I am a bit preoccupied by grey noise: the droning of urban life that those of us who live in cities just accept. We rarely register it as our minds have adapted to block it out so we don’t go mad, but all that effort of blocking it out has a negative effect on our mental health. This is one of the many reasons I love The Folly, and one of the reasons I really liked Montpellier too.
The wonderful mix of medieval buildings, winding streets and street cafes mean that it is impossible to drive around the centre of the city, and a great tram network means that most people seem to use public transport to get around. The result is a wonderful calmness and an atmosphere built of gentle chatting & laughing, glasses clinking, bicycles creaking, the working waiters of the town’s thousands of restaurants & cafes or just silence. Bloody marvellous
One of the first things we needed to do was find a laundry. Readers of my old blog will know that traveling is often about pants. You can only carry so much stuff and whilst you may be able to live with a smelly shirt for a day or two, clean pants are a non negotiable and we have spent hours wandering around South American towns trying to find laundries in the past.
We struck gold in Montpellier. A self service laundry just around the corner from our Airbnb, with a bar directly opposite and the two were close enough to still allow access to the free wifi that came with the washing. The bar was a bit of a ‘local place for local people’ and was imaginatively called Bar Place. At 6pm on a Thursday it was pretty full of boisterous people, playing table football and dropping things. Tattoos were in. I rather liked the place. We sat outside, watching the world go by, drinking rose and trying not to scream like a kitten when a hornet showed too much interest in my glass. It reminded me a little of the Unity in Balmain, but with more women. You could even bing your own takeaway food there, just like the Unity. I decided to christen it the ‘ne’er-do-well bar’ and we went back reasonably often.
Wandering around Montpellier is a real pleasure. Around every corner there are surprises, be they huge old churches that you can’t see until you are on top of them, shady, café lined squares, lovely architecture, interesting street art or colourful bunting. Outside the medieval city there are wide boulevards, huge squares and some parks, and I will mention the lack of parks a little later.
Wandering only takes you so far though, and on day two of no real plan we realised that a plan was needed if we weren’t going to kill each other. Initially we had just wanted to start the trip. Then we wanted to get a bit of a plan re where we were going to go, when and book some stuff. Our realisation was that when you get to the place you were going, we needed a plan of what we were going to do once there. As Jodie points out, at least 28 times a day, this last bit is easier with a Lonely Planet.
The first thing we did was a happy accident. On the Friday evening, Montpellier was having a bit of a festival, with food, wine and entertainment in one of the gardens. We like food, and we love wine.
It was a perfect evening. It was busy, without being so busy that we had to queue for more than a minute or so to get stuff or too busy to fill up all the seats on the long shared tables. The crowd was a great cross-section of France: young & old, on all parts of the wealth spectrum, families and singles and from all parts of the world. They were merry without being drunk and everyone played nicely. Perhaps the 10 or so very alert infantrymen, in combat body armour, carrying assault rifles with helmets clipped to their belts is a reminder that not all is well, but the size and good nature of the crowd is a reminder that those who conduct the acts of violence that lead to this presence are a tiny minority of the population.
The band was pretty good too, playing French crowd pleasers that people could chant along too, and encouraging people to dance. Jodie observed the clear difference between the enthusiasm of women and men to let it all go and have a good boogie, especially if women are of a certain age. The women danced like they have just had their ability to walk restored after a lengthy paralysis and want to repeatedly check that all their joints worked in all directions, even if some of those joints were old enough to wear out soon. For the men………… well, the recovery from the paralysis was far from complete. Perhaps only one leg has recovered, or just one foot. Except for the gay guys. Thank god for the gay guys.
We made a great scoff discovery too. The local specialty (agliote) is a thing that is basically mashed potatoes and cheese (and sausage if you are not a veggie). It is a great way to soak up the great Rose wine.
A huge thunderstorm stopped play at about midnight, which was perhaps a good thing as we were at the ‘one more bottle of wine for the road’ part of the evening………../morning.
The next day we went to the medieval town of Saint Guilem Le Desert. It was a bit of a last minute thing as both of us had lost a day somehow, so we had packed up one Airbnb were trying to coordinate handing over the keys and get to the next one when we realised we were there another day. Call it a dress rehearsal.
Getting to Saint Guilem involves a tram to the edge of town, then a bus to the village. The 308 bus we jumped on was pretty much exclusively full of 16-25 year old males, with ‘youth hair’ and leisure wear. We/ I assumed that they would make make a right old racket on the bus, and would be reluctantly studying an old town for a school thing, but hair does not maketh the man, and besides the need to share overly elaborate handshakes with each other, they were barely noticeable and all jumped off a few stops before the village to throw themselves off rocks into a river.
I mentioned in the last blog that smart phones make life easier. On this day we had ‘tinternet’ issues so I was at a high state of anxiety for the whole trip, concerned that we would miss our stop and end up in some deserted village waiting a day for the next bus. At one stage, as we went down a small road in a steep valley into seemingly nowhere, my concern was high enough to consider that the village didn’t exist at all and we would spend a day in the baking heat starring at a ruin. How quickly we become lost without all our gadgets.
Luckily I was wrong and we ended up in a spectacular little village which made Montpellier look like a bustling, modern metropolis. In the heart of the village is an old church next to a small but lively square. Parts of the church date back to the 5th century and it is a solid, huge lump that made me marvel at the skill of those that built it. However one feels about religion, it is hard not to be hugely impressed by the buildings that are likely to be their legacy even after the world has moved on from religion.
J and I started the off with a lovely lunch in a restaurant with a shady terrace overlooking the ravine. They had a real thing for salad, and whilst I settled for the menu de jour of spaghetti, J had a Brie and potato salad. Not exactly nil calories but with the potential to be healthy. What J got was a slightly less healthy complete wheel of baked cheese, with lightly roasted potatoes and about 2 lettuce leaves. That really is my kind of diet. I tried to out do that with my desert. A tiramisu that was essentially cream and booze.
Sant Guilem Le Desert
Next on the doing things agenda was a bit of free jazz. There is a beautiful old Château on the edge of Montpellier that is set in 24ha of grounds and at this time of year has a free Jazz concert from 10pm each night, with a warm up act from 8.30. We had an interesting journey getting there, getting off the tram at the main entrance, walking most of the way through the gardens before discovering you couldn’t get to the concert that way (which explains why we were alone), backtracking out, then walking along the hard shoulder of a busy road to get the the amphitheater entrance, all the while I was thanking my lucky stars that it was J and not I that had planned this.
We spent an hour or so eating snacks and drinking a bottle of cava bought on our trip to Sant Saduri D’anoia, sitting on long shared tables with jazz lovers. We were a little younger than most people and didn’t have either cardigans, hats or facial hair so stuck out a bit. The warm up band came on fashionably late and after about 15 minutes we realised that they were not still tuning their instruments and had actually started. We had a couple of minutes of heated discussion before we agreed on this and after another 30 mins realised something else: we don’t really like jazz. Funky, Dixyland, dance your ass off Jazz we love, but cardigan, hat and facial hair jazz, the stuff of the Fast Shows ‘Jazz Club’ sketches will probably always be beyond us, or at least this side of dementia it will be. We gave the main act a miss.
The last big excursion tok us to to Carcassonne, 90 mins by fast train to the west. We chose the destination through the power of Instagram. J had put out a call to our city or sticks followers asking for suggestions for a day trip, and Carcassonne won. We were expecting a quiet town on a Monday but instead had another happy accident: the Tour Du France was in town. The riders were having a day off (lazy buggers) but there was a local produce market, a fan area and street bands as part of the event. At the market we discovered a lovely local fortified wine called Carthagne which in hindsight we should of got more of. The bottle we brought only lasted a couple of days.
The highlight of the day was a tour around the old medieval citadel on the hill above the new city. Around since the third century, a real visionary in 1850 decided it should be preserved and in places restored. The result is complete walls, an amazingly preserved cathedral and shop filled streets. It seemed like somewhere only possible when recreated for films, but with Nutella crepes and cold beer. Despite being so old, the council had taken the bold step to allow a modern artist to add a temporary installation which was yellow tape on the walls that from nearly every angle looked random but from one spot are perfect huge concentric circles. Incredible skill and vision. See photo.
Before we left, we brought from the market a chilled bottle of rose, some bread, meat and cheese then sat by the canal watching the world go by until our return train. The spot we chose may also have been close to the railway line, and a busy road, and the locals may have been looking at us like I look at people having picnics in lay-byes on the A1, but it was a pretty perfect way to end the day.
Running in Montpellier was rather good too. It was flat. I managed to get back in the swing of things and am pretty much on track of the trading schedule, pushing out a 29km run to the beach and back as my long run of the week. I have a blister or two and maybe loosing a toenail but I think that has as much to do with heaps of walking and the 34k steps I did in boots on the day of the Winterfest street party as it does with the running.
The only downside to being physical in Montpellier is the lack of green space near the centre of town and the fear that the disproportionate amount of dogs to green leads to very well fertilised grass, so not the best place to exercise.
All in all, Montpellier is well worth a visit if you get the chance.
Next stop: Avignon and a three day wander by car to Troyes via Dijon.