Monday, September 21, 2009

Get Outta Town

Over the past few days, I've had the great good fortune to have had a visit from my friend Brett, who used to be a lawyer, then a journalism teacher, and has now finally embraced poverty as a freelance writer. He lives in Portland with his wife, but she was unable to visit because she lives in a motorized wheelchair and no trains between Barcelona (where they flew into) and Montpellier (where I live) exists. This, sadly, is a normal state of events: accessible travel in Europe is next to impossible to achieve, although Montpellier itself is remarkably well equipped for it.

At any rate, after showing him the market, taking him on a long trip through the city (including the Jardin des Plantes, which I mentally kicked myself for not having visited all year -- not so much for the flowers and all but for the lizards), and eating a couple of spectacular meals (about which more later), we rented a car for Sunday and decided to get the hell out of town. A good decision it turned out to be, too: the threatened rain this weekend mostly never happened, except for a few late-night storms, and it was cool and sunny all day.

The trip, however, got off to a very bad start. I picked up the car at the train station, just a few minutes' walk from my house, at 12:30, a half-hour after it opened. So far so good. to get out of town? I had, as a first destination, Aniane, which I've been itching to visit since I got here. It's only about 30 miles out of town, and is the home of the olive oil I use, as well as the amazing winery Mas de la Seranne, a tasting of which we stumbled into on Saturday as we passed the Wine Museum on St. Guilhem. Once he tasted the wine, Brett was all for going there. I figured after that, we'd hit the Devil's Bridge, then St. Guilhem le Désert, which was probably not going to be overwhelmed by tourists at this time of year. After that, we'd check the time and freestyle.

Now, I had a large-resolution Michelin map (339, Gard, Hérault, 1 cm = 1.5 km), so it shouldn't have been terribly hard to do this. We hit some construction, however, on rue Gambetta and were diverted. After that, things went horribly wrong. Here's the deal: in France, you follow signs to places that are approximately in the direction you want to go. Our two big choices were Sète or someplace called Millau. Sète was obviously wrong: south where we wanted to go north. But Brett couldn't find Millau on the map and I'd never heard of it. No biggie, I thought; we'd try to head north and eventually we'd have to see a sign to Gignac or maybe Lodève, which were in the general direction we wanted to go.

For two and a half hours we cruised from one awful suburb to another, following signs that dumped us at stadiums, dead ends, the airport, and, eventually, back into Montpellier. I'd think we were making progress and there'd be a tram or city bus. On the one hand, it's good to know that public transportation goes as far afield as it does. On the other hand, we wanted to get the hell out of town. Somehow, we blundered onto a traffic circle that spun us onto the correct road (there are tens of thousands of traffic circles in this country) and in 15 minutes of freeway travel, I was turning off for Aniane. I was so relieved that I forgot to follow the sign to the place where they made olive oil, olives, and cornichons (which, it being Sunday, was probably closed anyway), and drove into Aniane, what there is of it. No sign pointing to Mas de la Seranne presented itself, though, and, like I said, it was Sunday. I'd figured to spend a little time bumming around Aniane looking for the winery, but we'd lost so much time -- and there was so little chance it was open -- that I just pointed the car toward the bridge.

I'd last visited the Pont du Diable and St-Guilhem le Désert a little more than four years ago, and the latter, where we stopped, was a tourist nightmare, with a parking lot jammed with cars and pedestrians and tourists clogging the streets, erasing its charm. To make matters worse, the church we wanted to visit was closed for several hours. But this time we stopped to check out the bridge, and found an ultra-modern tourist office/souvenir shop/café with a small but effective display explaining the bridge and the surrounding environment. There were also shuttles to St-Guilhem for free, thereby reducing the impact on the town itself. Both, incidentally, are UNESCO sites. The bridge was built to connect two monasteries which were important pilgrimage sites, and the devil enters in because the legend has it that the devil undid the monks' work every night until St. Guilhem met with him and told him he could have the first soul that crossed the bridge after it was finished. Satan liked that deal, and probably spent a lot of time wondering which pious monk he'd get in payment, but St. Guilhem sent a dog with a tin pan tied to its tail over the bridge first, and the devil, unhappy that he'd been bested, jumped into the river. It's a long ways down, and I suspect it hurt.

We decided not to go to St. Guilhem, however, and this was probably a good idea. Not only was this Sunday, but it was the Day of Patrimony, in which all of France has access to historical sites and, sometimes, ones which are rarely opened. If there was a day St. Guilhem would be packed out of season, this was probably it. Anyway, I wanted to drive a road I'd missed last time I was there, and I'm massively happy I did it.

Unsurprisingly, it climbed into the mountains. And climbed. The mountains were unlike any I'd seen. The steep inclines were grassed and treed, but at some point columns of rock appeared, all grouped together. This sort of gets the idea:

If you click that to enlarge it, the mountain on the right (which may be Rocher des Vierges, the rock of the virgins) is of the sort I'm talking about. Little did I know that the road would head towards it, and eventually we'd be high in a mountain pass called Col des Vents, which, according to this map, is some 880 meters above sea level (2887 and some feet). Up there, the granite (I guess they were granite) columns stuck out of the scrub, and trees were very short indeed. It was cold, unsurprisingly enough, and yet there were stone huts showing that shepherds used the area, and not far down the road was a town called La-Vaquerie-et-St.-Martin, whose name implies dairy farming. It was a spellbindingly beautiful drive, and there was virtually no other traffic.

The next destination was Lodève, about which I knew very little except that I'd never been there and it was in the neighborhood. Again, we lucked out: not that many people around, the gigantic cathedral was open but not terribly crowded, and it was well worth checking out, a magnificent space.

We wandered around town afterwards, went over the funky old bridge over the River Lorgue, which was peaceful at this time of year. A sign on a neighboring bridge alleged that the older bridge was an 18th century reconstruction of a Roman bridge (or perhaps I misunderstood), but all the other sources say it's medieval. Roman, though, is believable, only in that apparently Nero had a mint in this city at some point.

Now, if all had gone well at the beginning, we would have had a couple more hours before we had to head back, and who knows what else we could have seen. My camera's battery died in Lodève, however, and it was getting dark. After a coke to make sure I was alert enough for the highway, we decided to head straight down to the Mediterranean, with an eye towards getting some seafood in Sète, a seaport and (mostly) tourist town. Before long we were in Agde, and got on the beach road, where dunes on one side and the mighty Med on the other made sunset a wonderful experience, especially with the big, but unthreatening clouds turning deep pink at one point. A big serving of oysters, mussels, langoustines, shrimp, crab and lobster later, we got back in the car and, again, missed the way out of town, so we managed to climb up to a dead end in the highest part of Sète, where a giant cross looms over the town. If it had been day and if we hadn't really wanted to get back home, this would have been wonderful. As it was, when we finally retraced our steps, we saw a sign that was so badly lit that it was almost invisible pointing the way to Montpellier.

There was no problem getting back into town, I have to say, and I'm glad, because it was late. I just parked the car in the Comédie parking garage, where I noticed something amazingly high-tech: above each space is a small light. It's red if someone's in the space, green if not. A simple solution I've never seen in any other parking garage in the world. They do some things right here. Now, if they'd just make it easier to leave, because this was enough fun that I really, really want to do it again soon. Okay, who's going to visit next? (Persuaders, in the form of some restaurant reviews, to follow soon, I promise).


  1. Oh man, I comiserate! Finding your way out of Montpellier's suburbs by car is a complete nightmare for first-timers. All the main périphériques bend back on themselves, (as they should), and unless you know the direction of the surrounding towns/villages on the signs, you're stuffed.

    Millau is worth visiting sometime, just for the incredible road viaduct they put through a few years ago - it's about 30 minutes further north than Lodève, through some spectacular but barren high-country.

    Good to hear it sounds like they've sorted out the bottleneck at St Guilhem. I went years ago in winter (December 30th or something), and there were about 5 people there. Fabulous, but the church was closed of course.

  2. Sounds a grand day out one you escaped Montpellier. The Col du Vent is where the road reaches the Larzac plateau. Next time (and given clear weather) take a detour to drive up the Pic Baudille, a right turn about 1.5 Km past the Col du Vent. It was this time last year we managed, just, to cycle up it.
    By the way, the exposed rock is limestone and yes, your photo is of the Roches des Vierges above St Saturnin.

  3. Y'know, Graham, we almost did that. We started down that road because there was an arrow with one of those eyeball signs meaning "great view," but it was a one-laner and I wasn't quite sure of what was going to be at the end of it -- and anyway, Lodève called.

    And now I know where St. Saturnin is, too!

  4. Hey, at least I can say I got to see a LOT of the area, as we desperately tried to escape! Merci beaucoups for the fascinating look at MP and surrounding territory. The day's excursion into the mountains and the past was a delight and a nice change from a couple days of wandering the city itself -- although that was a treat, too. We Americans so seldom get a chance to experience history the way you can every time you take a trip to an ancient cathedral or even just walk through the streets of MP. I felt the same way about Barcelona, especially after a trip to the city's remarkable history museum and Roman ruins. Your knowledge of the area's history and culture (not to mention food and wine) really made it much more than just a typically touristy vacation. And actually exploring MP and environs made me really understand why you live there: it's got it all, from amazing food and wine to a warm Mediterranean culture to natural beauty (mountains to Med) to easygoing European urban vibe (I always love eating dinners in open air cafes in town centers late at night!) and a constant immersion in history. Such a contrast to Berlin, and such a wonderfully civilized way to live. Not so much the kind of thing you can go visit, like the Louvre or something, but rather something you have to experience in daily living to fully appreciate. Thanks for showing it to me.


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