Trip Start Apr 11, 2006
26Trip End ??? ??, 2007
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Since it was dark out and just about dinner time, we decided to put off the majority of the photo-taking for another time, but couldn't resist snapping a few shots of the lit-up Place de la Comedie and its magnificent theater building. After a quick drink at a weak excuse for a beer bar, we ended up at a Chinese/Thai restaurant with some good food and a lying waiter, who insisted the dessert was more expensive than I recalled from the menu, which I used to confirm my memory on the way out the door. Two euros robbed, just like that
While Meredith spent the entire day at the conference, I decided to enjoy the beautiful but freezing weather to walk as much of town as I could. Started out with a cheap, filling breakfast of a croissant, some hot cocoa, yogurt, and juice at the Café du Théatre, just trying to get a handle on what to aim for all day from our travel book. [Just as a note: I would never, ever recommend Lonely Planet if you're looking for a guide book. Ours have consistently been wrong about locations, prices, and lots of other things; Let's Go seems more accurate.]
After dropping off the bulky book in our room, I spent a little time looking for, and passing two or three times, the free Musee du Vieux Montpellier (museum of the old city). Its four or five rooms, located on the upper storey, are worth checking out, but the building that houses it is really what impressed me the most. Stone-arched, open-air hallways on the entry level give way to a large courtyard and some smaller ones (one of which is part of a pretty high-brow restaurant)
My next destination was the plaza/promenade between the Arc de Triomphe (1692, according to LP) and the 18th century water tower and its expansive aqueduct, all combining for a really fantastic example of monumental (and functional) open-space. The Arc is not as large or impressive as Paris', but both the water tower and the aqueduct that feeds it are as beautiful as they are practical - they were constructed to provide water to every fountain in the city's many plazas. The visible part of the tower itself is basically a monument in itself, so I assume that the water is actually stored underneath.
The streets in this area are very formal and manicured, and are home to many institutional uses such as a courthouse and various university buildings. A very large crucifixion statue stands in an island in the street, and bicycles, buses, pedestrians, and cars all have their separate spaces, though pedestrians and scooters clog the bike lanes pretty ruthlessly
For lunch, I stopped by a vegetarian restaurant called Tripti Kulai, a mixed-bag of different cuisines, staffed by very reserved, sari-wearing women (who are probably French, but not very "French" with their conspicuous absence of jeans tucked into boots and cigarettes waving everywhere - in fact, I'm not sure smoking was even allowed there). [Another note: I think as of today, smoking is prohibited inside in public areas in all of France, but we'll see if that actually happens.] The food was good - I got a Golden Bowl (an Athens/Grit tradition)-style mix of rice, tofu, grains, and veggies with just the right amount of soy sauce and a bit of dried fruit for kicks.
Hoping to find out about transportation options to the Pont du Gard, a Roman-era (Roman-built, even) aqueduct outside the city, I hit the tourist office. Not much luck there, since people didn't really seem to know very much.
Being right next to the huge shopping mall that LP mentioned, intrigued, I made my way east to "Le Polygone", which really is very large, especially for center-city Europe
The real reason for stopping by this mall was that it was on my way to the much larger - gigantic - planned development just next-door. "Antigone" is basically a quarter or neighborhood of its own, with several clusters of very large mainly-residential buildings with ground-floor retail or office space, its own natatorium, and some governmental headquarters. According to LP, it was designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. My take on it is that for new development, it's really nice (especially the architecture in some places), and almost blends in to Montpellier's feel, BUT it's way too clean and uniform, like you would expect from a large project designed by a solitary person. Still, it does a good job of concentrating people close to the city center, and is served very well by Montpellier's excellent transit system.
Good segue: deciding I'd already walked my tail off, I decided to hop on the tram from the outer reaches of Antigone back to the Place de la Comedie. Tickets are cheap, service is frequent, the ride is fast, and the entire system is brand new, so the cars are clean and fresh
Getting off the tram, I found a protest against GMO food (genetically-modified organisms, or OGM "en francais"), which was kind of funny - not the message, but the fact that half the people were dressed up as different farm animals such as cows, roosters, chickens, sheep, and a very shiny pink pig.
Moving on...decided to go find the Crypt Museum, which also deals with Montpellier's history, but this time in a more physical sense, tied mostly to the specific relationship of the city and its former Notre Dame des Tables cathedral. So, I took the logical steps: found it on the map, took a course toward it, arrived at the location, and looked around. And looked around, and looked around. Then I realized that the strange glass three-walled enclosure I had inadvertently walked into (not bumped into, actually entered and had to turn around due to the fact that I was surrounded on three sides) the night before now had no floor, but instead, steps down into the sub-surface. To explain, there's a moving cover, basically a plate, that is closed at night and open during operating hours, to provide access to the museum, which as a crypt is appropriately located underground
It's a very cool place, complete with some absolutely fantastic and innovative displays, but I'm not sure I'd bill it as a crypt since there was not only no semblance of, but really no reference to dead people, tombs, or the like, at all. Nevertheless, my euro and change were well spent, and I learned a little bit too.
I decided it was about time to go meet Meredith back at the hotel, and sought out a crepe with Nutella for a pre-dinner snack on the way. We stopped by an English bookstore she had seen earlier in the day, had some hot cider, and browsed the collection for a while before finding the Italian restaurant/pizzeria we saw the night before. It wasn't bad, but I was a little disappointed all-around, with both the pizza and the pasta.
Anyway, seeing as it was cold and we hadn't really slept well, we decided to call it a night and go back to base.
The next morning, I scarfed down the basically frozen remains of the pizza, which had been preserving on the balcony all night, and walked down to the train station to see if they had better information on how best to get to the Pont do Gard
Instead, I decided I'd buy the transit day-pass (again, cheap at just over three euros) and wander around. On the map, I noticed what seemed to be a big new development at the very last stop eastward on the blue line (Line 1 of two), and thought that might be interesting. Inasmuch as it reminded me of yet another SoCal shopping center or Disney restaurant cluster, I guess it was interesting, but nothing so spectacular.
I got off the tram halfway back to town at a stop just next to the river, where there is a great park with cycling paths leading all the way back to the city center and the other way to the beaches (at least, the directional signs pointed to those destinations). Pretty typically for Europe, the river is entirely channelized, but it's a nice place even so, complete with a large pedestrian/bicycle-only bridge over the river.
This area is one of several where the two tramlines intersect, so I opted this time for Line 2, and rode to its northern terminus at what I can only say was nowhere. My best guess is that the large building nearby was a school of some sort, but the rest of the landscape was basically a parking lot
Meredith and I had said previously that if we were in the area we'd both stop by the hotel to meet up for lunch, and lo and behold, we were both there. Turns out she completely ditched the conference for lack of substantial content she hadn't already seen, and after having some falafel for lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon on the streets and back in the English bookstore, boarded the train, and were completely exhausted by the time we got home around midnight, though very impressed with this really awesome city.
I'd certainly put it near the top of my list for France, but it's more of an attraction to want to live there than to be a tourist again for lack of tons of things to do. The only caveat is that the city's art museum has been closed for a couple years due to renovations, and will reopen I think on February 4th (just three days from now). So maybe I'll go back if the opportunity arises. The only thing is, the French train system is so damn expensive that this is probably not very likely. But get me some better French skills and the right to have a job here, and I wouldn't mind living in Montpellier for a couple years...