Montpelier and Arles

Montpellier Travel Blog

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Montpellier and Arles

I learned alot about my taste in cities by considering my responses to these two cities of southern France.  I LOVED Montpellier, a large city of suburbs and high tech parks with an international airport on its outskirts and an old city as its center.  Because we were traveling by train we did not have to deal with the large 20th century city. We were whisked to the center of the city by SNCF, and then walked to our one star hotel in about three minutes.  Because I now had a sore throat and was feeling kind of low, the rest of the afternoon was taken up with napping and bathing.  (Our room came with a large tub which was a great treat after the primitive showering conditions of the péniche.) So it was not until five o’clock that we launched ourselves out onto the town to look for a tourist map.  Here’s what we discovered:

Place de la Comédie �" a large square with no roads or parking.  Occasionally, an official vehicle would make its way across at a walking pace. There were three or four outdoor cafés, each with seating for over a hundred people.  Here we are talking about the arrangement where many of the chairs all face the square with tables fit in.  In effect, a theatrical space with the passers-by being the event and the coffee or beer drinkers being the audience.  And what an event.  Montpellier seemed to be filled with people of all shapes, sizes, colors, velocities, intentions and spirituality.  They all seemed to reveal themselves during their one minute walk across the square to the audience that had the time to watch them. The main building of the square was of course the Opéra Comédie.  A small 1,200 seat house with all good parts of nineteenth century design without many of the excesses. I think its small size helped in its impression.  At the other end was the new glass shopping and conference center that was barely visible, but housed all those international chain stores and kept all those tourists of a certain type off of the streets.  The shop-is-to-live folks. Peeking in at the corner was Place de la Gaulle,  A long allee with more cafés and food carts. When we came back the next morning to buy tickets for the opera, Iphigenie en Aulide by Gluck, we found a small but lively market where we bought supplies for the day’s lunch. At night, musicians came out and serenaded the café crowds. The Place managed to absorb the McDonald’s on the corner in a world weary way.  It had seen it before; it would see it again.   For me the epitome of the café life, in a city I had never heard of before.

Cars are allowed�"sort of. In this section of the city cars are allowed, but with restrictions.  There are many streets that are blocked by short metal poles.  Image my surprise when as a public transportation minibus approached, the pole magically sank into the ground until the bus passed over and then it returned to its former height.  I saw someone else who was making a delivery jump out of his car, use a key to the same effect.  Because they were driving in the pedestrian zones they would only drive at a walking pace.  So there was a peaceful co-existence that I have never seen before.  In a small alley, two restaurants had set up tables and chairs across from each other. They seemed to know the exact width of a car, because that is all the room they left to create an evening’s entertainment of watching the cars sneak themselves through the gap.  Another time at a lunch on a small plaza shared by two restaurants and a bar we saw a young man coming to lunch park his car right against the pipes so that another car could get through, but unfortunately right in the path that the waiter took from the restaurant to the bar so the next time he needed to make the trip he walked right over the car in four step�"rear right fender, roof, hood, front left fender and into the bar.  We assumed they were friends. It got a lot of laughs.

A University, Conservatory, écoles --  A lot of educational institutions provided an energy of sound and sight.  Music floating from second story windows, two bookstores of English books, and cheap places to eat.  An internet game storefront café that had telnet to allow us our first email access of the trip.

A conference center�"We never saw it but it provided the city with a another group of people to add to its mix.  We would see them at lunch, walking with their names tags on, or at dinner talking about contagious diseases or the like.  People who were glad to be here. (Especially as someone else was picking up the tab.)

Lots of Restaurants and Cafés�"I am afraid that although this category is at the end, it probably should be listed first. It may be the most important to me. Anytime we wanted to sit and relax, there was a place for us.  All different, all with character.  The first night we ate at the Isadora.  The menu had a long biography and tribute to Isadora Duncan in the menu with nothing to indicate the connection other than a high regard for her.  This was an upscale restaurant for us, but it was worth it.  Very high class but understated service. A strange note was sounded when, after we watched a couple of dogs jump in the public fountain that adjoined the restaurant, we saw the waiters filling the urns that they used to cool the wines from the same fountain. From the spout, not the basin.  It was in a small out of the way plaza and we watched music student go to and from the lessons, the same students as dinner is always longer than a music lesson.  In that time, I also watched the light change on the sandstone colored steeple of St. Anne’s as the sun set and as the lighting came on.

We stayed three nights and then decided to move.  I said great, let’s find another city.  Dawn picked Arles, an ancient city with Roman ruins.  We made a reservation, worked out the train schedule and were off.  Here’s what we found. . .
(As you notice, there has been less Dawn contribution.  She has been working on a morning writing program therefore has less time to write in the travelogue.  I hope she will comment on the opera.)


I hated it.

It made me cranky.  I mean really cranky.  Lots of people write really nice things about it.  Lots of people go there and enjoy themselves. I didn’t.  Please let Dawn forgive me because I wasn’t a very good traveling companion.  (There were a couple of good things. I’ll let Dawn write about them.)

Right away, the Railway station is not in the center of town.  Secondly, the Allied air force destroyed Van Gogh’s house here.  (They counted anything within a mile of a target like the train station as a hit). Thirdly, the map at the station didn’t include the station itself. Fourthly, we got there at lunch-time and had to take a fifty franc cab ride into our hotel, (which the cab driver wouldn’t take us to since it wasn’t good enough, and instead arranged another from his cell phone.) Fifthly,  our hotel was a hill where young boys accelerated their minibikes up the street at 12000 rpm making a truly awful sound. Sixthly, a boulevard described as a place to have a drink while deciding which interesting restaurant to eat at turned out to be a four lane highway as far as I was concerned.  Seventhly, Plazas were parking lots, cars raced around everywhere, motorbikes ran around in the pedestrian zones, kids skateboarded in front of twelve century portals, while families camped out in cloisters playing kickball.  Eighthly, the map was terrible, I couldn’t find anything, I got lost, couldn’t find a phone booth that wasn’t next to a noisy street.  Ninthly, I hated the ruins, or maybe I just hated the empire.

So all this dislike surprised me. I expected Arles to be magical like Montpellier and when it wasn’t, I punished it, myself, and Dawn.


However (!) we ended up staying in a lovely two-star hotel in a centuries old stone cloister the recommendation of the 50-franc cab-driver. I had been a little hesitant to take the cabby’s recommendation on general principles of feeling like maybe I was being taken as a tourist, but the Hôtel Cloitre turned out to be one of the best things about Arles. The host, Jean-François (could you imagine a more French name?) was charming and attractive, somewhat nervously running the place by himself as his wife was off for a week leading a bike tour in Andorra. He had a gorgeous five-year-old Alaskan Malamute dog who seemed depressed because all his hair had just been shorn for the summer, except for a little, soft, buzz-cut on the top of his head: “Nanouk.”  Very pettable. Oh yes, Jean-François seemed to think we were from California. I was totally stymied by that one so I asked, “Pourquoi?” He said, this time in English, “because you have zee loook.” That cracked me up. It must have been my tan and the white outfit that I had actually bought in a consignment shop in Montpellier. “Mais je ne suis meme blonde!” I said. Like I’m not even blonde.

One of the other highlights was the market, which unfortunately Stephen was too cranky to visit. Not only was it extensive and jam-packed, but the stuff was beautiful. There was one North African merchant with long tables covered with baskets overflowing with all colors and scents of exotic spices. I was so disappointed that I didn’t have my camera with me that day. There were not one or two cheese vendors, but ten. There were twenty options to buy vegetables, a zillion types of olives, bread of all imaginable varieties, etc.

And there was the Van Gogh museum, the Arlatan, and a delightful restaurant recommended by Jean-François, “La Fuente,” which served regional as well as Spanish cuisine. For instance, Stephen had an excellent soupe de poisson, with the garlic aioli and croutons, and I had a wonderful gazpacho.  I think Stephen discovered that he doesn’t particularly like Roman ruins, which is what Arles is all about. I found them rather impressive, even if highly touristed. The old arena is absolutely the dramatic centerpiece of the town. What most moved me though, was the west portal of the Romanesque cathedral of St. Trophime. Apparently, it had been cleaned within the last two years, and the craftsmanship and artistry of the sculptures was superb. Moreover, at 8:00 or so in the evening, the sun was shuttered by two buildings across the Place from the church, so it shown only on the portal itself, as if a lighting designer had given it a “special” with amber gel.


Our departure day arrived raining.  The cab finally got to the hotel and we made it to the train and the train got us Toulouse and the airport and the car rental place and to Cézac which is where we are 
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