Earlier today (Wednesday, Aug. 29), Leslie and I picked up our visas from the Mexican consulate here in Chicago. The folks there were very helpful and easy to work with. Thanks, Jorge, for all your assistance! Oh, sorry — I mean, gracias por todos, Jorge! Now we can purchase plane tickets for our flight to Guadalajara, probably on Oct. 31.
Once we arrive, we’ll have 30 days to appear at the immigration office in Chapala and complete the two-step process for our permanent resident cards. Those cards identify us as legal permanent residents of Mexico. We can come and go as we choose, and there’s no need to renew.
Last week, we sent in a deposit and signed a six-month lease on a casita in Ajijic. It’s new construction on Privada Independencia with three casitas. We got #1, which is closest to the street. We’re excited about moving into this place. There are two bedrooms, two baths, a nicely equipped kitchen, water filtration system, washer and dryer, and a mirador shared with the other casitas (remember, that’s an outdoor space on the roof, usually covered and with a view).
We’re looking forward to reconnecting with St. Andrew’s Anglican Church and the people we met there a year ago. Hope they still have our name tags! This is a vital church that does a lot of good work in the community, and we hope to find ways in which we can contribute.
Finally, Leslie had cataract surgery yesterday (Tuesday, Aug. 28) on her left eye and is really excited at how well she can see just a day after surgery. Her doctor is very pleased with her progress. Final step is a visit with an optometrist in about a month to see if she will need glasses for reading or driving. Hopefully not!
We’ll keep you posted as the time approaches for us to leave for our new home. The vagabond days are almost over!
I know it’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report on. Leslie and I have enjoyed seeing family and friends, dining at favored old haunts and being back at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville.
Once we decided on Ajijic, Mexico, as our new home, Leslie put the word out that we were looking for a place to rent, starting the first of November. It paid off in the form of a tip from our friend Anita about a two-bedroom house within budget that has a lot of amenities. It’s new construction in the heart of the village just a block from the shore of Lake Chapala. It’s easy walking distance to one of the weekly markets and many of our favorite restaurants. We should be signing a six-month lease within the week.
The rental agent says trees effectively block a view of the lake from the mirador, and that’s a downside. Also, it’s not in our preferred location, but the photos look great and we’ll be the first residents. The six-month lease gives us the flexibility to try out this spot while we look for something farther west that has a pool and maybe a lake view. If our “dream” location becomes available, we’ll move. If not, we’ll renew the lease and enjoy being in the village.
Leslie had her first cataract surgery Aug. 7. Everything went swimmingly and she’s back to normal activities. Dr. Lafayette will do the left eye Aug. 28, giving her a full two months recovery time before we head south. If all goes as planned, she won’t need contact lenses or glasses (except maybe reading glasses) anymore. She’s excited about that.
Finally, we have an appointment Friday, Aug. 24 to apply for our Residente Permanente Jubilado visas (Permanent Resident Retiree). That begins the process for the Mexican equivalent of a “green card.” We’ve heard good things about El Consulado General de México in Chicago. We’ve got all the required documents and we’re hoping the process will be simple and fast. More on that to come.
That’s all for now. I’ll post another update as needed!
It was quite difficult and we did a lot of back-and-forth, but Leslie and I have decided on our new home. We had two excellent — and very different — choices. How did we choose between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France? Let’s look at the data.
First, what’s so good about Ajijic? I know, some of you think there’s nothing good about anywhere in Mexico. That’s probably because you’ve never been where we’ve been. A good friend and former work colleague was one of those people until recently. We had lunch a few days ago and he said he enjoyed reading this blog, saying, “You’ve made Mexico three-dimensional for me. It was always one-dimensional.”
Ajijic is close to the U.S., so we can get back easily if need be, and friends and family can visit. The cost of living in Ajijic is quite favorable. Coupled with the good dollar-peso exchange rate, that makes Mexico a great place for North American retirees. And the Mexican people are warm and friendly; pass a local on the street and you’ll always hear “buenos dias.” Here are some other Ajijic positives:
Furnished rental housing is easily available.
Climate is mild with few extremes.
There’s a thriving English-speaking faith community.
There are many other expats in the area.
The Lake Chapala Society offers lots of services and events.
There are volunteer opportunities to remain active.
We have established contacts to help with our transition.
Health care is good. Most doctors are trained at the medical school in Guadalajara, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins.
There are a number of cultural opportunities, both in the Lake Chapala area and in Guadalajara, which has its own symphony orchestra and opera company.
There are some downsides to Ajijic, though. Area roads are not as good as in Europe, and in most places you must drink bottled water. One big complaint is that in some parts of the Lake Chapala area you cannot flush toilet paper. It goes in a trash can instead. We would need housing in the newer areas where this is not an issue. A few other not-so-good things:
Intercity roads are limited.
Public transportation is not great. Intercity bus service is great, though.
Are there too many gringos in the area?
Right now there is uncertainty about the future of the Mexican government. The new president does not take office until December.
Locally grown vegetables must be treated before eating. It’s simple but time-consuming.
Infrastructure in the village is not great, and there is limited parking.
Montpellier also has lots of positives, most notably its energy. There’s a great vibe in this fast-growing city. Cultural opportunities abound — concerts, festivals, plays and other forms of entertainment. Food from local markets is of a higher quality than in the U.S., and there are great markets all over town. Leslie was able to eat cheese and bread in France. Her system has had a problem with both for years, and she was in heaven! Some other good points:
Public transportation is excellent.
It’s easy to reach other European countries we want to visit.
It’s close to some nice Mediterranean beaches.
We have established contacts with people who can help with our transition.
France is a first-world country with excellent infrastructure.
History is pretty much everywhere.
The World Health Organization ranks French health care as the best in the world.
But the cost of living in Montpellier is higher than in Mexico and with the unfavorable dollar-euro exchange rate, the dollar doesn’t go as far. Also, getting to France is a little more difficult and time-consuming, so we might get fewer visits from family and friends. And there’s this:
Furnished housing may be limited, and two-bedroom apartments are expensive and rare.
It gets a little chilly in winter. Last winter they had some snow, although it melted two days later.
There’s a seven-hour time difference from Chicago; nine from Stephanie in San Diego.
We took all that — and more — into consideration and agreed that by Nov. 1, we hope to be full-time residents of Ajijic, Mexico. We’ve already begun getting paperwork together for our permanent resident (retiree) visa application.
There were several factors, but mostly we think it will be easier to transition into living long-term in Mexico than anywhere else we’ve been. We’ve spent a lot of time there over the past two years and we have a network of friends to provide help and advice. Location and cost of living were also big factors. We’ll actually be closer to Stephanie than we were in the Chicago area, and friends and family have an easier time traveling to Mexico for visits. Plus, the dollar goes a lot further in Mexico, and the climate seems to be better. While we loved living in Montpellier, we simply felt Ajijic would be the best bet for our first attempt at being true expats.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we will live in Ajijic forever. Remember, we might decide at some point to get a change of scenery and relocate. Montpellier would probably be at the top of our list.
This blog, of course, will continue! We’ll keep you posted as the process develops.
We’re back in the U.S.A. for the summer to see family and friends, get some routine medical procedures done and decide where we’re going to live as non-vagabonds. Just like last year, we are lodging at the Hyatt House in Warrenville, Ill. They must be glad to have us back. They even gave us the same suite we had last year!
Our two-year quest for a new home is over — or is it? Leslie and I have lived as locals (or as close as we can get) in Spain, Malta, Costa Rica, France and five cities in Mexico. And, of course, San Diego, which was always Plan B.
As I noted in an earlier post, our worst fears have come true — it’s a tie! We’re trying to decide between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places with lots of pros and very few cons. We rejected Malta and Costa Rica, as well as Mérida and Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Also-rans are (not in any particular order) San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Spain’s southern coast: Alicante, Malaga and Cartagena (or maybe Valencia on the eastern coast). Any of those places would be just fine if the first choices don’t work out, or if we need some variety.
I think the most important thing we’ve learned over the last two years is that we don’t have to pick one place and live there forever. If we go to Ajijic, for example, and decide a year from now that we don’t like it, or if things change so much that it’s no longer good for us, then we can pack up and move. Our preference, of course, would be to assimilate into our new community — pick new doctors, volunteer in the community, make new friends, learn the language and generally immerse ourselves in our new home. But we’re retired, remember? We can go anywhere.
To do that, though, we need resident visas. Either a temporary or permanent visa that lets us live in another country indefinitely. It will take time to get visas, at either the Mexican or French consulate in Chicago, so we need to start that process soon. We hope to begin our relocation by Nov. 1.
Do you have an opinion on where we should live? If so, post a comment with your favorite — and why it’s your favorite. Then watch this space for the big decision!
Leslie and I are excited to be in a country where they speak English. (Irish too, such as the “hello” greeting above and “goodbye” at the end, but mainly English.) We decided to close our second European visit with a few days as tourists in Dublin. We’ve learned a lot about the home of some of our ancestors (Mike: Ireland, Scotland, Wales; Leslie: Ireland, Scotland, Hungary).
We started out at Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells, a ninth-century illuminated version, in Latin, of the four New Testament gospels. It’s hard to believe, as you gaze upon this treasure, that someone did this intricate work over 1,000 years ago. It’s beautiful. After you see the book, you can wander in The Long Room section of the college’s Old Library and see books that date back hundreds of years.
From Dublin it’s a very long bus ride to the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning display of God’s handiwork along Ireland’s wild west coast. The visitor center has videos to watch and displays to peruse. This can be helpful when it’s cold and rainy and the clouds drift down toward the sea, restricting visibility. We spent a few minutes checking out the center, then wandered outside to find “peeks of sun,” as we say in Chicago. It wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the views were awesome! We were forced to take off our rain gear because it was getting too hot. Just like Chicago — if you don’t like the weather, wait. It’ll change.
Then we visited the Hill of Tara, the political center of ancient Ireland, and also Uisneach, the spiritual center. Tara is where the Irish High King ruled. We saw a neolithic burial mound as well as a ring fort where the High King’s family may have lived. Our guide, John, said the Irish kings were chosen to be tribal leaders. It was not necessarily a hereditary office. The king was merely the best person for the job at the time. The Hill of Tara is important to Irish politics because it was central to the Irish Rebellion of 1789. British forces won a battle at the Hill of Tara, killing almost 400 rebels. A plaque commemorates their loss.
Uisneach is on private land, owned by the family that runs the largest dairy farm in Ireland. Here we were joined by Simon, whose knowledge of Irish mythology and folklore is amazing. He loves telling the old stories of Lough and Èriu. Uisneach is also the site of an annual fire celebration, such as the 2017 event in the video on this site. Watch the video carefully at the :36 mark and again at :57 to get a glimpse of a very short man with white hair on the sides of his head and none at all on top. That’s Michael Higgins, president of Ireland.
In Ireland, fairies are an important part of the culture and the folklore, but they’re nothing at all like Tinker Bell. Simon showed us a fairy tree, which is merely a hawthorn tree standing in a field by itself, sometimes with large stones underneath. Simon said the Irish are not superstitious, but they will never cut down a fairy tree. He told us two stories. One was about a motorway (we call it a tollway) the government wanted to build. But the plan required cutting down a fairy tree, and none of the site workers would do it. Eventually they changed the motorway route and the tree still stands today.
The other story is about how a fairy tree was actually cut down to build the DeLorean Motor Co. plant in Ireland. Is DeLorean still in business? Of course not, and the Irish say it’s because the company cut down a fairy tree. No, the people of Ireland are not superstitious, but they will not mess with fairies. Better to be on the safe side.
They don’t mess with leprechauns either, and while we didn’t get much instruction in these little fellows, Simon did say that they cannot be trusted. If you catch one, he must give you his crock o’ gold. But they’re crafty and will try to cheat you out of it. Simon’s advice was: If you see a little man in a field or a wood repairing shoes, just keep walking.
Loughcrew is yet another spot that evokes ancient Ireland. We had to climb a sizable hill, dodging sheep (and sheep droppings) on the way up, to see Cairn T, also known as Hag’s Cairn. It’s called that because of a large stone bench used by a giant witch who wanted to rule all of Ireland. The people agreed, provided she could leap from one mountain to another carrying rocks in her skirt. She failed, and you can see where she spilled the rocks all over what’s now Hag’s Cairn. Our guide, John, said many burial sites have been robbed of stones over the centuries, mostly by people who simply wanted to build a stone fence and were unaware of the historical significance of these tombs. But all the stones are still on the Hag’s Cairn. Remember, Irish people aren’t superstitious. They just won’t do anything that might make the witch mad. Why take a chance?
We squeezed into the small megalithic burial chamber under the mound to see symbols carved into the rock. As dawn breaks on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun’s rays fall perfectly on the the first symbol, then move up the rock to the next ones. John said this was a calendar for the ancient people. It told them when to plant and when to harvest.
Leslie and I got our fill of great Irish food in a few Dublin pubs John recommended on the bus ride back from Loughcrew. The Oak dates to 1860, and Stag’s Head (which has an actual stag’s head over the bar) is in Dame Court where a pub has stood, in one form or another, since the 18th century. I admired the wood, mostly original, used to build the bars in these two pubs. Outstanding craftsmanship. But if you ever get to Dublin, go to the Temple Bar area and look for Boxty House. Best corned beef I ever ate.
We head back to the U.S. to visit family and friends, see some doctors and decide where we’re going to live now that the two-year Vagabond mission is over. What will our choice be? Looks like it’s down to two very different cities. It’s not going to be an easy decision. We’ll keep you posted.
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:
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.