won’t have the variety of condiments we normally have in the cupboard and fridge. The ready-made, but not “industrial”, just-reheat options from the local markets can make things even easier. While not quite as economical as scratch cooking, it is still much less expensive than eating out. Depending on how often we relocate, there will be a set of expenses for settling into a new place.
It is nice on this trip to not feel rushed. We don’t have to see every museum and attraction in Montpellier this trip. Even if we don’t return here, we will have experienced enough to have enjoyed this city in a fashion unlike before. Since this is not a large tourist destination, the crowds of people we see each day are mostly locals and students.
Today’s images are a few general shots and impressions from two extremes of life here. The very ethnic Tuesday market in Mosson with its distinct sights and flavors to the neo-modern Greek style architecture of the upscale Antigone business and residence area.
We went to Aix-en-Provence via train for an overnight visit. Lots to share later …
From Here to There …
One of the priorities we want to embrace when we return to our long-term travels is that we don’t want the expense or hassles of having an automobile. The remaining options are bus, tram, train, and walking. Though there is a bike sharing program in Montpellier, right now it’s too cold, and when the weather is warmer they will likely be heavily used by students.
We’ve negotiated trams and trains. One day we took the tram to the end of the line just to get the lay of the land and to see just how big Montpellier is. It is pretty big.
Walking is our preferred mode of getting around. Jeannie wears a pedometer and has been recording 6-12 miles each day. It is a small price to pay for the delicious meals we have been enjoying.
Initially, a lot of our time is spent wandering – “Not all who wander are lost.” JRR Tolkein. The ancient streets and alleys are convoluted and meander to and fro with seemingly no organization. A map is essential, though sometimes hardly better than an abstract scribble. However, serendipity often leads us to treasures at most every turn.
We returned “home” late last night from an overnight visit to Aix-en-Provence a beautiful town about one-half hours train north of Marseilles (which is about two hours from Montpellier). Aix-en-Provence is much smaller than Montpellier but much more touristy, and quite a bit more expensive.
The staff at our small hotel, Hotel Globe, was most helpful in recommending a pair of small out of the mainstream restaurants. Each was small, friendly, filled with locals and both served exceptional meals.
Restaurants generally NEVER open before 8:00pm, so we were forced to walk elsewhere to have drinks while we waited. Though it was cold, we decided to sit outside at a busy bar as it was very loud inside and we were bundled up anyway. The near-full moon was high in the evening sky as we sipped our drinks.
Once the hour approached, we made our way through the quiet cobbled streets to the Restaurant Charlotte. When we had stopped by the restaurant earlier, it was not apparent that it was still in business. Shuttered windows, closed doors and situated on an empty, dark alley-like street it gave little appearance of what we would later experience.
We returned still a few minutes early and briefly waited outside of the now well lit little place. Moving out of the cold we entered the friendly but empty space and waited. We saw no staff, though all appeared ready for the evening’s servings.
At the start, it was just Jeannie and I, and a party of three who obviously knew the owner and staff. But within ten minutes the place filled with others all of whom also seemed to know everyone else. Over the course of the evening we not only had an outstanding meal and wine, but engaged in a conversation with a delightful couple and their friend sitting nearby. We likely would have never have found this little gem on our own, and even then may not have waited so late to eat were it not for the advice of our hotel staff. I am certain that our efforts to speak French and expressions of our desire to be adventurous led to the recommendations that we so enjoyed.
Images are impressions of Aix-en-Provence
No oysters yet …
“It’s easy to get the feeling that you know the language just because when you order a beer they don’t bring you oysters…” Julia Childs
First of all let me state for the record that I find French to be a beautiful language. Hearing it spoken is like listening to Dedbussy or Ravel. It is melodic and it is expressive. The brief exchange between two friends or between a shopkeeper and a customer is like a song, … but I don’t know the words.
I am not good at speaking or understanding the French language. My most used phrase is:
“J’ai ne parle pas Francais, parle vous un peu Englais?”
Which I think means:
“I do not speak French, do you speak a little English”
They generally reply saying that they do not speak much English but when they try, they proceed to be rather fluent and I instantly forget all French vocabulary that I know. So, we speak English.
This works, but does not help me learn the language.
The other end of the spectrum is when I DO know how to say something, i.e. I have studied diligently and memorized a phrase:
“Ou sont les escalliers pour Mont Saint Claire”
Which I think means:
“Where are the stairs for Mont Saint Claire”
My pronunciation is perfect, the grammar is good, and the … well it works perfectly. It is obvious that they understand and they reply quickly and in long eloquent passages accompanied by demonstrative hand gestures. I, on the other hand, am thinking “Huh?” But, I reply:
“Tres bein, Merci beaucoup”
In reality all I really understood was the demonstrative hand gestures. And I have enjoyed listening.
In my defense, I did ask the same question of three different people, and understood little but the demonstrative hand gestures. We tried and they tried.
We did not find the stairs to Mont Saint Claire.
There is much studying to do, though I must admit that my language skills have improved markedly in the past 10 days, just don’t ask the French.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Just a few images from our walks (11 miles total for the day) about Montpellier.
To the Sea …
Having successfully negotiated the train to Aix-en-Provence just a day or two ago, we wanted to get a good view of the Mediterranean, and decided to go a bit further afield than the local beaches that are only a few kilometers away. Sete had been recommended by several people during our stay, and since it was a short distance away, it would make for a good day trip.
We arrived by train early in the morning after a 30 minute ride from Montpellier. The coastal area is flat, varying from marshes to farm land, including many vineyards growing grapes in the sandy soils. There are small, isolated “mountains” scattered here and there, and one of them belongs to Sete.
Sete is a working port town. It isn’t charming because it wants to attract tourists, it is charming because of its unpretentious nature. Situated at the southern terminus of the 150 mile long Canal du Midi, the 17th century waterway that connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It is situated on and around Mont Saint Claire between the Mediterranean and the saltwater lagoon Étang de Thau. Numerous canals run through the town connecting the two bodies of water, earning it the nickname of the Venice of Languedoc.
Strolling toward the Centre Ville or City center, we meandered our way along the colorful boat-filled canals lined with shops, cafes, apartments and hotels. Stopping by the tourist information center we gathered maps, brochures, and information from the friendly attendant.
At an out of the way little place recommended by the tourist office, we enjoyed a great, fresh seafood lunch(we specifically ask for small, local, non-tourist) and weren’t disappointed. Jeannie had a plate of large gambas or shrimp that were closer to small lobster size and were grilled to perfection. I threw caution to the wind and got the seafood combination plate that consisted of razor clams, mussels, grilled shrimps (smaller than Jeannie’s), and a half-dozen of crabs each one no more than two inches across. Added to that we got sides of grilled peppers and lettuce and frites or french fried potatoes (not the best we’ve had). Otherwise everything was delicious.
The weather was gray and overcast, and after walking along the gray and unsettled Mediterranean our next goal was to hike to the top of Mont Saint Claire for what were supposed to be great views of the city, port and lagoon. You’ll have to read the account in a previous post of what transpired because of our (lack of) language skills. Suffice it to say that the gray, overcast weather wasn’t the only reason we didn’t go to the top.
We spent the remainder of our time in Sete roaming the streets and alleys and made lots of photos to share with you.
Mission Accomplished …
When we first selected Montpellier as the starting point for our nomadic life, I assumed we would likely see it after we’d sold our house, put things in storage, and booked our one way ticket. But then Chris suggested that we should probably check it out just to get a taste of life there, to determine if it would work for us. Having just returned from 10 days in an apartment there, our decision is a resounding “Oui”!
This was a different stay in Europe than we’ve had before. We didn’t power through the various museums, historical sights, and restaurants reviewed by Trip Advisor. Each day we wandered different parts of the city, explored the heart, and rode the tram to some of the farther reaches. We sat in cafes, sipping coffee and watched the bustle of people going to work, school, and doing the day’s shopping. Of course we only scratched the surface, but we were satisfied with what we saw … the good and the bad.
Most of our meals came from the local market. Les Halles Castellane, around the corner from our apartment, featured a dozen or so local vendors selling meats, produce, fruits, vegetables, cheese, pastries and bread. Freshly prepared ready-to-eat dishes from some of the vendors were an easy option, and though our cooking was minimal, the food was as fresh and flavorful as though we’d prepared it ourselves or even as good as we might find in a restaurant.
After several days without TV, we located some entertainment on the internet and enjoyed dialogue that we could understand. And while our ability with the French language improved minimally, we could usually communicate. We will have to do better next time.
We also traveled by train to two other towns, and found this to be an easy way to see more of the country without the expense and distraction of driving a car.
While there are many details to work out and tasks to be completed, we know that our direction is good.
Full steam ahead!