Montpellier is a “young” city in more ways than one

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.

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The tourist “train” is a 40-minute audio tour of the historic center.

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.

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Montpellier has excellent public transportation, including four light rail lines like this tram. The cars are similar to those we rode on in San Diego.

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.

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A view of the park where Louis XIV reigns supreme, taken from on top of the Arc de Triomphe.

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.

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Jewish residents of Montpellier came here over 700 years ago to be cleansed in a ritual bath.

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.

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You can see the Gothic style of building a wall. Some stones are laid vertical, some horizontal so there is little waste.

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.

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Medallions like this one mark the way for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

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.

Bonne journée!

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Here we are leaving the Opera Comedie after a symphony concert featuring a sensational young cellist named Edgar Moreau. Stopped on the way home to have some gelato!
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Inside the Opera Comedie as the crowd gathers. The opera house was first built in the 1700s, but that structure burned, as did its replacement. This version opened in 1888.

Church came to us this week. Complete with a brass band!

One reason for traveling to foreign lands is to experience other cultures. To see how other people live. Those of us afflicted with the travel bug are usually curious about how people live in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, daily life is — for the most part — similar to daily life back in Illinois. But there are some striking differences. More than just the siesta.

We haven’t been to church in a few weeks (I know, seems like a non sequitur but stick with me here), so this week, church came to us.

On Saturday night, about 8 p.m., Leslie and I were relaxing after a busy day; just reading our books and thinking about a nice salad for dinner. Then we heard music coming from somewhere — sounded almost like a drum and bugle corps, but playing in a minor key. The living room window overlooks a short street that leads to a small plaza, and we can’t see much from that window. As the music got louder, we put our shoes on and headed downstairs to see what was the matter (getting in the Christmas spirit there).

What we saw was this: img_1315From a distance, it looked like a parade float. But as it came closer we could tell it was a platform bearing a statue of Jesus carrying his cross to the crucifixion site. It was probably 20 to 30 feet high. There were flowers on the platform and candles on each corner. It was coming toward us, right down Calle Mayor, accompanied by an impressive procession of people with banners and long metal poles, each topped by a Jerusalem cross. And right behind the float was a brass band, playing what sounded like a dirge.

When the procession passed our apartment, we fell in with other people and followed. It ended at Basilica Santa Maria, the Roman Catholic church just a block or two from where we’re living. It’s the oldest church in Alicante, built between the 14th and 16th centuries. The people carried the platform by placing long poles on their shoulders. They were very close together and completely in step.  I counted 42 in front and 46 in back. With the massive church doors open, as you can see in the photo (left) img_1299they carried the platform right inside. This solemn procession was very impressive, and quite moving.

We watched the band milling around in the plaza outside the basilica and it seemed they were waiting for something. Sure enough, after about 15 or 20 minutes, those carrying the Christ statue brought it out of the church, turned it around with some deft maneuvers, and went right back up Calle Mayor to the Plaza Santa Faz.

Leslie and I felt like we had been to church — or rather, that church had come to us! I hope you’ll be able to see this 2-minute video and hear the band, but it was dark and all I had was my iPhone. I shot the video as they left the church, and at the end you can Basilica Santa Maria. Cue the bells!

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Now, I’m not Catholic so I can’t say this with total certainty, but I doubt you would see anything like this in a U.S. church. This is one of those cultural events that we can only appreciate through travel to other countries, and becoming immersed in other cultures. We’ve asked around but still don’t know exactly why this event was happening. We know it was something the Santa Maria congregation does regularly.

As the procession made its way away from the church, I noticed one priest on a cell phone. Maybe he was talking to the pope, who knows. And I noticed one little trumpet player in the band who was very determined. Looked like he was marching next to his father.img_1321

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Just one more note on the band — and how many churches in the U.S. have a brass band for cryin’ out loud — some of the instruments looked like bugles, but with valves. Now, I played trombone in the high school band, so I know my brass. But I have never seen anything like these valved bugles. Not valves like on a trumpet or cornet (I saw both of those instruments, too), but valves nonetheless. Maybe they’re historic. Who knows?

Are there downsides to other cultures? Of course. We’ve noticed that lots more people smoke in Europe. And they smoke in outdoor seating at restaurants, which is annoying to those of us accustomed to fully non-smoking restaurants.  It was true in the U.K. and also here in Spain. They don’t always clean up after their dogs, either.

But experiences like the Saturday night procession remind us why we travel, why we try to get a feel for what people do in other countries. When we learn about other cultures, we grow and expand our horizons. When we learn about other cultures, we often see more similarities than differences. When we learn about other cultures, we tend not to mistrust them or fear them.