Monday, May 14, 2012
Montpellier was a great surprise. It is the eight largest town in France, but has 60,000 university students. It's lively and student-oriented. There's a huge pedestrian centre and lovely parks. Tons of cafes and interesting restaurants.
I want this huge, strange face over our door in Point Roberts. It won't look out of place, will it? I would love to wave to this dude every time I walk out the door.
The Place de la Comedie. There's a lovely park and gardens at the top of the Place. It is a great walking city.
We stopped for lunch in the sunshine.
We walked around until we had to leave at around 2:30 to get to our friend Narcisse's house in nearby Lunel.
Last stop before hopping in the car.
Narcisse played on Eric's basketball team in Ludwigsburg, Germany. It was a great chance to reconnect after ten years. We enjoyed some of the local Lunel wine and chatted about the old days.
Eric even managed to shoot a couple of hoops with Narc's daughters (we were impressed with his house and set up in Lunel, but a little shocked at the state of his hoop...his daughters all play basketball, but the hoop was in bad shape...it even had gravel below!).
Narcisse's wife and oldest daughter left for a piano lesson, so we went with the littler two to La Grand Motte, a beach about 15 minutes away. The sun was shining, so ice cream was ordered.
Oh, good gelato...we miss you.
Spending an afternoon with these lovely little girls (even with my stumbling French) made me miss our girls. They would have loved a day at the beach with these two!
We left Narcisse and headed back home to Argeliers. Julie and Darren were still awake when we got back, so we had a beer and told them all about our mini-trip.
We got up to another picture-worthy breakfast in the garden of Darren and Julie's beautiful house in Argeliers.
But, then quickly headed off to make our slow, side-route path to Montpellier.
The side roads were so wonderful, flanked by gigantic plane trees with vineyards carpeting gentle hills as far as the eye can see.
We made our way to the coast and hit Agde, an underwhelming town. We found a nice beach with some shells on it (there had been none in Leucate and Le Franqui), but the towns around new and pretty tacky with a lot of camping sites clearly intended for European holiday makers.
I found some shells to take home for the kids.
The town of Sete was a little further a long and a much more interesting stop. It is a true working fishing city, with gigantic ships lining the canals that dissect the centre into islands.
This is Eric standing next to a DINGHY. Another one for you, dad.
Here's a shot of the whole ship. She looks a little more seaworthy than our wee boat. It looks like it's seen some big water. We were impressed.
We spotted a couple of kids who were cooling off by jumping into the (filthy) water of the canal. It looks gross, but hey, they aren't my kids.
We stopped at a Monoprix and picked up some picnic items for dinner and then drove the nearby spit of land that separates the interior etangs from the Mediterranean. There was some decent kite surfing, so we pulled over to picnic and watch them.
Our last stop was Palavas Les Flots. Another modern seaside village, complete with its own ski-lift to take pedestrians from one side of the canal to the other.
We left here to find a (highly mediocre) hotel on the outskirts of Montpellier. We have been spoiled by Darren and Julie's hospitality. A hotel feels very much like a cruel downgrade from their home.
We have been sleeping in. I guess that is what holiday means, a bit of relaxation, but we have had some late starts to days. Jet lag isn't something we equated with Europe. It was home for so long, and jet lag was just for visitors. Now that's us.
I got up early(ish) on Friday to join Julie at the Beziers flower market. A flower market. Sigh...
Fresh flower, French city square...it was delightful.
Julie bought some peonies, snapdragons, sunflowers and a basil plant. Carrying all the bunches through the market was so lovely.
The colours and smells...
The only thing that could improve the experience was a coffee and croissant in the square.
When we got home with our fleurs bounty, Eric and I headed off for the day. We have somehow managed to hit almost every beach between the Spanish border and Montpellier. We now consider ourselves experts on les plages.
Our first stop was Leucate. The town itself (like nearly all the beach towns) was modern and somewhat devoid of typical French charm. The beach, however, was much better than we expected.
It is early in the season still, but these beaches get packed with people. And no wonder. The sand is nice and fine and the water is clear (and cold, at least right now).
We enjoyed a baguette and dipped our toes in the water.
Because it is France, we got lots of views of topless ladies. Some of whom needed a friend to let them know that there days of productive and appealing toplessness were behind them. Maybe the more attractive women come a little later in the season?
And of course, what's a French beach without a ridiculous display of public affection. The topless couple in the foreground of the picture below put on quite a display. She never got off his lap and the grinding and humping pretty much horrified my prudish North American sensibilities.
So Eric went topless to score one for the Canadians. It was blinding.
I just squished my toes in the soft sand.
And soaked the bottom of my pants playing chicken in the waves. Top very much on...
Next stop was Le Franqui, another beach close by. It had a huge mud flat with really warm water and a sand spit that fronted onto the ocean and backed onto the mud flats.
It also had a great restaurant that was begging for us to stop for a beer.
The temperature was perfect, the beer was cold, the water was lapping the patio...it was ideal.
You can see the sand spit in the distance.
We booted home to get ready for dinner at Le Chat qui Peche. On our way down to the restaurant, we stopped in for a tour on the Athos, the canal boat run and operated by Julie and Darren's friends, Danielle and Julian.
It is an impressive operation, with five double cabins onboard and a huge commercial kitchen.
It is a luxurious holiday for the people who take their week-long cruises up the Canal du Midi.
Darren and I with the canal behind us.
This picture of the wheel is for my dad. Nice, eh?
The view from the wheelhouse is, as you can see in the picture below, quite limited. I don't know how Julian can possibly navigate this MASSIVE nose in front of him. The boat weighs 180 tons. It is a beast.
The view from the restaurant.
We ate dinner at the picnic table under the blue umbrella. The band playing was called "So Fast". They were...interesting. It wasn't bad, but for a long time I thought they were singing the French versions of well-known songs. They weren't. They were singing in "English", but boy, was it ever rough approximations of phonetic lyrics.
A great dinner and even better company.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
One of my regrets when we left Europe in 2005 was not getting to Carcassonne in France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it always intrigued me. When I realized that Argeliers is only an hour or so from Carcassonne, it was one.
Get ready for some medieval.
|Eric at the gates|
When they say "fortified city", they aren't messing around. I doubt we could protect a city better today, so it must have been quite a sight back when the was a threat other than marauding tourists.
You can tell that Carcassonne is meant for many visitors. I read four million yearly. Based on the amount of parking and infrastructure, I believe it. From the time I was a little kid, I have always loved the idea of putting my feet in the same place where human feet have trod for hundreds of years. I picture all the different shoes that have set foot on those giant, worn stones. My Toms, Eric's New Balance...right back to...well, whatever they wore a thousand years ago. Somehow, imagining my feet right with theirs, separated only by time, I feel a window through the ages.
Alright, enough. I really liked time travel books as a kid, obviously.
Back to today...
You have to stop for a moment and really pity the poor foot soldier who was told to scale the city walls. Not one set, but two. Imagine all the crazy stuff they would have thrown down off those walls. Bad place to be.
But not today. Today it was lovely.
We found a door that was clearly open only by mistake. I went just a couple of steps inside, but then got freaked out. This was as far as Eric went. It seemed way too much like a portal into another world...plus, it was filled with all kinds of gross garbage. It smelled weird, too. As much as I want to be the person who sees such an opportunity and bravely blazes in to explore the underbelly of medieval castles...I am not. It was too creepy and I am too cowardly.
This was the view from the top of the ramparts. At least you had a delightful vista to enjoy as you rained arrows into the faces of your invaders.
Of course, no walled city is complete without a huge cathedral. Lots of crazy stuff was done in the name of this place. Blood was spilled, yes it was.
Eric and I talked about all the secret, clandestine meetings that must have gone on in the back rooms of this church, plotting and strategizing against the Cathars and anyone else in the way of the faith. Makes your blood run cold in that chilly space.
Of course, the people couldn't live on faith and evil plots alone...they needed their taverns and pubs to keep the old medieval spirits up. There appear to have been lots to choose from. Nowadays, they are stuffed to the gills with tourists.
The number of people there on a quiet day made me very happy to visit on a weekday in early May and not with the hoards in the summer weekends. The state of the public bathroom was already a little too medieval in its scent and state of cleanliness. Add a few hundred thousand tourists and it won't improve.
Behind Eric is the castle within the walls.
And of course, for some Carcassonne is just their home town. This cemetery is in the shadow of the rampart walls.
Wars sure didn't stop in the Middle Ages. Carcassonne may have protected its citizens from the Moors, but modern times can seem just as barbaric. Georges Sige wasn't protected by his city walls in 1915.
When confronted by the utter brutality of mankind, there's nothing to do but drink a beer in the sunshine to combat it, right?
Well, that's what we did anyway. There is a newer, but still very old, city at the base of the fortified city. It is called la Ville Basse.
Fortified by our beers (get it? fortified...?), we headed to a nearby town called Minerve. I knew it was nice, but I wasn't expecting this:
Situated at the confluence of two rivers, Cesse and Brian, you cannot drive into the town. You park and walk.
|On the path to Minerve|
This is some really old stuff, here. There are ancient paths from the Middle Ages carved into this rocks. If you look very carefully in the middle of this picture, you can see the tiny bridge at the bottom. It was the foot bridge for trade between towns. There was a wheat mill down there, too.
It is perched on the rock. Truly on of the most spectacular (and secure) places I have ever seen.
I am remembering that in Europe, beauty often equals inconvenience. I think this would be a totally frustrating place to live today, but my god, the beauty.
Ancient things are just thrown around here, unnoticed and unheralded.
I can imagine the sense of humour this resident must have had, carving a dog licking its owner on one side and a pig on the other.
Ancient place are not built for people Eric's size.
How many people have passed through this gate? How must they have changed in appearance over the years? The mind boggles.
The city on perched on the rocks pictured on the right in the photo below. You can see the walls.
There are ancient foot paths built into all the rocks. Eric braved this super dodgy looking bridge.
And climbed the stairs to nowhere.
This is a new replica of the catapult that ultimately forced the surrender of Minerve when Simon de Montfort destroyed the fortified passage to the town's well in 1210. As a result, many people were burned on giant pyres. No mercy for the Minerve-ians.
I wonder how the idea to have the replica house stairs into the town passed through the local city hall. I think it is kind of mean to have the same stupid catapult still busting people into this sleepy little town. I bet they wish this catapult would just leave them alone!
Dove monument for all those Cathars burned alive here.
Again, the best antidote to being confronted by our human cruelty is...food.
Here I am in Homps. I am "Homping" it up in this picture. I don't think the locals would appreciate how funny the name Homps is to us. I am laughing typing it.
This is one of the boats you can rent. We think we need to try this some time...any takers?
Dinner to end the day at La Peniche. It was a great family restaurant and we ate around back in the garden.
Tomorrow, I am off to the flower market in Beziers with Julie and then Eric and I might hit some local beaches. Dinner tomorrow night at Le Chat qui Peche. Stay tuned.