Melle & Sherry go to France, May 16-24, 2008

Sherry’s fine coverage of our trip begins here. Based on experience, I can tell you to read one or the other — mine or hers. Don’t bother with both, because the differences between them will be minuscule. I haven’t even checked and I would bet money that at least one or two of the day titles are identical. 🙂

While I enjoy travelling very much, I do not enjoy the “getting there” or “getting home” portions at all. It especially doesn’t help that I am really not very good at sleeping on planes (though I have learned that trains rock me to sleep like a baby).

Photo collection for France (all sets)

May 16-17: “We’re in France.”

Carcassonne photoset

Our flight over was uneventful, and, being overnight, afforded us some darkness to attempt sleep. And, opposed to our hopes, they did not play Juno as the movie. Arrived at Dusseldorf airport bright and early… well, not so bright. It was dark and misty and pouring rain. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go out in it. The airport there isn’t terribly large, and it was under construction, so things to see and do were minimal. Plus, it was before 7am.

The highlight of the layover was sitting in the lounge, enjoying a coffee, when “Die Murraysie” came in. (It’s a long, Mennonite story to explain what that means, specifically, so I won’t bother.) Basically, six guys who, to a one, fit into the category of My Dad, walked in together, settled at a table, and proceeded to chat, read papers, or get snacks. It was awesome. Especially when one of them opened his newspaper to a photo of a very scantily-clad hottie. Heh.

The connecting flight to Toulouse was miserable. We were exhausted, hungry, and congested, it was a small and not terribly comfortable plane, and there were several families on board with many small children… of varying levels of loudness, engaged-ness, and contentment.Carcassonne: Jesus statue in alcove

Sun was out in Toulouse, and the weather remained gorgeous for our entire stay. Very grateful for that. Toulouse airport was also fairly small, but quite modern, and with awesome features like touch-screen computers in the play area to keep kids entertained.

We bussed across town to the train station, so what we saw of Toulouse was on that jaunt. Pretty city, certainly, and similar to the towns and cities we did spend time in. Heard good reviews of it from other travellers we spoke with as well.

At the train station, we developed a hypothesis as to the black arts behind train ticket buying, schedule watching/waiting, ticket validating, and platform boarding. It was the first of many French curiosities to which we applied our formidable brain power over the course of the week.

Train ride to Carcassonne seemed to take about four minutes, with Sherry conking out almost immediately, and me trying desperately not to so we wouldn’t miss our stop. Arrived mid-afternoon, and had a rather warm, though not terribly arduous trek through La Basse Ville (the low city) to the hotel, HĂ´tel du Pont Vieux, which was just over the bridge on the approach to the old city. The Pont Vieux (old bridge) is the main pedestrian artery between the old city and the low city. There is, to its left, a vehicular traffic bridge over the River Aude as well.

Carcassonne: view at night from the hotel terraceThe hotel was quaint and had a lovely garden and amazing view of the old city from the third floor terrace. (The location of my utterance of “We’re in France” the first night while leaning on the wall and gazing off at the view of the dramatically lit ramparts in the distance.) The proprietress of the hotel spoke the most beautiful French, and there were fun quirks like the ability to buy local vin du pays (“country wine” — produced by local vineyards, and really, really good), relishes, soups, etc. on site, and a deeply disturbing vending machine from which you could buy things like lasagna and paella.

Since we wanted to acclimatize to the time zone as quickly as possible, we decided to stay on the move after unloading and freshening up at the hotel. So, having been up over 24 hours at this point, we went on a bit of a goose chase trying to find the tourist office. (French mystery #2: any spot on a map, especially tourist offices, won’t be where it says it is, but it will be somewhere within a couple of blocks.) After that adventure, we climbed the hill to the old city for a look-see. Hell, we even took a near-vertical shortcut up the path… just cuz.

It was a beautiful Saturday, so of course the place was pretty busy. That said, it still wasn’t the kind of tourist hell you’d expect in North America. I suspect, too, that related to it being still relatively early in the season.

The picture snapping started before we even got to the hotel, of course, and continued apace from the moment we climbed the hill to the old city. I mean, really, a girl doesn’t come face to face with Roman era towers and a real, live moat every day. We got the lay of the land inside the old city (charmingly, the area where you enter is uphill, and cobbled, just what you need in our condition — thank goodness it wasn’t wet, that would have been killer) then headed back to the hotel for a bit of a nap. This would, of course, become a daily ritual. (Never a problem sleeping at night despite daily afternoon naps. I suspect it had something to do with the fresh air, considerable walking and stair-climbing, and amounts of wine consumed…)Carcassonne: detail of column capital

After our nap it was time for dinner, and we took the tourist office lady’s advice and checked out a supposed local wine and music festival in the basse ville. Didn’t find the music, and that first dinner was not one of our finest, however, we were introduced to Minervois wines, of which we have become BIG fans. We also met a pair of American gents who were near the end of a three-week adventure, which, at least in part, involved one’s business of hunting down Old Masters and generally being a bit of an art world Indiana Jones.

Had a great time swapping stories, us about the dot-com and them about the tech boom in the 80s. We left them with a fine impression of Canadian dames. They thought we were smart, sassy, and definitely firecrackers. I concur. Anyway, Ron and Rob, wherever you are, you were great fun. 🙂

After dinner we headed back to the hotel, enjoyed the terrace at night for a bit, then went to bed to embrace the sweet oblivion of sleep that you’ve been waiting 36 hours for.

May 18: Stress testing my camera’s memory card.

Woke up the next morning on our usual at-home schedule like clockwork. Splendid. There was no shortage of things to see, so good to get at it early. We breakfasted at the hotel, where there was a breakfast nook with vittles of champions: eggs, sausage, cheese, strange cereals, etc. And why can’t we have coffee machines that make coffee that tastes like that? Honestly.

Breakfast was presided over by a very bustling maid type, who got pretty flustered that we managed to feed ourselves without the apparently prerequisite tour of the breakfast room. But then she chilled and we ate croissants and all was well.

After breakfast we trekked up the hill once again to tackle the city properly. Gloriously, because it was early (pre-9am on a Sunday), the place was pretty much deserted for an hour or two. Got some great pictures that, blessedly, did NOT have some random tourist in them.

We toured the chateau, and did quite well with the commentary, even though it was in French (the English tour wasn’t til mid-afternoon). Actually, I was impressed in general with how well we did in French, particularly speaking it. Of course, the myth that if you attempt French the French will have mercy on you and switch to English was just that — a myth. In reality the French will parse what you just said and continue to prattle on, even faster, still in French.

Carcassonne: Cathedral, Latin inscriptionThe chateau’s oldest sections date back to Roman times, and their most noticeable feature is their red brick accents. Then there are middle ages additions and other additions and repairs, leading up to the 19th century overhaul (the place was a crumbling ruin by then) spearheaded by Viollet-le-duc, who, I gathered, was pretty influential around France for a long time. Thanks to him the restorations aren’t terribly historically accurate, but the place looks wonderful, so I doubt too many people care.

Sherry quite enjoyed the questions asked by one elderly gent, who was, presumably, a retired history teacher or the like, since he was asking all the questions she’d have asked if she could speak French quickly enough. The elderly man’s wife looked like she was used to it. I bet she thinks his conspiratorial geek side totally rocks. 🙂

We also perused pretty much every jewelry store in a square mile, which was a lot, this being tourist schwag and artsy artisan central. In the afternoon I bought earrings for Mom, and Sherry bought earrings and a ring for herself.

Carcassonne: view from outside the wallsFor lunch we went classic, at Maison du Cassoulet. The cassoulet is a peasant’s bean stew featuring white beans, pork, duck (usually a leg), and pork sausage. Flavoured with fat. Hideous amounts of fat, which any sane person bundles with the duck skin and sets aside. The meal was accompanied by “Welcome Salad” and lovely rustic bread. Mom is giving me her bean pot (which was, coincidentally, completely unrelated), so this winter I plan to use a Mexican bean pot to whip up a Canadian Mennonite adaptation of a traditional southern French dish. (The secret? Potato sausage. Aww, yeah.)

Oh, and we drank a whole bottle of wine at lunch — the decadence! — and had possibly the best homemade ice cream in Christendom.

After lunch we checked out the torture museum, which wasn’t worth the 7 euros. I was already familiar with most of the features, and, let’s face it, there’s a chastity belt-load of misogyny in the history of torture. (Supposedly it was less to keep women from philandering whilst their hubbies were off Crusading, and more to keep the misses and missuses from getting raped should the homestead be invaded while the menfolk were away. So there you go.)

Carcassonne: Aude RiverAfter finishing our tour and photography of the old city, we wandered through the cemetery located just outside the walls. Unfortunately not from the middle ages, the oldest graves only went back to the 1800s. Very different cultural and burials than here. The space we would use for one grave was the space for a family crypt, which held generations. And adornment. Lordy. Plaques and photos and thank yous and mementos and flowers (real, plastic, and ceramic).

After the cemetery we headed back down the hill and wandered along the river for a bit, then figured, as we were starting to fade, that we’d better wrap up our site seeing and errands before nap time. We wandered past the cathedral in the low city (St. Michel, I believe), but it was closed for renovations and kids were using the main doors as a soccer goal. It was interesting to see that the cathedral was clearly very old, and the city had grown up around it. We saw this repeated in a number of other places as well.

In conjunction with what we’d learned at the tourist office, we headed up to the train station to check schedules, which, unfortunately, confirmed that trying to get to Rennes-le-Château would be a bit of a nightmare, and we’d get to hang out all of half an hour. Or, like, 12 hours, most of that time while it was closed. Scratched. So we decided to check out Limoux instead, even though the guidebook wasn’t terribly flattering about the place.

For dinner we were up to the old city and dined in the main cafe square. We were introduced to French pizza, which is wood fired and thin crust and quite wonderful. I had the four-cheese, and they don’t mess around… Mozzarella, Emmental, Roquefort (!), and chevre. It was basically a lake of cheese. We had a Corbières wine, which, while still good, was a bit light for our taste and didn’t touch our love of the Minervois.

After dinner we wandered around and took a few more photos of the old city at night (lovely), then headed back to the hotel to bed.

May 19: Too cool for Limoux.

Alet Les Bains photoset

Our first day venturing afield, and it started off somewhat confusingly, starting when our train to Limoux turned out to be a bus. Fortunately the horde of children heading in the direction we were going to catch the coach were not getting on as well.

Some lovely scenery on the way, with vineyards and scads of poppies in the ditches and fields, and getting into the Pyrenees foothills. The guidebook, unfortunately, was right about Limoux. Kinda reminded me of Hespeler Road in Cambridge, just French and a lot older. So, being the adaptive dames we are, we bought additional tickets at the bus stop when we reached Limoux and joined a group of ladies who were on their way to Quillan. We stopped off at Alet Les Bains.

The bus stop for the town appears to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but nearby is a bridge, which, like everything else, has been in service for centuries, over the River Orb, and connecting the town to the main road.

Alet Les Bains: abbey ruinsAlet Les Bains has been around since the Roman era, when it became popular for its reportedly therapeutic springs. A good portion of the town is still in pretty mint medieval condition, and even the “new” church is a Romanesque/Gothic mixture. Because the town’s fairly off the beaten track, things have been left pretty authentic. Of course, it being a Monday, all of it was closed.

We headed to the tourist office, which was run by the Comic Book Store Guy, and who, alas, was heading out to Carcassonne for the afternoon. But, since we were such nice Irish/Dutch/English Canadian girls, he gave us the keys to let ourselves into the abbey ruins, and gave us 20 minutes. Woohoo! Yes, someone gave Sherry keys to a church. And she didn’t even burst into blames.

The abbey, like so many, had been destroyed in the Wars of Religion. You can still see scorching on some of the stone. Gorgeous ruins, and fascinating spots where some carving was almost entirely destroyed, whereas nearby there would be some that looked like it was done yesterday.

Alet Les Bains: view of the village from the hillAfter returning the keys to our host, we wandered through the narrow streets, many of which would barely fit a fat horse (everything’s a “rue” in France…). We saw a number of lovely medieval buildings around the main square (now, like everywhere else, a “Place de la Republique”), including the former Consuls’ house, seminary, and a house where Nostradamus reputedly lived. Old doors in spades for Sherry.

We hiked up the hill at the edge of town to check out some more ruins, and ran into a group from Devonshire, accompanied by their Jack Russell, Barney. We had an impromptu lunch while enjoying the view (the mountains pretty much ring the town). Thank goodness for an orange and granola bars, since there was one restaurant in town, and, of course, it was closed. After we hiked down, we checked out the former merchants’ houses (12th century) across from the school and the “new” church and cemetery.

We also found a public washroom in the park, which, being in the Asian style, was a bit… challenging. But hey, travel is all about adventures! Across the road was the hot springs (enclosed in a modern building these days, and also closed), so no therapeutic bathing for us.

We headed back to the bus stop shortly after 2pm, and the rain arrived less than a minute after we got there. It was quite lovely, falling softly and making everything smell green and casting a mist over the mountains. We also made a new friend, an an elderly, mildly cantankerous, semi-toothless, and be-gin blossomed gent who thoroughly disliked rain, might have lived at the local campground, and who knew three English words that he pronounced like three other English words (cheese, smell, and shoes). We started teaching him a few other words, like “rain”, but then the bus arrived, blessedly, and whisked us back to Carcassonne with a conspiratorial look from the bus driver, who, we suspect, had met that gent before.

Alet Les Bains: garden poppies above a stone wallBack in Carcassonne, we picked up our train tickets for next day’s move to Narbonne, and dined up in the old city one last time. Enjoyed the people-watching immensely (men wear scarves in France almost as often as women do, and are perfectly comfortable with wearing hairbands and carrying man-purses), even spotted a Haliburton Dinner Jacket! A couple guys were walking around with eagles — some sort of bird show in the low city — as well.

Our restauranteur, who refused us Cathar wine and insisted on a Minervois (twist our rubber arm…), looked like a British soccer hooligan, except for his thoroughly gallic sneer. The bergère’s salad was, again, lovely. (Assorted greens and veggies with a side of melted rounds of chevre on toast.) We met a nice older couple from Texas, as well. Well, he was a native Texan, and she was originally from Bordeaux. Would have loved to have heard the story behind that union.

Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise, which had the consistency of a block fo fudge. Wonderful. During dinner there was a little rain, but we were under a big umbrella, so we just got to sit back and enjoy our coffee with it falling around us.

Early bed time that night, since we had a 6am wakeup to get our train on time.

May 20: Pizza Dog and crazy grandma’s house.

Narbonne photoset

My parents’ 41st anniversary — sent them an email on Sherry’s BlackBerry. Had an accidental wakeup call thanks to Andrew, when Sherry forgot to sign out of GTalk, and it started buzzing when he said hello. At 3:42am.

The train to Narbonne was a bit late (it was becoming a bit of a theme by then), but the trip was uneventful, though we’d been really dumb to don both our sweaters and coats before hoisting our backpacks and heading to the train station. So… sweaty… (When you’re indoors, the air coming in the window seems rather cooler than it actually is outside.)

We arriving in Narbonne to gale force winds, ever so much fun when you’re loaded down with luggage. Found the hotel without too much hassle (though we never did manage to find the tourist office). And, delightfully, they had no problem letting us have our room at 9am. Having only one small staircase to climb with backpacks on was a relief.

La RĂ©sidence is a lovely place, 18th century residence now converted to a 26-room hotel. Really high ceilings, marble, fabulous interior design, and, most importantly, water pressure in the shower that would impress elephants. One of the women working there spoke excellent English, and was terribly flattered/embarrassed when Sherry complimented her on it.

The hotel is located really close to the cathedral (St. Just and St. Pasteur), so we headed that way to start off, since the tourist office was nowhere to be found. Narbonne’s cathedral is in excellent condition, however, is a bit quirky since it was never finished. As they were expanding it, they realized they’d need to knock down the Roman-era fortification wall, and in the middle ages that was still kind of a handy thing to have. So they just… stopped. The front part of the cathedral, from the outside, just sorta looks like the tidiest and most geometric ruins you ever did see.

Narbonne: cathedral, nave and altarThe cloister was quiet and picturesque, with plenty of gargoyles. Very Gothic interior in the cathedral, with plenty of original art, sculpture, and carvings. From what you can still see of the original decoration, the place would have been painted up like a Marseilles whore in its day. Go religion!

The cathedral is part of a complex that includes the Archbishop’s palace, which is now, among other things, a museum and gallery. Both were extensive, if not necessarily spectacular. They’ve certainly excavated a LOT of Narbonne’s Roman history. (Don’t step on the floor mosaics.)

One rather surprising thing we saw more than once was the rather appalling condition of the buildings art and archaeological collections are housed in. Peeling paint, water damage, cracked plaster, mold. Umm, if these things are affecting the rooms, they’ll probably affect the collections sooner or later… Another favourite was a room filled with old paintings, which were displayed in full, direct sunlight. Right, cuz that won’t fade them or anything…

As was typical, everything was closed from 12-2pm for lunch, so we had a leisurely one ourselves with enormous but delicious pizzas and wine (Narbonnaise wine also not as good as Minervois). And we met… Pizza Dog! It’s not uncommon for cafes and the like over there to have a resident canine, and this one had a Jack Russell. Clearly his owner did not understand who was in charge, since every time he was hustled back inside, or set on top of a tree planter, or otherwise interfered with, he’d wait til his owner wasn’t paying attention, and off he’g go to survey his domain. He’d sniff around the cafe tables, or wander up the nearby alley to sniff smells and lick random cobbles, or attempt to have some sexy time with dogs who happened to be nearby.

As a side note about hours, in addition to everything being closed for lunch from 12-2pm, we also saw on plenty of occasions opening hours listed like “9-10am” and closing hours from “5-6pm”. Y’know, depends. Sherry said she was going to create meeting requests using these guidelines when we got home. 🙂

In the middle of the square where the cafe and palace complex are located, they’ve excavated down a few feet and have exposed a section of the Via Domitia, one of the main Roman roads that once traversed Gaul. It’s of interest to tourists, small children who like to run around the stairs leading to it, and teenagers who like to set themselves down for a good make-out session.

Narbonne: Horreum, bull's head carvingAfter lunch we had a look at Le Donjon, the medieval tower at the side of the palace complex. Nothing special, really, but a nice view of the city when I climbed to the top. Plenty of old graffiti, too, dating back centuries. Defacing monuments isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. 🙂 Interestingly, several of the tower rooms appear to be regularly used for meetings. Definite Stonecutters feel…

After we departed, we briefly checked out the Chapel of the Blue Penitents. (Once upon a time there were many Penitents, many blue, but some black, and white, and probably red and chartreuse, too. Really, the penitent part is the important bit.) While the building has an interesting history, dating back to the 12th century, in its current incarnation its appearance is the result of 18th century renovations, so it’s pretty boring, and fairly Rococo in style in the former altar area. Pretty dull. It was being used as a gallery, with the current exhibition by a guy who does gorgeous mixed media collages commemorating the Silk and Spice Roads.

Our next stop was the Horreum, a former underground Roman warehouse, which impressed me a lot more than I was expecting. Plus it was lovely and cool down there. Quite a big space, carved out of the rock with store rooms built with varying types of stonework. And really low archways. Since they’re not exactly sure what all was stored in there, there was a bit of everything, from modern wine barrels to original amphorae to pieces of sculpture and remnants of carving. Really interesting, and some pretty cool pictures, though I could have lived without the school tour coming through.

Narbonne: door!After that it was nap time, after which we checked out the guidebook’s comments on BĂ©ziers, which was our intended day trip location the next day. Later on we checked out the canal — mildly picturesque, but nothing special — which, to some degree, served as the “tracks” dividing the good and less good sides of town. Of course, some of the most recommended restaurants were on the “bad” side of the canal.

We also did a spot of shopping, successfully procuring snacks and scarves. For dinner that night, we took the hotelier’s advice and went to MĂ©li-MĂ©lo, a quirky place around the corner on the evocatively named “impasse du Lion d’Or”. We met a couple from Montreal, but declined to dine with them since, despite being very nice, the gent would have talked our ears clean off.

The place looked like an indoor garage sale or someone’s crazy grandma’s house. And, of course, everything was for sale. They specialized in cooking on an open grill, though how they managed to hoist the steak I got over it, I’ve no idea. The thing was longer than a large dinner fork, and 2-3 inches thick. The fat. Oy vey… Sherry had lamb. And we got a Minervois wine. Nom nom nom. Some not-drunk drunken conversation and very odd yet compelling pine-flavoured after dinner candies, and we were off to bed.

May 21: You can’t get there from here.

BĂ©ziers photoset

The day started blissfully, with a hot, high water pressure shower in a big, clean, well-lit bathroom. (Girly delight, dahlinks.) We were a bit concerned about the hotel’s included “continental breakfast”, since, really, we’ve all had less than robust experiences with those. The result wasn’t perfect, but not bad. (Better for me than Sherry since, while they didn’t have decaf, but I had lovely big pots of cafe au lait.) Carb-tastic, in any case, with only some cheese for protein.

The walk to the train station was considerably more enjoyable without the gale-force winds, and the weather was gorgeous — sunny and with an expected high of 25C. The train, as was standard by that point, was about 20 minutes late.

Our adventures in directions started pretty much as soon as we left the train station. We did manage to find all our monuments, but certainly not the first time. Our first fun was traversing the big public park across from the train station. It’s to commemorate war dead, and grotto-tastic, with stone “shells” and nymphs and sea gods and the like, among other statuary. And a mama duck with 13 bĂ©bĂ©s. 🙂

BĂ©ziers: cathedral, view from the squareSt. Nazaire was my first cathedral tower-climbing experience — about 50 steps from the main floor to the choir loft, and another 99 to the top of the tower. Gorgeous view, though. And, not surprisingly, plenty of graffiti on the stone railing, much of it centuries old.

The MusĂ©e des Beaux Arts was alright, innocuous mostly. Big feature on a local artist, of course (Raoul Guiraud). Looked like he spent his career trying to be other people — Renoir for a while, CĂ©zanne, Seurat…

We found the tourist office after walking past it a couple times, and by that point what we were most interested in finding was les toilettes. There happened to be a public one (of the self-cleaning after every visit variety) near the one square we traversed a few times, though I had to do some creative shopping at a nearby pharmacy to procure the necessary 40 cents.

We lunched along the main drag (Paul Riquet), and, amusingly, the waitresses had to cross a fairly busy street to wait their tables in the (rather elongated) square. Had curried fish, which was probably the blandest curry I’ve ever experienced. We also switched to the tourist office map, which, while bigger, didn’t turn out to be much more accurate.

BĂ©ziers: cemetery madonnaWe passed the church of St. Aphrodite (part of a block of buildings and chained shut), and meandered through a fairly sketchy area of town on the way to the old cemetery. BĂ©ziers was rather more multicultural than other places we’d been so far, and also clearly had less money to its name.

Cemetery was similar to what we’d been seeing — graves dating back to the early-to-mid 1800s, and new crypts interspersed with old. We even saw a handful of abandoned ones partially opened. Took a peek, but didn’t get too close — zombies and vampires, man, they’re out there.

On the way back to the centre of town we opted to avoid the sketchy area and took a main rue instead. We sat for a spell in the aforementioned toilettes-adjacent square and had a coffee, beside a woman who also enjoyed a coffee, with her Bedlington Terrier in her lap… (The cafe had an inquisitive resident border collie-esque dog, and the Terrier was VERY timid.) Bedlington Terriers? Weird ass lookin’ things.

The Roman amphitheatre is tour-able by appointment only, and so was closed when we were there. Interestingly, it appeared to be in the middle of a residential block. Interesting thing to have in your back yard… Had our fill of things to see and do with an hour or so still left before our train, so we chilled at the train station and did a spot of people-watching. Back to Narbonne for the evening, and while neither Sherry nor I were terribly big fans of BĂ©ziers, as Sherry said, in comparison to somewhere like Carcassonne, which we loved: “Guess which is the real France?”

BĂ©ziers: view of the River OrbWe dined in the square by the archbishop’s palace again, and the people-watching was exceptional. Plus we got to observe Pizza Dog for a good three hours. He did not disappoint, especially when a women spent some time in the area with her two Newfoundlands, once of whom had a leg Pizza Dog found quiteirresistible, ifyaknowwhatImean. Comedy gold, my friends…

The evening’s Minervois (Chateau Portal) did not disappoint, as was the pizza (again, ginormous). And what they call endive (at least at this restaurant) was rather more like Napa cabbage, but the salad was still good. We also further developed our baguette theory. You really do see people carrying them. Anywhere from half of one to five. We figure it’s a symbol of rank… We also saw a guy who was a dead ringer for an ex-co-worker, much to our entertainment.

And so ended BĂ©ziers day and our last day in Narbonne. Tomorrow, another move! Oh, and when we headed back to the hotel, guess who we saw in the lounge? The ex-co-worker clone. Hee!

May 22: We’re prettier than you. Also, magic poop sensors.

Montpellier photoset

So guess who the first person was that we saw upon walking into the breakfast room? Our ex-co-worker clone! The resemblance was even more uncanny up close, when we observed him interacting with his friends and whatnot.

This time we were smart on the walk to the train station with backpacks. No sweaters, no coats, just t-shirts. MUCH better. This was the first day of a rail strike, so the train station was much quieter, and there appeared to be fewer trains running, but we got on our way alright. There were a couple of employees there assisting people with the ticket machines, answering questions from befuddled tourists, etc. (Fortunately we’d gotten in the habit of buying our train tickets in advance.)

Passed through a couple small towns on the way to Montpellier, Agde and Sète, which were on or almost on the Mediterranean and certainly reflected that in their architecture. Very pretty.

Montpellier: buildings off La Place de la ComĂ©dieMontpellier is lovely, too. Pretty city, lively, vibrant, busy, and everyone is better looking and more fashionable than you are. (This is especially true if you’re a tourist who’s been living out of a backpack for nearly a week…) The exception to this was the homeless/punk/hobo population and their many, many dogs, of which there was no shortage. (Yes, my post about the homeless and their dogs rang often in my ears all week in France.)

Montpellier, like everywhere else, had some of the standard street names: Gambetta, Marechal Foch, Jean Jaurès… And the folks here who like to complain about too long street names like “Father David Bauer Drive” would love French streets named after dates and events: “rue 22 aoĂ»t 1945” and the like. (That’s a short one.) One presumes the locals have abbreviations.

This was the first day that I was starting to feel like it would be okay to go home. Not jonesing for it yet, but certainly feeling the passage of time and the progression of the trip. The main pedestrian area in Montpellier is La Place de la ComĂ©die, so named because it’s in front of the old opera hours. It’s a big lovely square, definitely the place to be, have a drink, meet friends, etc. And apparently there are magic sensors under the paving stones, because if a dog is so rude as to poop there (and they do…), within moments one of the garbage/street sweeper trucks will zoom on by — et voila! — no more poop.

Montpellier: cathedralSince there was so much open air dining, there was, of course, so much smoking going on around us. Seriously, I think if I looked harder I’d have been able to find dogs and/or babies smoking.

Found the Citadel after lunch, but there didn’t really appear to be any way to get in, and in any case, it’s a school now. (I love how they repurpose in Europe.) Bought some heavenly smelling L’Occitane perfume (for me and for Patience), a scarf for me, and a fabric lantern for Cadence.

We took a wander through the old city, which was really well preserved for the most part. (There is certainly more money in Montpellier.) Some of the old university buildings are now apartments and whatnot. Can’t say as I’d enjoy those tiny, spiral, medieval staircases when trying to haul groceries or babies or move furniture.

The Montpellier cathedral was kinda same ol’, same ol’ at this point, though it did have those funky “rocket ship” tower thingies, which, as the guidebook noted, look like a poorly conceived reconstruction, but are, in fact, original. (14th or 15th century, I believe.) Couldn’t find the Jewish ritual bath, and several of the museums really weren’t well received by the guidebook, so we didn’t bother.

Montpellier: Moroccan band rocking outWe did check out the Musée de Languedoc, which was quite good, particularly the medieval collections (their stuff started in the 12th century). The recreated family apartment (donated lock, stock, and barrel, I gather) from the 19th century was impressive, silk wallpaper and all. On the way back to the main square we got to experience a real, live French demonstration. Looked like all the unions got together. (Based on what we saw in a paper the next day, it looked like they occurred throughout France.)

Dinner was along the promenade just outside the park. Overpriced for what it was, though dessert (profiteroles) was wonderful. So… much… chocolate… sauce… Entertaining people watching as always, though. Especially the (apparently) fashionable variations on harem/Hammer pants. No, really. And mullets. Honestly, isn’t France known for its style?

And so day 1 in Montpellier wound down, and Sherry and I bunked down together (somehow we ended up in a room with one double bed) to get our beauty sleep before our last full day in France.

May 23: Right is not in the direction you think. Also, nom.

Nîmes photoset

Didn’t sleep very well, thanks to a terribly hot room, hard mattress, and lots of street noise. I swear there was construction going on at 5am. Grr. However, another bright, sunny day, for which we were grateful.

The train station in NĂ®mes, like some other the other places we’d been wasn’t in the prettiest part of town. However, construction aside, not a bad looking city. Our first stop was the arena, which is Roman, circa 1BC, and still intact and in use. Gladiators for its first millennium or so, then bullfighting, which was an import from Spain in the middle ages. (Though for a while there they made a fortified village out of it.)

NĂ®mes: arenaSaw a couple guys doing a gladiatorial demonstration for a group of school kids. Not terribly… authentic, but after they doffed their equipment, we didn’t really care. Nom nom nom. 🙂 We headed to the edge of the mapped town to the Maison CarrĂ©e, the remaining Roman era temple in what was once a fairly vast complex (which, of course, has changed constantly over the last couple of millennia). Watched a 3D movie about the local heroes over time, which was fun, and, of, course, cheesetastic.

Headed further off the mapped town to the Fountain Gardens, which are lovely and very 18th century in layout and style. Saw the Temple of Diana, which, in reality, is likely a temple dedicated to Caesar and his family. There was an awesome sign warning that “escalading the temple is strictly forbidden”. So we didn’t. Assorted teenagers did, though, not surprisingly.

And, of course, there was one more set of stairs to be climbed when we headed up-up-up the hill to the Magne Tower. One more set of narrow, sloping, worn to a polish stairs (around 150 again). Nice view of the city from the top, though, even if the tower has lost about 15 metres of its original height of the centuries.

Procured the French equivalent of street meat for lunch — jambon et fromage baguettes from a kiosk vendor (who, Sherry suspected, was supplementing his income dealing drugs with the local teenagers). We ate on the way to the Cathedral, which seemed oddly tucked away, though, I suppose, yet another example of a building around which the town grew. Nice square in front full of cafes and whatnot, though.

NĂ®mes: La Maison CarrĂ©eAfter the cathedral is was time to head back to the train station. Easier said than done. Got ourselves lost with time ticking away, then would have gotten lost again if we’d actually listened to the local gentleman we asked for directions. As luck would have it, our hauling of ass got us back to the station, thoroughly sweaty, with ten minutes to spare. Not as bad as BĂ©ziers… but not that far off…

A well-deserved sit-down and a coffee after our return to Montpellier, and continued excellent people watching with some sort of health fair going on in the middle of the square. Ahh, the irony of people wiling away a sunny afternoon smoking and drinking whilst observing a health fair. 🙂

For the hell of it we decided to check out the nearby mall (interestingly called the Polygon). I must say that the baby clothes in France are stunning, and I could easily have spent 500 Euros or more outfitting my niece in clothes she’d get one season of wear out of. (That’s $776 Canadian dollars, at current exchange rates.) There were also a LOT of shoe stores.

Oh, also, if current French trends we saw are any indication, we can look forward to peasant blouses, the aforementioned harem/Hammer pants, and really nice shades of dove grey and deep puce/aubergine invading our shores within the next couple of seasons.

No Minervois wines available with our last dinner, alas, but the Corbières was certainly drinkable. The waiter wasn’t bad, either… As it was a Friday evening, and we were right off the main square, the people watching was unparalleled. We even caught a flash mob freeze right before dinner — where they arrange for a whole bunch of people to congregate somewhere, then they all just suddenly freeze in place for five minutes and are filmed. They did one at Grand Central Station in New York recently.

And so, after dinner, it was time to head back to the hotel for an early bed time, what with us having to get up at 4:50am the next morning to get to the airport for our 6:55am flight to Paris.

May 24: Fini.

Shit. Sherry woke up, squinted at the clock on the TV, subtracted 15 minutes (we’d figured out it’s slow), and we proceeded to mildly freak out, because the alarm on her BlackBerry hadn’t gone off and we had 20 minutes before the taxi was to arrive. No worries, we’d showered and mostly packed the night before, so we were actually in the lobby and waiting for the taxi when he pulled up. Our heart rates were nearly back to normal, too. 🙂

Rainy early morning, not that we cared a whole lot, since we weren’t really going to be outside until we stepped back onto Canadian soil. Slow check-in at the Montpellier airport, what with a single check-in agent. A quick coffee procurement for me, and then we headed through security, where Sherry had to relinquish the bottle of wine in her carry-on, dammit. (Can’t have over 100ml on the plane.) But hey, she got a receipt. And we clung to our mantra of “we’re finish our shopping at the Paris airport”.

Except that we didn’t. We spent the three or so hour layover waiting in lines. Check-in line… security line… boarding line… Got a few minutes in the duty free, but it had nothing special, and the wines were all the major kinds you can get here (Bordeaux and such, no Minervois). By that point I was just ready to be home. Alas, another 7.5 hours to go…

Flight was uneventful, and the wine on offer was even pretty decent. Hard to sleep with it being a daytime flight, though. Luggage was coming around the carousel as we arrived, and secrity was no problem, and then we met up with Andrew and we were home. Beardless though he was, it was good to see his face. Good, too, to slurp down a frosty rootbeer float after getting back to KW.

And that, as they say, was that. All in all a wonderful trip, amazing sights, excellent food, fabulous wine, and the finest of company.

2 Replies to “Melle & Sherry go to France, May 16-24, 2008”

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