Montpellier. We arrive early in the morning. Most of the city is still fast asleep. The street cleaners are washing the smooth, cream-colored stretches of marble of the centre-ville, and a lone cafe worker alternates between pulling espresso shots for the recent train arrivals and unstacking the towers of wicker chairs that by noontime will serve as perches for the large flocks of people that settle down on the Place de la Comedie. It is hard to believe that all of those cafe tables will be occupied in a few hours, but it's true. Sort of a daily miracle. It is not sunny like in the photograph at right.
For now, the mood is so still, it's almost sad. I don't know that we arrived expecting official fanfare and city celebration on our behalf. But there is something slightly disappointing about arriving too early for holidays in France. The shops are still closed, their security screens pulled down like a blanket over the sleepy eyes of an ornery teenager who insists on sleeping in.
But there's also something exciting about this quiet. It's a void that still waits to be spoken into. It's kind of like the early, dark hours on Christmas morning, when my brother and I used to sit around the Christmas tree and enjoy the quiet anticipation of gifts and smiles and coffee and Christmas breakfast.
I digress. But we had a lot to think and talk about while we waited for the Tourist Office (and everything else) to open at ten o'clock. Our hotel room was not ready yet, either - but the kind lady did allow us to leave our luggage in the storage room, and before we left to explore, we caught a glimpse and a whiff of the breakfast being served. We were not particularly hungry, having already succumbed to the heady smell of baked pain au chocolat. There is a sandwich shop near the train station with a little pastry oven turning tasty morsels that would tempt me on my way to class when I was here eight years ago. The aroma still makes me weak.
Feeling light and free, we try not to notice the grey skies, and poke our way through the ups and downs of the cobblestones in the oldest part of town. The narrow passageways are rather unoccupied at the moment, but crawling with history. The Faculty of Medicine is one of the oldest universities in Europe (est. 1180), is where Nostradamus and Rabelais studied. We circled around a tower reaching straight up out of nowhere in a calm square. The Tour des Pins, one of the two surviving towers from the original city wall. - we learn later that there used to be twenty-five. History is hard on things. For Nostradamus, the future was hard on things. Apparently, he climbed these very steps, and declared that the destruction of the city would occur when the two imposing pine trees nearby died. When they did, in fact, die shortly thereafter, the city quickly replanted pines, which are still there to this day. I guess it worked, because Montpellier exists, but my, has it changed!
We also let our eyes run over the impressive Couvent des Ursulines, the 14-century Cathedrale de St-Pierre, and the Aqueduct of St.-Clement, and finally settled down next to a courtyard for some delicious Italian food. (Notice in the photo a shop that is called "Lud 'M" - we couldn't stop laughing at the ressemblance to Lud and Em, our brother and sister-in-law!) With full stomachs, our bodies suddenly started groaning under the punishment of night trains and early mornings. We somehow wrapped both sets of long limbs around one green park bench near the Esplanade and took a snooze.
"C'est une petite chambre que j'aime bien". (It's a little room that I like so very much.) This was what the owner of the B&B said when I had made the reservation the week before. You know when hotel proprietors speak of their rooms with such tenderness, that it's probably going to turn out okay. It was in fact a jewel of a place, full of charm, decent prices, and extremely clean. We decided that this bed was much more comfortable than a park bench.
The crowning experiences of this trip were the gastronomic ones. The first evening, we found an amazing little French place called "Le Boeuf Agile". Small operation, lots of love. They wove us an evening of wild mushrooms, frog legs, grilled fish freshly-caught that morning, a delicate white wine from the nearby Cevennes, and two desserts to finish off the ordeal. The price? 32 euros. Gasp. This was half the price of Paris. It was going to be an excellent weekend.
Still hungry for the sun they always talk about in the Sud, we sought our fortunes in the nearby fishing town of Sete. Bingo! It was still a cool November day, but delightfully warm in the faithful sunshine. We strolled along the little canals that crisscross the city, vaguely reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice. Around lunchtime, we bellied up to a portside restaurant and didn't leave until a couple of hours later. A boat of mussels, prawns, oysters, and whelks (escargot of the sea) pulled into our table, along with a bottle of chill vin rose. These flavours, the salty air, and the sun will remain indelibly fixed on my memory.
Which is a good thing, since I absentmindedly left our camera on the beach a few hours later. Crazy with the sight of the sea, I had decided to go for a gasp-inducing dip in the water which was a perfect turquoise blue. As were my lips when I emerged ten minutes later grinning from ear to ear to rejoin my husband, who had stood on the rock and laughed at me the whole time. Why didn't we think to take a picture? Might've remember the camera. Oh well, like I said. Good memories (almost) make up for it.
Later, we climbed to the top of the city and saw lights to the left and an eerie ocean spread out to the right, where the moonlight would glint from time to time. Captivating. So much so that we lose track of the time, and miss the train. How to get back to Montpellier? Tired, hungry, cold, we reviewed the options over and over. My Goretex jacket wasn't quite sexy enough to stop a motorist, so hitchhiking wasn't really going to work.
One taxi ride later. Gee, appreciating beauty can get rather expensive.
The remainder of our days were devoted to exploring Montpellier a bit more, and Avignon on the way back to Paris. Yes, we walked across the bridge of Avignon, where "they're all dancing, they're all dancing," though bridge dancers are harder to come by in the chilly winter months. Thankfully, so are tourists, so we had many of the sites to explore uncrowded.
I love the South. But there's something about coming back to Paris that is always so inviting. A place I know. A home of sorts.
N.B. The photos I owe to Google Image search and our previous quick stop in this city last summer. It just seemed like a forlorn post without some color.