We'd just been to the northern coast of France for Alannah's birthday a couple of weeks beforehand, so why not go all the way south?
Our friend Alice had come from San Francisco to attend a drawing course in the village of Moux, in the Languedoc region in France's southwest (aka the MIdi), and she had a free weekend. I'd been working 50-60 hour weeks (this whole notion of a lazy, idyllic 35-hour French workweek is utter bullshit, by the way) so I felt I deserved a long weekend. And we really wanted to see Alice.
We chose to meet up in Montpellier. Or rather, I chose it, simply because there's a direct TGV high-speed rail connection from Paris, and after too many 12-hour work days, I just wanted a simple transit day - the quickest getaway possible.
Alannah had done a fantastic job of tracking down hotels, hostels, pensions - ANYTHING, on a weekend where there were apparently 1,597 conferences and events going on - and got us a room for three at the Hotel Colisée Verdun for just over 50€ a night. It was small, hot, and incredibly noisy at night, but only 150 metres from the train station.
This is important, because when you get off of an air-conditioned train in Montpellier in the summer, you start to melt. You have approximately ten minutes to make it into the shade before you're turned into a liquefied puddle of your former hair, skin, and organs. You think I'm kidding, but I saw these little puddles of biomatter everywhere.
Or maybe they're just dogshit. If the Hollywood Walk of Fame represent a whole galaxy of stars in Los Angeles, then the sidewalks of Montpellier represent a whole universe of dogs. Or dog owners who don't give (nor pick up) a shit. It is said that if you were to put together all of the dogshit in Montpellier, you'd have enough fertilizer to turn the Sahara into arable land and grow enough crops to feed the world ten times over. Hell, Dogshit is so prevalent here, it's up for sainthood:
Ok, maybe I made that part up, but what I'm saying is that the streets of Paris look like you could eat off of them in comparison.
About the only thing more prevalent than dogshit in Montpellier is the ubiquitous kebab shop. Being in the south and near the Mediterranean, the city has a huge North African and Arab immigrant population. This is much to the chagrin of the racist Nationalist Party right-wingers, but much to the benefit of the 65,000+ students who make up 1/3 of the population. Thousands of kebab shops mean tight competition, upping the quality and lowering the prices.
Of course, kebabs aren't the only kind of ethnic culture to be found at Montpellier. Beating the heat on the gorgeous patio of the trendy Welcomedia bar/restaurant/tapas place, we sipped on pastis, Perrier, and frozen drinks overlooking the main plaza, the Place de la Comedie. There was some ruckus coming from around the corner - what sounded like muted car horns played in a syncopated beat, maybe in three notes. "Are those cars?" Alice asked. "I think it may be the world's most atonal marching band," I joked.
The noise grew louder and, sure enough, it was the world's most tone-deaf marching band. Actually, it was an African performance troupe of some sort, blowing traditional horns and banging on small drums and dancing and being generally awesome. It was so mindblowingly random it was incredible.
There we were, sitting and drinking in sweltering heat under the mid-afternoon sun, suddenly surrounded by dozens of bright yellow-clad musicians who just turned up from out of the blue. And as quickly as they appeared, they moved on and disappeared. It was an interesting welcome to Montpellier, and we wondered if we'd ever see these guys again. (We never did.)
We poked around the Comedie a bit, but the wide-open, paved over, treeless plaza was entirely too hot and sunny, so we cooled off in the shade of the trees and market stalls lining the Esplanade. It wasn't long before our umpteenth break for refreshments. We decided on the Jardin de Glaces (Garden of Ice Cream), where Alice broke out some sketching materials, Alannah busted out with the camera, and my non-artistic ass ordered a Feu d'Artifice (fireworks) sundae for us to share, a schizophrenic concoction of merengue, five flavors of fruity sorbet, vanilla ice cream, coffee ice cream, whipped cream, candied fruits... It tasted like Christmas and the Fourth of July had a gangbang and finished in your mouth. An explosion of Frapuccino and Jamba Juice and pavlova and fruitcake and... Oh, who cares? It was ice cold and we were hot. And a bit stupid from heatstroke. At least there wasn't dogshit in it.
If anything, the sundae was perfectly representative of the disjointed nature of Montpellier. The city is a mashup of cultures, of social scenes, of architecture, of... everything. Other than brutal summertime heat, there seemed to be no common thread to anything. No consistency.
Dinner time came along and after exploring the very charming old center of town, we happened upon a small, reasonably priced restaurant called La Ferme (the farm), specializing in the terroir products of the region. Best of all, we were able to snag an outdoor seat on this balmy evening without a reservation. It's small, cute, and charming, with a touch of class belied by the fact that everything is obviously from Ikea. It's atmospheric and almost romantic, offset by pretty but pungent citronella candles (!) on the table and drunk college students throwing shit from the apartment windows above.
As for the food? If you ever find yourself in Montpellier and stumble upon La Ferme, stick to the appetizers. This region is known for its foie gras and other waterfowl products, and the restaurant's signature salad represents them all. Some of the most delicious, rich, creamy foie gras I've ever had, alongside the most tender gésiers (goose gizzards), on top of brilliant smoked magret (duck breast) and those details like, oh, lettuce and tomato that make it all qualify as a "salad." Between that and the tomato tart, we were having mouthgasms that made us vow to come back here for every meal. The so-so main dishes (confit de canard, piéce de boucher, etc.) didn't inspire as much oohing and ahhing, and the desserts - ugh, pre-fab and sub-par. But the salad? I'll never forget it. Having my first bite of local foie gras was like having my first real Cuban cigar ($125) or first "reserve" bottle of wine ($300). Only this salad will only set you back 12€.
Saltwater and Couscous
We awoke somewhat early the next morning to try and get out before the midday sun. For only 2€ a person, we got full-day bicycle rentals from Velo M'agg (the Montpellier version of Velib, only less technologically advanced). We packed some emergency food (having learned from my last bike rental in France that it's essential to bring food and water when venturing away from cities) and set off on the 11km bike path from Montpellier to the beach at Palavas.
As every web site, book, and tourst information office employee will tell you, this path is flat. What they fail to tell you is that 80% of it is not paved. This is the type of information that's nice to know before you head out on a 35-pound cruiser with no suspension and a frame geometry just short of a Penny Farthing.
Of course, none of this matters once you arrive at the beach, taking in the blue of the Mediterranean, rewarding yourself for the hot ride with ice cold beers alongside the beach. The sunshine, the sand, and that gorgeous expanse of sea help you forget that your servers have bad prison tattoos, foul mouths (one barman likened his shaking of Alannah's Orangina bottle to "what girls should do" with a wink and a nod... hah!), and that you're basically surrounded by the local equivalent of trailer trash.
But really, who can really complain when you're shortly going to find yourself a quiet chunk of beach, kicking around white sand, and swimming in calm, temperate seas?
The three of us floated in the Mediterranean, occasionally realizing, "Dude! We're floating in the Mediterranean!" Naturally, Alannah and I had to rub it into Alice that, "The crazy part is... we live a few hours away from here!"
A few hours. That's what the less-than-one-hour ride back to Montpellier felt like. Our brilliant plan to start early to avoid the peak sun was foiled by the fact that, well, you get peak sun from early morning 'til late at night around here. After spending a good chunk of the day swimming or just lying in the sun, the ride back was just brutal. At least there was no dog shit on the trail.
After cooling off a bit, it was time to forage for dinner. One of the regional specialties is seafood, but we were hard pressed to find any. There are tons of tourist traps. Shit-tons of the aforementioned kebab shops. Dodgy Chinese and Thai like one would see in Paris. We'd already had a full day, so even deciding on a place to eat seemed a Herculean task. We decided on Le Petit Valat, a small Moroccan place on a side street around the corner from our hotel. The place was tiny, looked incredibly charming, and was absolutely dead. We went there partially out of the knowledge that African cuisine in town is purportedly very good, and partially out of pity. Located on a nearly abandoned street, we felt bad that such a charmingly quaint place had just about no business. And, selfishly, that the three of us could have the restaurant to ourselves.
And we did. We had run of the place, and of the menu, delighting the owner by ordering just about everything we could. A salad of eggs and potatoes coated in rich virgin olive oil. A tangy purée of eggplant. The house "Valat" salad that contained pretty much everything all of their other salads did. Pichets of chilled rosé. A tagine of merguez sausage and eggplant. Another tagine of lamb and prunes and almonds. And a Pacha (royal) couscous with more of the aforementioned merguez and lamb, along with chicken and mechoui and kefta. The owner marveled that this small group of foreigners not only knew his cuisine, but fully appreciated it. Not to mention we ordered enough in one sitting to make his little venture profitable for the month. He was even further delighted when - instead of the usual coffee - we asked for the traditional mint tea. So delighted, in fact, that he brought us shots of chilled vodka, and further made us stay for what seemed to be another hour by repeatedly refilling our tea glasses.
Oftentimes it's those simple things that really make your experience. We'd chosen, instead of going to one of the bustling restaurants along the Place de la Comedie or in the old town centre, to visit a quiet, overlooked place without a hostess, without a waiter, without... much of anything really. And walked away with a fantastic experience.
Between that and swimming in the ocean, I found serious relief after a stressful month of long hours, six-day work weeks, and not knowing where to live. There's a lot of solace to be found in seawater and semoule.
Our night was capped off with a cheap pitcher of beer at the Rockstore, a music venue/bar oddly reminiscent of divey rocker bars in California, only without focus on a particular crowd. Music videos ranging from Hard-Fi to Metallica on the TVs, posters for upcoming electronica/DJ events, and the tail end of an old pink Impala or Malibu or whatnot crashed into the front facade of the building... yet another mash-up of styles so common to Montpellier, a town still searching for identity.
Comédie of Errors
Some days, you shouldn't bother getting out of bed.
Alice's free weekend was coming to an end, so she had to take the train back to Carcasonne in the afternoon. We had decided we'd seen enough of Montpellier, so we'd join her and check out the old medieval city for a few hours.
But first, some lunch. Although it's not a regional thing, we opted to eat at a crêperie as it's usually a quick and cheap favorite. Not so when you're in the tourist trap Place de la Comedie. Our tab for an adequate meal of salad and savory and sweet crêpes? 50% more than any other meal we'd had this trip. And that's after catching a 4€ overcharge on the bill. What's worse is that halfway back to our hotel, the waiter chased after us. I'd accidentally shorted him a 20€ bill. Oops!
We hit the sweltering train station to catch our train to Carcassonne, where the nearly enclosed platform was about twice as hot as the already ridiculous outside world, its stuffy atmosphere enhanced with the diesel exhaust of idling, older trains. The body heat from the mass of humanity was of no help, with what seemed to be thousands of people going home to Toulouse or thereabouts after the weekend. So bad was the heat that one girl collapsed just before the train arrived, revived just in time to board.
We didn't have assigned seats, and neither did anyone else for that matter. Seating (what little of it was available) was a free-for-all. We kept moving forward through the train cars until we realized - this one hour ride would be a standing room only affair. I started to suspect that the girl passing out on the platform was suspiciously timed just before the train arrived... as she was given space and seated right away.
No matter. After two stops, we were stuck. At a station (at least) in the middle of nowhere. With no air conditioning. I chugged at my water like a madman to no avail. It neither cooled me off, nor helped the train get moving. A TGV train headed to Perpignan (the same we'd taken in from Paris just the other day) pulled up on the other platform. They kindly invited all passengers headed in the direction of Perpignan (i.e. not us) to board the TGV, while the others should wait for our train to be fixed. The TGV is air conditioned. Bastards.
Another ten or fifteen minutes passed. They then invited passengers who are headed to Perpignan or Narbonne.
And then, they told us our train would not be fixed, and that everyone should get on the TGV. It wasn't going to Carcassonne, but it was air conditioned. I'm in. Somehow, I explained to the locals on the train - heading home to Toulouse or Carcassonne themselves - that it'd be ok, that we can transfer at Narbonne. Why I knew we could do this and they didn't is beyond me. I guess southerners fit the stereotype no matter what country you're in...
The TGV was blissfully cool inside. Unfortunately, the train runs very fast, so we were in Narbonne in no time. There, we would transfer to another train going on to our destination.. "Hi, I just came in on the TGV from the Toulouse-bound train that broke down," I explained at the ticket window. "Which train do I need to catch to Carcassonne?" "The one coming next," the man replied. "The same one you were scheduled for."
Yes! We went back out onto the hot platform for our imminent train... which showed up to a roar of applause... an hour and a half later.
What was supposed to be a nice half-day of exploring the medieval city became a quick, less-than-one-hour jaunt to walk around and snap a few photos.
But really, can you really complain when you walk a little ways from the station and see this?
We also happened upon a lot of military hardware and people in uniforms and helicopters flying everywhere. Apparently, there was some kind of huge French army expo/show going on in town. As we made our way through the newer city center to get to the old walled city, we heard what seemed like hundreds of sirens, coming from police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks racing down the main streets of town. "Wow," we thought. "They really like to include the first responders in their military parades here!"
It wasn't until I was having lunch with co-workers on Tuesday that I found out that in one of the military demonstrations... they accidentally used live ammo... and 17 people were mowed down by gunfire...
Oooh! That explains all the commotion and sirens and people looking at me funny for snapping photos like a dumb tourist. It also gives a ton of ammo (no pun intended) to people who like to make fun of the French military... as well as to President Sarkozy, who got rid of a political enemy with the subsequent resignation of the army's general.
Alannah and I returned to Montpellier, now free to have a little quiet time together. We opted to stay in, take it easy, avoid the heat, and enjoy a little (Euro 2008 soccer final) action. We did absolutely nothing but lie in bed, watch le foot, and decide that going to sleep at 11:00 pm - despite being something old people do on holiday - sounded like a good idea.
Of course, Southwest France may as well be northwest Spain. And in the Euro 2008 championship that night, Spain beat Germany. So in a sense, via shared history and close proximity, Southwest France felt like it beat Germany. And if you think southerners are loud when they're not celebrating, well, let me tell you - we had the kind of hot, sleepless night we didn't have in mind.
I Don't Know. What Do YOU Want to Do?
We had breakfast on Monday morning and then tried to figure out what to do for the next eight hours, as our train home wasn't until 7:30 at night.
Being that when I booked the tickets, I didn't yet have a French credit card (we just got one last week). French credit cards, unlike American credit cards, have these little IC chips in them for security. The ticket machines at train stations only accept those newfangle chipped cards for purchase/online order pickup. Otherwise you wait in line for an hour to get to a human being who'll mostly go on lunch break when you finally get to the window. However, they have this thing called IDTGV, where you can buy your tickets online, then print them out at home. No waiting in line at the station. No chip required. Which is excellent for someone who's still using his American cards.
And that's how we had so much time to kill on Monday: The only IDTGV train back to Paris was in the evening.
I don't think I'd ever been so lacking for anything to do while on holiday. We decided to check out a couple of the sites we hadn't yet seen. That killed an hour. Tops.
We had a little mini-picnic on a shaded park bench in the Esplanade, watching cute little kids playing in the cutest, most awesome Dr. Seuss-inspired playground, where every play object also happens to be some sort of sound-based, musical art installation. That killed 45 minutes.
We went down to Antigone, this annex of the town we'd briefly seen by bicycle the other day. Montpellier, being the only major city in southern France that wasn't founded or occupied by the Romans, apparently has some sort of classics envy and has built a gleaming new neighborhood in shiny new faux-Greco-Roman architecture. Doric columns (or are they Ionic?), those triangular archway top thingamabobs, fountains, statues... It all smacks of desperation or an inferiority complex. "Come! Look! We have old Mediterranean culture, too!" That killed maybe a half hour.
We went to the mall. Yes, the mall. We had smoothies. We looked at cheap accessories. Don't make fun of me. We achieved our major objective: We reveled in air conditioning. And killed two hours.
We decided to go on a random hike. Interestingly enough, the French word for hike is randonnée. We ended up in a rather grubby, ugly part of town, then discovered a gorgeous enclosed plaza with a funky café where Alannah had an incredible smoothie/sorbet float. I had a mauresque, which is pastis with orgeat syrup. We watched a crazy guy bathe in a small fountain, then yell at the fountain, then start a fight with (as in throwing punches at) the fountain. He then started a fight with another crazy guy, whom I believed considered the fountain his turf.
That killed... god knows how long. Watching crazy people must be the top pastime in Montpellier. After watching out for dogshit, of course. There's no shortage of either here. Something about hot climates brings out the indigent/vagrant/perpetually-drunk types. It's easier to sleep in a doorway or on a park bench when you don't have to worry about freezing to death, I suppose. You just have to worry about being shit on.
We capped our trip off by finally indulging one of the numerous kebab shops (verdict: not bad) and enjoyed the smooth, air-conditioned ride home. By the time we'd made it back to our flat in the 17th, we were appreciating how much better people dress; how much more quietly people speak; how much more classy and refined everything is. But just as in colorful climes with colorful people anywhere else in the world, we realized how warm, welcoming, and markedly friendly the people were down south. And ultimately, we realized that we've already become Parisian snobs.