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.

Florence: More Michelanglo, but first some cheese.

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Looking out the window of our hotel room in Florence onto a small Sunday market.

Florence is the third and final stop on our Italian tour, and our favorite by far. It’s a beautiful city, and very walkable. Best pizza of the three, too! Leslie admitted she could live here, even though they had snow in March. We’ve never considered Italy as a home, but Florence is a pretty amazing place. Gotta think about this.

We arrived by train (Frecciarossa 1000, cool high-speed train) from Rome on a Sunday afternoon. Our hotel is in a 16th century building on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, near the city’s historic center. When we arrived, the piazza was hosting what appeared to be a farmers market.

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This was great cheese!

Matteo, who admirably mans the hotel’s front desk, said there were a number of cheese vendors there. Well, I couldn’t resist that. We found the cheese, as well as vendors selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, bread, books, musical instruments, and just about anything else you might want. I scored a nice piece of cheese and noshed on it for the remainder of our visit. Bene. Molto bene!

The piazza has proved to be a great source of entertainment. There are always tour groups checking out the bronze statue of Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and part of the famous Medici family (he was one of the good guys). Or you hear the cacophony of school groups being led through the piazza to a museum that was at one time an orphanage. Much quieter are the groups of art students sitting on the hotel’s front steps sketching buildings around the piazza. Bikes and scooters and tourists, oh my!

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David, the biggest attraction in Florence.

Just as in Naples and Rome, there are tons of tourists. Most are here to see the undisputed star of the show, Michelangelo’s 17-foot marble statue of David. It does not disappoint. Although Leslie and I noticed two things that didn’t quite fit. First, Michelangelo sculpted the future king of Israel with a slingshot over his shoulder and a rock in his right hand. But the statue is of a fully grown man, not a youth or a teenager as David was when he slew Goliath. Second, it’s obvious he’s not circumcised. But his father Jesse observed the Law of Moses, and would have circumcised all his sons when they were only eight days old.

Tour guide Frederica agreed with us, but said the work was consistent with the style of Renaissance art. Michelangelo wanted to create the finest representation of the human form. And he did. The detail in musculature and form is stunning. You can even see the veins in David’s forearm. Furthermore, Michelangelo purposefully picked a piece of marble that had been rejected because of the veins in it. He then used that veining to sculpt David’s legs so those marble veins look like veins in a person’s legs. Fascinating.

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Here we are with David. 

The only “imperfection,” as Frederica explained, is that the hands and head are too big. They are not in proportion with the rest of the body. Explanation: David was designed to stand in a niche near the top of the Duomo, more than 260 feet above the ground. Never happened, but that’s why he was carved with big hands and a big head.

Michelangelo worked on David between 1501 and 1504. It was originally displayed in the Piazza della Signoria. But in 1873, the work was moved into a specially built hall at the Galleria dell’Accademia. That’s where long lines queue up daily to see David. If you go (and this applies to just about everything in Italy), sign up for a group tour with a guide. You get more information that way, plus you don’t have to wait as long to get in.

In most cases, that is. We had to wait over an hour to see the Duomo of Florence, officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). Frederica explained (and you could tell this bothers her) that the Duomo’s ruling authority recently revoked the tour group preference. Now everybody waits in the same line. That caused us to miss a few other places that were on the tour itinerary. The tour people are rightfully unhappy about it, and so were we.

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The “new” facade of the Duomo. You can see the dome in the back.

The cathedral is worth waiting for but we found that the inside is just OK. The real show is the building itself. It’s unlike any European cathedral we’ve seen. Almost as visually unique as Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Construction began late in the 13th century and was completed in the 15th century. The building is covered with marble panels in various shades of green and red, bordered by white. All the marble came from areas near Florence, in what is now Tuscany. In the 19th century, an ornate Gothic Revival façade was added. This Wikipedia entry has a ton of information on how the dome was built. All you architects out there (Hi, Larry!) will be interested.

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This clock measured time from sundown to sundown, which was important in the Middle Ages.

In the back of the nave is an interesting 15th-century liturgical clock that still works. However, it has only one hand and measures time from sundown to sundown, rather than actually telling the time. It has to be adjusted weekly.

Workers are cleaning the cathedral now, so the scaffolding and the equipment detract from the view. You can easily tell which parts have been cleaned and which haven’t. The city is trying to keep things a bit cleaner now — at one time, some 800 buses a day drove through the piazza. Now, the only vehicular traffic is police cars and electric-powered city trucks.

The last significant attraction we visited was the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and a number of other fine works of Renaissance art, almost all of which were owned by the uber-wealthy Medici family.  Two of those works are by Leonardo da Vinci. Well, two and a half, according to our guide. In one painting, da Vinci painted an angel, while another artist did the rest of the work. Yeah, you can tell. It’s pretty obvious which angel Lenny drew.

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Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” one of those paintings many of us have seen in one way or another.

So we’re done being tourists in Italy. But before I close this chapter, let me repeat something I’ve said to lots of people along the way: We have felt pretty safe everywhere we’ve been since October 2016. Italy was no exception, even though a few of our tour guides specifically warned us about pickpockets. All the major tourist sites here are heavily guarded by federal police and the Italian army. Some just look important in their dress uniforms, but lurking near most of the crowds are young men and women with automatic weapons at the ready. I paid close attention to these kids, and they ain’t just for show. I watched them carefully scan the crowds, looking for potential trouble. Very professional, in my opinion. Helpful, too. We asked for help from a heavily armed young woman in fatigues who spoke English, and she guided us to the street we needed. “Army?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied. “U.S. Army Reserve, Retired,” I said, pointing to myself. She gave me a big smile, but no salute.

Now it’s time to get back to our primary mission, to find our next home, somewhere in the world. We’re headed to Montpellier, France, where we will be living for at least six weeks in a 16th century building overlooking the Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the city’s historic center.

Next post from Montpellier! I’ll leave you with more photos of Florence.

Ciao!

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Our Florence hotel, built between 1517 and 1527 as guest rooms for the monastery of a religious order. Its style mirrors a former orphanage across the piazza.
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Detail on the external wall of the Duomo, from a section recently cleaned.
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The inside of the Duomo’s octagonal dome.
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We thoroughly enjoyed a chamber music ensemble doing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and other works, in St. Stephen Auditorium. This was one of the first churches built in Florence. It was revised and renovated many times through the centuries, then nearly destroyed in World War II. Renovation in the 1990s turned it into an excellent music venue.
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We finally found the Central Market, but it was late and most of the vendors had closed. Fortunately, the bars and restaurants on the upper level were still going strong. We found this little wine bar and enjoyed some nebbiolo and a bit of pate.