The 10 Best Things about Montpellier

  1. Passion-fruit sorbet shaped like a flower in an ice cream cone. Aside from how pretty it looks, it has a sweet-tart tang that makes the world seemIMG_2021 cropped like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
  2. The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and IMG_1991offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and assorted goodies. It’s also where a small mob of native English speakers and a polyglot mix of others eager to practice their English skills cram a downstairs room every Friday from 5 to 7 pm.
  3. The limestone paving in a small pocket of streets in the Ecusson—the old city. The Rue de l’ Ancien Courier and others nearby are narrow and twisty, IMG_0998filled with history and crammed with cute little boutiques. The Rue du Bras de Fer even has one of the few remaining original arches crossing the street, which is actually a series of wide shallow steps.
  4. Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
  5. The colorful trams, with paint jobs designed by the likes of Christian La Croix. In fact, the public transit as a whole is pretty great. A 10-trip ticket for the tram costs 10€. IMG_1977Ditto, a 10-trip ticket for the regional bus system, which will get you the 20 minutes away to the Mediterranean beaches or 40 minutes to the gorges and mountains of the Cevennes.
  6. The Monoprix, where you can buy “une cannette du Coca Light” for  0€89. Plus, it’s actually cold and not just slightly chilled as most soft drinks in France and Germany are.
  7. The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.IMG_1979 cropped
  8. The trompe l’oeil buildings.  I had to go up to and touch this building before I understood that it really is just one big flat wall.IMG_1982
  9. A cold Monaco—a frothy pink concoction of beer, grenadine and either lemonade or lemon-lime soda. Probably too sweet for real beer dinkers’ taste,but surprisingly good on a hot afternoon.
  10. The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. IMG_0953 I’ve spotted one emerging from a staircase, three whole bikes emerging from a wall two stories up and one with half the bike on one building and the other across the alley. I’ll bet there are lots more in the outer sections of the city.
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Rocks and Trees, French Style

Can someone explain this to me?  I don’t get it.   This particular “objet” sits outside IMG_1708the St. August church  30 feet from my apartment in Montpellier. It looks like some kind of oversized, formless chia pet. Other larger versions of what I think might be viewed as some sort of living sculpture are sprinkled around the city. In the garden opposite the Gare St. Roch rail station, a large boulder sits in the middle of a fountain. Water seeps down the sides of the boulder and plants of varioIMG_0962us types sprinkle it with green. There’s a scrawny wildflower here and there, and what looks like some form of lichen creeping over and into some of the crags. At the PrIMG_1263omenade du Peyrou, there’s another such boulder–this one with a small tree growing out of it–in the middle of a reflecting pool.  A third boulder sits in a plaza fountain surrounded by outdoor cafés.

IMG_1515 One of the city’s largest and most famous public statues—the The Three Graces, sitting in the middle of the city’s Place du Comedie—incorporates a mound of natural rock, adorned both with chubby  cherubs and scraggly plants. It’s unclear to me if the cherubs were carved from the rock or were somehow cemented into place. Either way, the juxtaposition of the formal statuary and the rough rock is, to my eye, at least, weird.

Equally strange is the French predilection for sculpting trees into unnatural forms. I’m not against pruning or shaping trees in principle. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for it. Fruit trees, for example, are often espaliered—a French word (just saying). They’re rigorously pruned and trained to grow flat against a fence or trellis. Ditto, a variety of flowering trees.  In the first case, the treatment makes it easier to pick the fruit and in the second, makes a pretty spectacular privacy barrier around a courtyard or patio.

A bit of judicious pruning can enhance IMG_1897a tree’s natural shape, too. These beauties–called plantanes in France and Germany and plane trees in Britain–often line a town square or the drive to a stately home. In fact, they often line streets–most often main arteries leading into country towns but sometimes what seem to be just random bits of road. They’re closely related to what we call sycamores in the U.S., and, well pruned,  they form a beautiful high canopy. So why prune them to look like giant candelabras? They look strange and unnatural even when they’ve leafed out fully. When they’re bare, they’re ugly graceless things.

Still that’s mild compared to the trees that have been pollarded–at least, I think pollarding is what is being attempted. When you pollard animals—deer, cattle, sheep, for example—you cut off their horns or antlers. (Language digression here: A polled breed, such as polled Hereford cattle, is one which has been developed from a natural genetic mutation causing it to be hornless.) But when you pollard  a tree, you don’t just lop off a limb or two. You shear every limb off every year, causing the tree to form large bulbous knobs.

It’s thought that the practice of pollarding trees arose in the Middle Ages so that the new growth would ensure an adequate annual supply of kindling. That’s no longer the case, of course, so pollarding is done for purely aesthetic reasons. Aesthetic reasonIMG_1890s? The result is a tree that at its best—for a few months in summer—looks like a ridiculous beach umbrella with a supersized center pole. At its worst—which is for the remaining two-thirds of the year—it looks like an arthritic troll: gnarled, knobby and disproportionate, with a trunk far too thick for its height.

Some poor trees are truly tortured. The tops are simply lopped off, along with all of their limbs in spring to keep them from growing taller or wider or–evenly.  Some, for example, find themselves shaped  like lantern arms or street light poles, with a single horizontal limb.

Other IMG_1283trees are simply sheared into conformity. We’ve all seen squared-off hedges. But full-grown trees?  How do they even do that? I doubt I could make such a level cut on two-foot wide privet hedge.  How do they evenly shear off a 30-foot wide, 40-foot high tree canopy?

And why do it, anyway?   It’s not as if this public park is an immaculately kept formal garden. It’s pretty much a IMG_1284big  litter-strewn gravel square, though it does lead up to the rather lovely classical Chateau D’Eau, which, coincidentally, sits on its own hunk of natural rock in a reflecting pool.  At least in this case, though, the natural rock base is strewn with flowering plants. Incongruous perhaps, but pretty

 

A Retreat for the Weary

Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9IMG_1386th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.

Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries thIMG_1370e abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station alongIMG_1374 one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.

In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecrIMG_1344ation and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the  vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved aIMG_1335nd the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– woundIMG_1359 up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several  columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.

Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly IMG_1349beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. IMG_1354 IMG_1346In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.

It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat.  The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a IMG_1387stuIMG_1357nning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small riveIMG_1310r that runs by the town, providing a series  of picturesque  waterfalls, as well as from the numIMG_1392erous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.

Le Supermarket

So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway?  Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket. IMG_0931 IMG_0932

IMG_0937 But the prominence of Red Bull?  That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American. IMG_0925

The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners.  I miss my Chobani!

IMG_0922 It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case. IMG_0929

Prepared entrees are more exotic  than in the U.S.   That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.

IMG_0919 cropped And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off! IMG_0934 cropped

And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But  neon-colored toilet paper? Really?