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.

Thoughts on our ‘halftime’ in Chicago

OK, I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I said Leslie and I would be in the Chicago area for several weeks this summer to see our doctors and visit friends and family. But I left out another big reason: The Chicago Air & Water Show.

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Fran and Rick watch the Blue Angels.

Leslie’s sister Laura and our brother-in-law Paul have a condo on the 51st floor of a Chicago high-rise with stunning views of Lake Michigan. Since buying this place, they have hosted an annual party for a group of friends to watch the “air” portion of the Air & Water Show, and it’s a fantastic viewpoint. That’s where we were Saturday (Aug. 19), seeing old friends and enjoying a great Chicago event.

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team was the headline act. They’re always exciting to watch. There were other precision flying teams and acrobatic pilot performances, some using biplanes and aircraft from World War II. The Army’s Golden Knights parachute team impressed the crowds, as did the Navy’s Leap Frogs. There were flybys from military aircraft like the KC-135 tanker and the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line stealth fighter. One highlight of the day was watching the F-22 jet fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang, a piston-engine WWII-era fighter plane. It’s incredible how aircraft designed and built more than 60 years apart can fly together. (For more on the amazing F-22, see this article from Popular Mechanics.)

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Ken (left), Fran, Tom and Peter watch the Heritage Flight. The tower on the right is Aqua, which houses condos and a hotel.

Here’s a You Tube video someone shot from Wrigleyville. It includes the Blue Angels and the F-22/P-51 Heritage Flight. It runs about eight minutes and the perspective is different than what we saw from just south of the Chicago River, but it gives you an idea of how exciting this show is. Next year, we’ll see the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform.

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Enjoying the balcony view are Kirsten and Peter (nearest camera), and Fran and Rick. 

We go every year to see the show, but also to see friends and catch up. Laura had a great spread of food out, as usual, including a spiral-cut ham, potato salad, bean salad, watermelon salad and other nibbles. And wine, of course. There’s always wine. This year, Leslie and I were able to share our favorite wines from Malta, one red and one white, with our friends thanks to a shipment from Meridiana Wine Estate.

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Ken liked both Maltese wines, but he really liked an expensive bottle of Spanish wine I laid in for about five years as a special treat for this group. “I don’t want to sound flowery,” he said, “but the bouquet is intoxicating.” 

Most seemed to like the chardonnay “Isis” a little better than the merlot “Nexus.” (Meridiana names their wines after Phoenician gods because the Phoenicians were the first to settle on Malta.) Leslie and I think Isis is one of the best chardonnays we’ve tasted.

After the Air Show party, I joined Leslie and Laura for a concert in Millennium Park — part of the Grant Park Music Festival. We’ve enjoyed this festival for many years, and I was glad we got to this free concert. It was the last GPMF concert of the summer. The festival’s orchestra and chorus outdid themselves with a terrific rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Enjoy this brief clip, shot with my iPhone:

Some other thoughts on being in the States:

  • Last week, I took a train into downtown Chicago — as I did nearly every day for almost 15 years — to have lunch with a former co-worker. As I walked down Adams Street toward the restaurant, I noticed that I was walking on the shadier side of the street. Six months in sunny Mexico can change your perspective!
  • We have enjoyed seeing family and friends, and eating at old favorite establishments.
  • Leslie and I both have clean bills of health from our physicians so far. We have a few more to go, including some of those wonderful diagnostic tests doctors like to perform on people our age!
  • And we both look A LOT better now that we’ve gotten good haircuts. Thank you, Traci!

We leave for Ajijic, Mexico, on Sept. 14. I hope to post again before we leave.

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Some of the crowd in front of us on The Great Lawn at Millennium Park, with a view to the stage of the Jay Pritzer Pavilion. I staked out a spot early, so we got pretty close. Concert-goers pay for the seats but the Great Lawn is free. 
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The rest of the crowd, behind us. The Grant Park Music Festival is very popular. It’s fun to check out the food other people bring. There are some great dinners out there.

 

Moving on; one stop left in Phase I

We’re at the end of our six weeks in Mérida. Tomorrow, Leslie and I hop on a bus and travel to the beach city of Playa del Carmen. We’re looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures and a more walkable town.

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, is an interesting city.

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Merida’s many parks feature these “conversation chairs,” also called “Las Sillas Confidantes,” or  “Tu y Yo,” or “De Los Enamorados.” This young couple shows the original purpose.

There are some good things about it:

  • While there are lots of expats here (fewer in May when it’s so hot), the percentage is smaller than in the other cities we’ve been to so you don’t often run into other Americans or Canadians on the street.
  • The cost of living seems a bit lower here, especially for food at the local mercados and for real estate.
  • There’s no beach in Mérida but in 20 to 30 minutes you can be on the tip of the peninsula and enjoy neat little beach towns like Progreso.
  • Orquestra Sinfónica de Yucatán performs in a very nice concert hall. They’re pretty good, too. And there are classical music performances every Sunday at a smaller auditorium on the other side of the park. Last week we saw the chamber orchestra Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida do seven Vivaldi works. A free concert!
  • St. Luke’s Anglican Church has warm, helpful people and an energetic priest who gives insightful sermons. Sunday (June 4), we helped inaugurate the new church building just five blocks from our house.
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Merida’s cathedral, completed in 1598. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral on the American mainland. This cathedral and the one in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) were the only American cathedrals built entirely during the 16th century.

Never say “never,” but Leslie and I agree Mérida won’t make our final list. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

  • I never thought we would say a place is “too hot,” but Mérida is too hot. And too humid. Maybe it would be perfect in January, but we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • This is a city of almost a million people. It’s big and spread out, and outside the centro it’s not very “Mexican.” We liked the smaller towns better.
  • Being a big city, of course, means it’s not very walkable, and walkability is a big asset.
  • Transportation back to the States is not simple. When I looked for ways to get back quickly for a funeral, the only options were to fly to Mexico City and catch a flight north, or take a bus or private car to Cancún and hop on a direct flight to Chicago or  another U.S. city. Connections are not the best.
  • Did I say it was too hot?

So it’s on to the final Mexican stop on this part of our journey — Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 miles south of Cancún. I’ll leave you with some photos of the places we’ve visited here and the things we’ve seen — pics that haven’t made it into any previous post.

Next post from Playa!

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We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, where henequen (sisal) is grown and made into fibers that are used to make rope, carpets and burlap bags. It’s the only henequen hacienda still operating. At one time, the Peon family alone owned 14 henequen plantations in the Yucatan. Our guide Jose (left) and one of the workers showed us how rope was made by hand, using this simple machine. We saw every step of the fiber-making process. Now, they only produce the fiber as a working museum for tourists and for use on the plantation, and the plantation is dramatically smaller than in the early 1900s during the “green gold” boom.
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Henequen fibers come from a type of agave plant. Yes, agave is used to make tequila. Different kind of agave. At the end of our tour, though, I had a margarita made with henequen liquor rather than the normal agave tequila. It was OK, but not great. Once a plant is started, it’s seven years before any of the fronds can be harvested. Then you can only harvest seven fronds per month.
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Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has one of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. We enjoyed about an hour swimming here, and there were no crowds. Leslie enjoyed floating in the crystal-clear water. This cenote is in a cave.
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Uxmal (OOSH-moll), an ancient Mayan site dating to 700 A.D. The temple is to the right, and palaces to the left where priests, scribes and other professionals lived and worked. Lower class Maya lived in villages outside the temple grounds. This site was apparently abandoned around the 10th century.
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Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ciao, Malta!

So we bid farewell to the island nation of Malta. (The Maltese say “ciao” for goodbye. Their language borrows heavily from Italian as well as Arabic.) Lacking any temporary-residence visas, we can only stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days. Tomorrow is the 90th day since we boarded a train in London and headed for Spain.

So we’re headed back to the New World to check out more possible retirement homes. First stop, later this week, is San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Mexico’s Guanajuato province, about a three-hour drive north of Mexico City. It’s over 6,000 feet above sea level. Since we’ve been living for the past month at about six feet above sea level, this will take some getting used to!

We’re excited about being warm again. Malta is in the Mediterranean Sea, just about as far south as you can get and still be in Europe. But this winter has been unusually cold. It’s been that way all over Europe. The mountain air of San Miguel promises to be drier. While at night it’s in the low 40s F. right now, daytime temperatures are in the mid 70s. Can’t wait to have a margarita on the rooftop terrace of our apartment!

Right now, the plan is to be in San Miguel until March 1, then move on to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. Both towns have huge expat populations. Puerto Vallarta’s expat community is active and vibrant. We’ve already gotten a ton of emails inviting us to their social events. After about six weeks in PV, we plan to try Mèrida, at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, then possibly Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun. We’re back in the Chicago area, probably by mid-July. Hope to see many of you then.

International Living magazine rates Mexico as the Number One retirement destination in the world for 2017. It’s partly the warm climate, partly the warm people. We’re hearing lots of great things about Mexico. Now, I know somebody is saying, “Gee, isn’t Mexico dangerous?” Well, it’s not nearly as dangerous as Chicago!  Seriously, there are places in Mexico you should not go, like the Mexican states along the U.S. border and the state of Sinaloa. The drug cartels aren’t active in the areas we plan to visit. If they were, the tourists and expats would leave, taking their money with them. Then lots of good folks would lose their jobs. Where we’re going, it’s very safe. More on that later.

I leave you with a photo I took in Teatro Manoel in Valletta. It’s the third oldest theater in Europe, and the oldest in the former British Commonwealth. The concert we attended was titled, “Gallic Music for Cello and Piano.” The cellist was a young French artist, Sébastien Hurtaud. He was accompanied by Italian pianist Bruno Canino. We heard works by DeBussy, Fauré and Saint-Saëns. Leslie and I both enjoyed the performance, but spent the whole time thinking of our dear friend and outstanding cellist, Jo-Jo Murphy.

Next post from Mexico!

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Sorry, it’s a little dark at intermission of a concert we attended in the very small Teatro Manoel, built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena of the Knights of St. John. 

 

 

Malta: Maybe, Maybe Not

We have fewer than 10 days left here on Malta, so it’s time to start evaluating. There are a lot of good things to say about Malta. The biggest plus so far has been the ease of meeting other expats. We’ve enjoyed going to church at St.Andrews

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Here we are with the Rev. Kim Hurst, pastor of St. Andrews and a methodist minister from the U.K.

and have met some lovely people. In fact, Leslie and I had dinner last night at the home of our Canadian friends, Frank and Judy Wilmot.

Another plus is that most Maltese speak English, some better than others. Most signage is in English or a mix of English and Maltese. It’s generally pretty easy to make ourselves understood.

Culture is a big deal here — yet another plus. In fact, Malta will be the European Union Capital of Culture in 2018. They’re already promoting it. Beginning next week is the Valletta International Baroque Festival, a series of 25 classical concerts at various places around the capital city. We may get to see two or three before we leave. Malta also has an annual jazz festival and many opportunities to see theater and dance performances.

Leslie and I attended the President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve at the Mediterranean Conference Center, which was built in the 16th Century by the Knights of St. John as a hospital. The orchestra was pretty good, as was the featured soloist, a young Maltese soprano, Nicola Said; the program mostly light classics and show tunes. And the president was there!

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The blond woman with glasses in the center of the photo is President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. We were that close to her. Everybody talks about her with genuine affection and respect. What a concept!

We were in the same room with the president of Malta, and we never saw any security. No metal detectors, no cops or soldiers with guns. Granted, the real political power here rests in the prime minister rather than the president. But she is far from a figurehead, being heavily involved in social issues of all kinds. I think it speaks well for this island nation that the president can mingle easily with the people.

There are also some things that aren’t that great. We noticed pretty quickly that it gets quite chilly here in December and January — and many Maltese don’t have heating or air conditioning in their homes. We have a dehumidifier in this 400-year-old house, which makes it feel more comfortable. Today’s high was only 50º F. with light rain and even some sleet, and tonight’s forecast low is 41º F. Up until today, it’s been more like 60º to 65º F. most days. Our neighbor came by this morning and said this is the coldest winter she can remember. Newer construction and renovated spaces often include heat and air conditioning, but running them costs quite a bit — electricity is expensive on Malta.

That’s just one part of what we’ve determined to be a slighter higher cost of living than what we found in Spain. Renting or buying property would be more expensive here. The biggest real estate agency lists apartments in Valletta for upwards of $315,000, and some of the better properties are well over $1 million. Here, on the older more historic side of The Grand Harbour, an area known locally as The Three Cities, some apartments are listed for under $160,000, and about the same in other parts of the island.

Surprisingly, we found some rentals available in St. Angelo Mansions, built recently just outside the walls of Fort St. Angelo — the only Malta fortification that withstood The Great Siege of 1565. We could rent a three-bedroom with water view there for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 a month. And in Valletta, we found rental listings for as little as $1350 a month for a two-bedroom. In communities nearer the center of the island, we found monthly rentals as low as $600 a month, also for two bedrooms. So there is some affordable real estate all over Malta.

Then there’s the cost of food. Just a few items from last week’s grocery list, all converted from grams and liters into U.S. measurements, and from euros to dollars at the current exchange rate. Bear in mind that without a car we don’t have easy access to an American-style supermarket. Our neighbor Marthese, who takes care of this house for the owner, took Leslie to the supermarket one day a few weeks ago, but most of our food comes from The Convenience Store (yes, that’s the name — it’s a local chain). With that in mind, here are the costs for you to compare:

  • peanut butter, 12.3 ounces, $2.88.
  • eggs, one dozen, $2.31.
  • orange juice, 67.6 ounces, $3.56.
  • olive oil, 8.4 ounces, $3.35.
  • coffee, 17.6 ounces, $3.03.

Leslie says the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer on Victory Street is slightly more than we paid at Central Mercado in Alicante. Same with meat and poultry. So in general, food costs are slightly higher here. Eating out in a restaurant is also a bit more expensive than in Alicante, with dinner menu prices rivaling what we paid at our favorite restaurants in DuPage County.

In general, we both believe Malta deserves continued consideration as a retirement home. We may come back to see how it is in a warmer season.

Our time in Europe is over for now. Next stop, Mexico. More on that next post.

I leave you with a photo of the nave and elaborately painted barrel vault of St. John’s Co-Cathderal, the number one tourist attraction in Valletta, built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the 17th Century, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Italian artist Mattia Preti and others. The church is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. The artwork alone is awesome.img_1318

Merry Christmas from Malta!

We had a little excitement today. As Leslie and I prepared for our daughter Stephanie’s arrival for Christmas, we heard about a hijacked airplane that had landed at the Malta International Airport. There was a possible hostage situation and the airport was closed. It turned out to be a Libyan airliner, hijacked while on a domestic route. Apparently this was a political act by supporters of the former dictator. It was not terrorism, and no one was killed or injured. The good news is, Stephanie’s flight from London Heathrow was only about 15 minutes late.

So she arrived safely and will be with us for a few days to celebrate Christmas. Leslie has a lot planned — we’re doing a walking tour of Valletta, the capital city, and a wine tasting, among other things. Maltese wines are very good — we’re trying to sample as many as we can!

Christmas Day we plan to worship at St.Andrew’s Church in Valletta, then join our new friends in the congregation for Christmas dinner. img_1273Our Canadian friends Franklin and Judy are preparing traditional turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. This is a fun group, so it should be a great Christmas. So far we’ve met people from Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. Quite an international group.

Here’s a look at the sanctuary (right). I think the building dates to the early 1800s.

There are Christmas decorations all over this island. The city of Mdina is known for works of art in blown glass. Just inside the city gates of Valletta, in front of the Parliament building, stands a Christmas tree made of Mdina glass balls — big ones, little ones, all kinds of sizes. It’s quite festive, and about 30 feet tall. Timg_1288here are also lots of nativity scenes around Malta, some done by churches, some by businesses, some in front of private homes.

I saw an article — can’t remember where — in which Malta was touted as one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas. Makes sense, since better than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nobody here says “Happy Holidays”!

Stephanie heads back home to San Diego after Christmas, but Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve here. Instead of joining the crowd in the square on Republic Street at midnight, though, we will be at the Mediterranean Conference Center for the President’s New Year Concert, featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a couple of other concerts in the first two weeks of the new year that we hope to attend.

We’re here until Jan. 16, then we have to leave Europe because we don’t have the visa necessary to stay longer than 90 days. I explained the Schengen Agreement in an earlier post. It just means we will be heading to Mexico next, to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende. More on that later, too.

It will be sad to leave our new neighbors here in Malta, though, especially our new best friends who live here, on these tiny boats, just across the harbor from us:img_1279

The one on the left is bigger than our house in Westmont was!

The boats on our side of the harbor are a lot smaller. We were chagrined, however, to learn that the American Dream is not dead, it’s for sale:img_1275

Merry Christmas!