When she was young, Leslie had a poster on the wall of her room. It was a picture of the iconic French abbey Mont Saint-Michel(MOAN san-me-SHELL), showing the awesome structure poised at the top of an immense rock with sunset (sunrise?) colors all around. She called it “ephemeral,” and has wanted to see the place ever since. So we did. No sunsets, though.
Seen from a distance, this 10th-century structure rises up like a fortress out of the landscape. When you get closer, it’s truly awesome — there’s the abbey way up on the top of an immense rock, and a village around the lower part. We were there at low tide so we saw people walking in the sand below. At high tide, the rock is an island. There’s a causeway now that leads to the entrance, but in ancient times you needed a boat or patience (waiting for low tide) to get there.
“I’ve always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel up close,” Leslie said as we were headed back to our group tour van. “I never thought I would see the inside. It’s just amazing!”
What she didn’t count on was all the steps we had to climb to reach the actual church where the monks worship. Lots of steps! But it’s worth the climb because you get to see the inside of a structure that was built over 1,000 years ago. We saw the sanctuary where the monks and nuns worship, and the cloisters where they go to meditate — or they did, before thousands of tourists started pouring in daily. There have been changes to the abbey over the centuries, including installation of a statue of Saint Michel himself on the pinnacle. It looks great, but its real purpose is a lightning rod. I’ll add more photos below.
The are only seven monks and five nuns now. Our guide, Caroline, said this is a plum assignment for servants of the Church. This iconic abbey is only inhabited by the best of the best, and only for three years at a time. We saw one nun walking around in a gray habit talking to people.
The last stop in our tour around Normandy was seeing the Bayeux Tapestry. Formerly housed in the Bayeux Cathedral, it’s now in a museum. The audio guide explains the whole story. The tapestry is an account of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy seized the English throne from King Harold (who was, in truth, a usurper) in what we know as the Norman Conquest. We know William, the first Norman king of England, as William the Conquerer.
They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, so click on the link above to see some of the scenes, or Google “Bayeux Tapestry” for more information.
Now it’s on to Ireland! We’re in Dublin for a few days, then back to Chicago. See you soon!
Leslie and I celebrated Independence Day in Normandy, wearing red, white and blue. We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, where paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division spearheaded the D-Day invasion on the night of June 5, 1944. We walked on Utah and Omaha beaches where the American army poured out of little flat-bottomed boats and helped take back a continent. We stood on sacred ground in the American cemetery in Colleville, surrounded by the graves of those who died in that operation, some of whom never made it off the beaches.
This was kind of a “bucket list” trip for me. I had brief affiliations with the 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division during my time in uniform, and I thought of this as similar to a pilgrimage. Our excellent guide, Francois, told us the 1962 film “The Longest Day” was filmed mostly in places where the historic events took place, such as in Sainte-Mère-Église. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a solider, Pvt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the steeple of the town’s church. He was stranded there with German soldiers shooting at him. There’s a dummy hanging there now — in the wrong place. Francois explained that the movie showed Steele, played by Red Buttons, dangling from a steeple overlooking the town square. But in reality, he was on the other side of the building. A minor distinction — except to John Steele.
We went to Utah Beach, where Francois apologized that we arrived at high tide. The invasion happened at low tide, and he wanted us to see how far the soldiers had to move across the beach. We had to visualize how they left flat-bottomed Higgins boats — named for their American inventor — and made their way inland. He said this landing had success in part because aerial bombardment was more accurate than in other sectors, and because most of the Sherman tanks made it onto the beach to support ground troops.
Pointe du Hoc is a spot between Utah and Omaha beaches where U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder of Texas, had to scale 100-foot cliffs to destroy artillery emplacements that were part of Germany’s impressive Atlantic Wall defense. As Francois explained, the Germans had removed all the 155mm howitzers (big cannons) to protect them from Allied bombardment. But two Rangers found the weapons hidden in a wooded area and the mission became a success. We saw the craters from Allied bombs, and we climbed over and through what’s left of the concrete German bunkers.
The views from this place are incredible. We could see other cliffs in the distance and got a feel for what these young men had to deal with. Casualties were heavy. Of the 225 Rangers who hit the beach that morning, 80 were killed in the assault and only 90 were still able to continue at the end of the day.
The American army met the stiffest resistance at Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment was less effective and most of the tanks didn’t make it to shore. Francois described how bomber pilots were instructed to fly above the clouds to avoid antiaircraft fire. Only a small percentage of bombs reached their target, and the landing force walked right into a devastating crossfire. Because the assault happened at low tide, some of the landing craft hit sandbars and deposited soldiers too early. Many were forced to traverse a distance of three or four football fields, sometimes wading in neck-deep water wearing full combat gear. More than 1,000 men died on this beach.
We ended the day at the cemetery, which is literally American soil — given to the U.S. in gratitude by the French government. Thanks to Francois’ excellent driving, we arrived just in time to see the 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony. Every day, two American flags are lowered and “taps” is played as the second one comes down. I’ll admit I got a little choked up. After the ceremony, I was able to stroll the main walkway and look down the rows of white crosses, with a few Stars of David in the mix too. They’ve been gone for 74 years, but as a U.S. Army veteran I still see them as my brothers. They make me proud to have worn the uniform.
Next time, Leslie fulfills a childhood dream.
UPDATE:Mexico has been knocked out of World Cup competition, but France won its quarterfinal final match against Uruguay, 2-0, so they’re still in the hunt. We’re pulling for France, but no, the World Cup winner won’t determine where we’ll be living six months from now!
Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.
France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).
Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.
There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.
As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.
Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)
Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.
MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:
And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):
We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it:
Cost of living is an important factor in our choice of where to live. It’s not the most important, but I think we must give stronger consideration to countries and cities where our dollar goes further. So let’s look at what we’ve been spending to live like the locals here in Montpellier, France.
After housing, food probably takes the biggest chunk of our budget. For most items, we go to the French grocer Monoprix, which has a store in nearby Place de la Comédie (all amounts in USD):
canned white tuna, 3.28 oz., $2.32.
facial tissue, $2.51.
almond milk, 1L, $3.48.
basmati rice, 17.6 oz., $2.04.
gluten-free bread, $5.13.
Colgate toothpaste, 2.5 oz., $2.90.
olive oil, 16.9 oz., $6.98.
President butter, 8.8 oz., $5,47.
one dozen eggs, $3.48.
Barilla pasta sauce, 12.8 oz., $2.27.
For fruits and vegetables, there’s the Halle Castellane market right next door to our building. There are a number of vendors for fruits and vegetables, chicken and meat, seafood, cheese, even wine:
aged comté cheese, 10 oz., $11.63.
broccoli, 10.9 oz., $1.01.
head of romaine lettuce, $1.52.
asparagus, 12 oz., $3.83.
eggplant, 9.3 oz., $.91.
zucchini, 11.1 oz., $1.02.
Roma tomatoes, 12 oz., $1.90.
carrots, 19 oz., $1.63.
white onions, 12 oz., $.80.
boneless chicken breasts, 11.5 oz., $6.54.
beef tenderloin, 10.2 oz., $14.85.
There’s also a good boucherie (butcher shop) close by. We got a 1.3-pound pork roast there for $9.18, and 2.2 pounds of ground beef for $14.99 — and they ground it fresh while we watched!
We’ve also been to the open-air market under the 18th-century aqueduct, but the vendors don’t always provide receipts and I can’t remember what we spent. We pay cash for all those transactions. I sense it’s slightly less than at Halle Castellane. The open-air market is only on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and it’s a bit of a hike. We’ve only been twice.
Wine appears to be the best bargain, and I guess we should expect that since we’re in the largest wine-producing region in France. We’ve found excellent local wines for $12 or less — even less than $10.
Dining out seems to cost roughly the same here in Montpellier as it does in Chicago’s western suburbs. I think we’ve been spending slightly less for dinner but more for lunch. For example, after church Sunday we stopped at a restaurant on the Place du Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market Square) that features burgers and ratatouille. I had a burger with a nice German beer and Leslie had salmon with rice and ratatouille and a glass of rosé — total of $47.05. Their basic burger was over $15. A few weeks ago we tried an Argentine restaurant that features empanadas. (I was looking forward to this because I used to enjoy empanadas from a food truck in the Loop.) We each had two empanadas. Granted, we had dessert and enjoyed two glasses of malbec each, but the total was $49.04.
Dinner, on the other hand, seems a bit more affordable. We cook at home most nights, though, so the sample size is small. We’ve been to three of the four places our host, Anne-Marie, recommended. On our first night in Montpellier, we went to Bistro d’Alco and enjoyed three-course meals that included some very fine foie gras as an appetizer. Can’t recall what the main courses were, but they both just blew us away. This is a highly rated farm-to-table restaurant with an ever-changing menu, and our total bill with wine was $79.18.
The second restaurant was L’Artichaut (The Artichoke), where we spent $84.22. This place has earned the Michelin Bib Gourmand award for good, simple cooking at prices under $46. Leslie had the three-course meal (including a chocolate dessert that we shared), while I enjoyed a very nice fish. And of course there was wine. (One of our favorite quotes: “A meal without wine is — breakfast.”) I remember spending more on dinner for two at some of our favorite “special occasion” places in Westmont, Naperville and Oak Brook. So dinner can be a bit of a bargain, in my opinion — lunch, not so much. We did one fine dining experience at Restaurant 1789 in a 13th century building with Gothic ceilings. Pricey, but with amazing food and outstanding service.
I’m getting hungry now, so let’s move on to real estate, starting with the rental market. Based on what I’ve seen online and in handouts from some of the immobiliers (real estate agencies) in our area, the market seems geared toward university students and young singles. You can rent a studio for less than $600 per month (real estate amounts in USD too). You’ll pay more if you want an actual bedroom. For example, a one-bedroom on the city’s north side is $719, and one in the Beaux Arts neighborhood, closer to the historic center, is $812. Both are unfurnished.
That would not be adequate for Leslie and me. We need a two-bedroom because we hope some of you are going to come for a visit — wherever we eventually land. At the very least, we need a place for Stephanie when she comes. I went on one website that listed hundreds of rental properties. When I clicked on the filter for two bedrooms, I got back six. And four of those were unfurnished. Another site, though, offered a two-bedroom with a private garden in the Arceaux neighborhood for $1,350.
Sale prices, as usual, depend on location. One agency had a flyer that listed a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace and parking near the newer suburb of Port Marianne for just $180,646. On the high end, there’s an air-conditioned three-bedroom apartment in Place de la Comédie for $503,479. Great location, but it would be noisy. The place is the largest pedestrian square in Europe! I saw lower sale prices in outlying communities, such as Palavas-les-Flots, and Pezenas.
Being in the historic center is nice, but Leslie says that if we were to live here long-term she would want something more modern. Recently we took the Montpellier City Tour, a red bus that goes through some of the newer parts of this town. Modern can be found easily in places like Port Marianne and Odysseum, suburbs built in the 1990s while Montpellier was growing from the 28th largest city in France to its seventh largest. And there’s building underway. Looks like the state bird here is the construction crane. Live in one of these areas and you’re just a quick, inexpensive tram ride into the historic center and the main train station. Closer to the historic district is the Antigone neighborhood, which Leslie says she likes because of the classical Greek architecture. Different from the historic center, but with the same walkability — shops and restaurants everywhere.
That’s all on the dollars and cents angle. In the next post — our last from Montpellier — I’ll explain whether or not Leslie and I would consider living in this little corner of the south of France.
While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.
Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.
We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.
There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting.Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”
We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.
We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.
We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region. French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.
When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.
Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.
Leslie and I are liking Montpellier, and the south of France, a little more every day. This is a young, energetic city with lots going on. But at the same time, the pace is not hectic. People take time to enjoy life.
We’re learning more about Montpellier, having taken a guided walking tour of the city center and ridden on the little white tourist “train” through a slightly larger part of the historic district. Let me tell you about our current home.
But first, Leslie insisted I say something about the French people. We have found them to be warm and helpful. Most people we encounter speak at least some English and many are able to slip seamlessly from French to English if we need assistance. For example, we went to the beach last week in the coastal town of Carnon. Coming home, we took the wrong bus. In trying to fix the problem, the driver realized I didn’t speak French, so he gave us instructions in English. While we were waiting for the right bus, a couple came by and the gentleman said something in French. When our response made it obvious we didn’t understand French, he switched to near-flawless English and explained how we could take a different bus to get home. After discussing the options, we decided to stay with the original plan.
It may be that people are helpful because we’re in a big tourist area, but I think the key for non-French-speakers is to at least try French with the locals. Say bonjour when greeting people, even if you follow that with parlez-vous Anglais? If you try, they will bend over backwards to help. Just about every waiter in local restaurants speaks English well enough to explain the menu and answer questions. One waiter was surprised we knew no French, but he then went through the entire menu (it was fairly short) and explained each dish in English. We both had great meals. The moral of the story is: If somebody tells you the French are rude, they are wrong. Dead wrong. Just wanted you to know that. Now, on with the show.
Montpellier is called a “young” city. Yes, there are lots of university students here, but there’s also another reason: It’s only been here a little over 1,000 years. There are no Roman ruins here, as there are in nearby Nîmes and Arles, because Montpellier was not a Roman settlement. People didn’t start living here until the late 10th century. The university, including law and medical schools, dates to the 12th century. The medical school is Europe’s oldest, and one of the most prestigious. And Montpellier’s cathedral was built in the 14th century.
In the 16th century Montpellier was controlled by French Protestants, known as Huguenots. But the Bourbon kings were Catholic, and King Louis XIII laid siege to the city in 1622. Didn’t take long before the Huguenots gave up. Later, King Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King,” made Montpellier a regional capital. He created the Promenade du Peyrou, a nearby park dominated by a statute of Louis on horseback. He then decreed that nothing could be built higher than this promenade. It’s good to be king! Louis also installed a park in the city center, now known as Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I go for a jog there almost every morning.
We were thrilled to visit a Jewish mikvah, or ritual bath, that dates to the 13th century. It’s the only one left in Europe. The synagogue was destroyed when the Jews were driven out of this area hundreds of years ago, but the mikvah was underground. It was re-discovered in 1985 and can now be seen only on the walking tour.
Marie-Helen, our guide, showed us several buildings with what appeared to be 17th- and 18th-century façades — buildings that look like similar structures in Paris. That was the point of putting a new front on the building — to make the city look like Paris. But walk inside and the ceilings are obviously Gothic, dating to the Middle Ages. In one building, now apartments, Marie-Helen showed us an interior wall that was probably put up in the 13th or 14th century. She explained how builders in that day developed techniques that used all the stone they had, so there was very little waste. Two or three layers vertical, one layer horizontal was one such technique. It’s easy to spot.
Another very cool aspect of this town is that it’s on one of routes for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. (Check the link if you’re not familiar with this amazing spiritual journey.) In fact, one variation of the Arles Way actually begins right here in Montpellier. There are brass medallions in some of the streets in our neighborhood that show the path. We walk over them every day and think of friends who have made this lengthy hike.
Montpellier also has lots of cultural events. There was a brass band festival a few weeks ago. We encountered brass bands — well, some have clarinets and saxes, too — during the day in two different locations, just playing on a street corner. One evening we walked to the main stage in the Beaux Arts district, where we joined a few thousand locals enjoying a band called Los Teoporos (see video below). There were three more scheduled to appear, each playing for almost an hour. People of all ages were having a great time. And we went to a concert at the Opéra Comédie featuring the local symphony, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier. Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. Loved it! There’s a modern dance festival coming up, too, and a Picasso exhibit just opened at the Musée Fabre. Something for everybody!
But there’s more to the south of France than Montpellier. Next time, I’ll describe a jousting match we watched this week. No horses, though — boats! Stay tuned.
Apologies, all. I neglected to provide a pronunciation for this energetic city in which we’re living through the end of June. If you took any French classes in high school or college, you probably know Montpellier is pronounced: moan-pell-YEA.
Leslie and I are getting into the French lifestyle, and it has its advantages. Notably, the idea of joie de vivre (zwah-du-VEEV-ruh), or “joy of living.” Leslie has done a bit of research on this concept. It’s all about enjoying life, nature, good food, fine wine. Work is less important than having a leisurely meal with friends, and it’s fine if that’s a two-hour lunch. Actually, work is less important than just about everything, which is counter to the culture we left behind in the States and we like it a lot.
Through Airbnb, we have a nice one-bedroom apartment with a comfortable bed, a big-screen TV and a decent kitchen. The refrigerator, however, is quite small. Once at the nearby grocery store I commented on something that looked delicious. “There’s no room in the fridge,” Leslie responded. So I stopped suggesting. Anyway, she picks the food, I’m just the pack mule.
So we’re adjusting to how the French live. They visit the markets almost daily, buying food for tonight’s dinner and maybe tomorrow’s breakfast. But many shops are closed (or have limited hours) Sunday, and many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday. You have to plan appropriately.
And the markets are amazing. Across the street from our apartment is the Halles Castellane, an enclosed market that’s open daily with stalls for a variety of vendors: fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, cheese, fresh fish, dried fruits, pastries, even wine. One produce vendor sells fresh-squeezed orange juice — 5.90 euros ($6.94 USD) for a liter. Expensive, but it’s the best OJ in town! There are a couple of cheese vendors, but we like Les Marie because the young woman who runs the stand speaks a little English and is helping us try different French cheeses, like comté and appenzeller. Leslie was over the moon when she found her all-time favorite roquefort — the real stuff.
The Marché des Arceaux, a short walk away, is an open-air market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. It’s more like our favorite Saturday morning farmers market in Downers Grove — and just as crowded. You can buy almost anything here. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we got some gallettes (like a potato pancake — great lunch), some pâte de fruit (fruit candies), and a nice chunk of smoked ham with roasted vegetables. We also bought a bottle of wine and some olive oil from a woman who told us she grows the olives and presses the oil herself. Vendors set up their tents under the 18th-century aqueduct that once brought the city’s water 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from the Saint-Clément spring to the water tower in Place Royale du Peyrou.
We’ve also learned more about the wines made in Languedoc-Rousillion, which is an area of more than 700,000 acres under vines. It is the single biggest wine region in the world, producing more than a third of France’s total wine production. You can get Languedoc-Rousillion wines in the States (see our friend Sean at Hinsdale Wine Shop!) but Leslie and I are focusing on wineries near Montpellier — especially from Pic Saint Loup (a mountain about 15 minutes northeast of Montpellier). There’s a wine shop right around the corner from our place, Maison Regionale des Vins, where they speak a little English and are eager to help us find great local wines, many of which come from the Pic Saint Loup appellation.
We spent a morning recently at Domaine Haut-Lirou, riding in a 4X4 with new friend Nicholas to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The vines are bright green and growing like crazy right now. There’s been a lot of rain lately, which is good. Most of the vines have already set fruit, and we could see the beginnings of grapes. Their wines are excellent. We came home with four bottles! We’re planning more wine tours over the next few weeks.
Finally, we’ve found an English-speaking non-denominational church. When I stumbled upon the website for International Chapel I thought most of the photos showed young people — college-age or slightly older. And highly diverse. Not many people that look like me or Leslie. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our place, so we went. Yep, mostly students and no old people. But this was one of the warmest, most outgoing congregations we’ve encountered yet. We met a couple with three kids from The Netherlands, here because of his job. We met a young woman from Papua who’s just wrapping up her Ph.D. We met a guy who grew up in Montpellier but is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a baby. Diverse? Yep again. Black, white, brown, yellow and mixtures of the above, from lots of different countries. It truly is an international church.
We talked extensively with Pastor John and his wife Robyn, who have been serving International Chapel for 14 years. Turns out John grew up in Hinsdale! The church is in a very small space on the ground floor of an apartment building just outside the historic district. Their services don’t include much liturgy. Just several songs, some prayer, a sermon and a closing song. We like the church, the people, and the energy. We’ll go back over the coming weeks.
Next time, I’ll tell you more about the history of Montpellier and about some of the places Leslie and I have been able to visit — like the 13th-century Jewish ritual bath.
Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.
Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.
Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!
So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.
Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédie, in less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.
Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walkingunder the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.
First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.
There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.