Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two Walks

Walking to the 13th Century: Hard times at the moment. No work, and incredibly difficult to get paid for the work I've done. No fewer than three checks have gotten lost in the mail over the past couple of months.

What I usually do at times like these is take a long walk. Staying home staring at the screen, waiting for e-mails that never come is counterproductive, and exploring my immediate surroundings is good exercise and helps me understand where things are. Maybe next time I'm lucky enough to be able to afford renting a car I won't get lost for a couple of hours trying to get out of town!

Thus, noticing that the temperature was stuck on a number that's supposedly the optimum for human life and noticing further that the sun was shining, and even further noticing that it was Monday and the U.S. wouldn't be awake for business for at least four more hours, I grabbed my hat and walked out onto an almost deserted Esplanade. I got to the end and looked out over the view and noticed a steeple. Okay, I thought, I'll walk to the church and thereby sharpen my navigational abilities.

As if. What I did was plunge into the Beaux-Arts district, so named for the art school it surrounds. A nice enough 'hood, but not that interesting. No sign of a church, though. I walked towards the freeway and noticed I was on the Avenue St. Lazare. Okay, then, I decided, I must be looking for St. Lazare church, so I walked up the street, following signs for the cemetery. It was a nicely-shaded street, with nothing much going for it beyond that, with apartment complexes here and there. Suddenly, I came upon a modern, ugly, dirty-earth-toned building and was astonished to see the words Jardin de Sens on it. This kind of ratty concrete building holds Montpellier's most famous, Michelin-starred hotel-and-restaurant complex? Yup, it does. To be fair, from looking at the website, I'd guess that the place is designed as an enclosure, and that the inside, be it of the restaurant or the hotel, looks inward rather than out onto the Avenue St. Lazare. I have to say, the Pourcel brothers' menu looks fussy to me, and this place isn't at the top of the list of places I'd like to go if I had money. And, with Insensé, their restaurant in the Fabre Museum, and a wine-and-tapas place on the hill, I have other, less expensive ways to figure out what they're doing.

Anyway, it wasn't open for lunch and I wasn't hungry and I couldn't afford it, so I carried on down the avenue. Where was that church? There were signs for the graveyard, and eventually I came upon the graveyard extension, the graves all crowded together like at Père Lachaise in Paris, but all newish. A bit further down the street was the main event, and right on the corner, in a sconce in the wall, there was a bust of a woman. "Hélène d'Italie, Cetinje 8 Janvier 1873 - Montpellier 28 Novembre 1952." A queen? But where in Italy is Cetinje? I walked a bit further, and there was a gate in the wall, so I walked in. A huge graveyard, just as crowded as the extension but many times larger stretched before me, and an arrow pointed to my right, saying "Tomb of Helen." I walked down the path and a huge black marble wall to my right had an inscription about the city of Montpellier and a tomb of members of the French Resistance and the Helen of Italy Foundation, and, in fact, there was a large boxy tomb in front of the wall. At the end of the path was a very large granite tomb with the simple word ELENA on it. I'm still not clear on what part she played in the Resistance or why she died and was buried in Montpellier and her Wikipedia entry, in which she's named Elena of Montenegro (although she was married to the last Italian king, making her Queen of Italy until the monarchy was abolished), isn't much help.

I'd forgotten all about the church by now (although if I'd seen it -- or any church, for that matter -- I might have remembered it), and was noticing signs to Castelnau-le-Lez, one of Montpellier's close-in suburbs. I figured that if I were that close, I might as well check the place out, so I turned right at the end of the street, and noticed that I was still on the Avenue St. Lazare and I was still outside the cemetery walls. This is a big 'un. And, in a break in the fence, I looked down and saw another cool thing. Blocked off from the rest of the cemetery is another cemetery for Jews. This isn't so much anti-semitism as it is the fact that the main graveyard is likely consecrated Catholic land on which only Catholics in good standing could be buried. I stared at the Jewish names, and wished I could figure a way to get in, but there didn't seem to be one from where I was standing, so I kept walking. Now I find myself wondering if there's another ghetto for nonbelievers and bad guys attached to the St. Lazare, like the "freethinkers" graveyard I found in Berlin one day.

I walked alongside what became a highway for a little while, and then came, inevitably, to a traffic circle, one of whose arrows pointed up a small hill to "Castelnau-le-Lez, Église XIII siècle." Really? A 13th Century church? Okay, that was worth a hike. And it was:

Up a twisty little street is the church of St. John the Baptist. From its incredibly thick walls and tiny windows, as well as some very hard-to-read inscriptions above some stones set in the walls inside it, I think (but I'm not quite sure) that this was a fortified Cathar church, although I wasn't aware the Cathars were very strong this far east, although now that I've read the intro to the Wikipedia article on Catharism, I note that the crusade against them was initiated by the murder of one Pierre de Castelnau, who was from the dioscese of Montpellier. Anyway, it's a neat little church, very obviously still in use, and worth walking all the way around to catch the odd little square on the other side from this photo.

The rest of downtown has its share of old buildings, but not this old, and so I rejoined the traffic circle, and soon was on a familiar street which took me back into downtown Montpellier. The whole walk took two and a half hours, and it wasn't until I was almost back where I started that I saw that damn steeple again. A look at the map, which shows churches, hasn't clarified a thing. But it doesn't matter: St. John the Baptist was way cooler.

* * *

Walking to the 21st Century: Tuesday didn't seem like it was going to be any more fun than Monday had been, and I'd gotten an e-mail from Marie saying she'd just been to the big mall at the Odysseum and thought it was like the ones we had in America. They've extended the tramline, too, so that you can now take the tram straight to Ikea down there, and I began to wonder if the Odysseum, the huge, sprawling part municipal, part commercial blot on an obscure corner of the city, was also walkable.

It is, but it's far less fun. Whereas the walk to Castelnau was dotted with old villas decaying behind high gates (but still lived in) and the Lez river flowing at what looks like about a mile an hour, if that, and the graveyards and all, the Odysseum lies due east, and the route there takes you through, well, not much. There are apartment complexes, of course, some so new they haven't taken the plastic off the windows, and there's construction, and dust and vacant lots. Eventually, you come to an industrial park with offices in it, and then to -- of course -- a traffic circle. A lot of roads lead to the Odysseum, unsurprisingly, and there are a lot of cars to look out for. (Even so, I'd rather be on foot than on a bike).

It wasn't much of a walk -- just over an hour -- but the real foot-punishment started when I got there. Indeed: inbetween the previous structures that I'd seen when I went to Ikea at the beginning of the year and Ikea itself, a gigantic shopping mall had grown up. This wasn't at all like an American mall, though: for one thing, it's outdoors. It's loaded with outdoor eating places and access to the majority of the stores is via outdoor escalators. It's going to be hell trying to shop there when it starts to rain, and I found myself wondering if the designers had even thought about that.

The stores are mostly run-of-the-mill chain stores, many of which are in the mall around the corner from me. Europe's first Apple store, the opening of which was breathlessly related in the local press back in June was nowhere to be seen although there's a Darty store where, if you have to, you can buy a Mac system. There was a cooking-accessories store where they didn't have a pizza stone, a Levi's store, and an ice cream store that had lines in front of it.

But the attraction of this new complex is the Géant. That means giant, and is the name of a chain of what the French call "hypermarkets." It's a supermarket where you can buy a Samsung flat-screen TV for €599 or (as I did) a block of lard for €1.50 (biscuits on Sunday! Yay!). The place is huge, and instead of wearing out my feet hiking along the road, as I had on Monday, I wore myself out cruising the 15oo square meters of this joint. Once you get used to the presentation, you realize that it depends on sheer volume to intimidate you into buying. When you come upon an aisle that has a sales item represented by a display that's 24 units across and four down, it's like being yelled at. Of course, if the product is something you already wanted, it's like confronting an endless supply of it. In fact, once I got used to the size, I was impressed by how much wasn't there. There's a much better supply of pasta in the Inno around the corner from me, for instance, and it's 1/8 the size.

The weirdest part of the whole experience, though, was when I went to check out with my lard, a bottle of wine that looked interesting (and was), and a bottle of water to soothe my parched throat. There was a huge number of checkouts, all empty. I went up to one and the guy told me I couldn't check out there: I had to go to the scanner. I walked into a corral with scanning machines in it, and a woman came over to help me. I'd used one of these before in the HEB in Austin, but this one worked differently. First, I chose my language, so I thought I'd see what it was like in English. It welomed me to Géant, and then switched back to French. The woman looked nervously on as I scanned my three items, then as I fed the money to pay for them into the machine. I then noticed that, unlike at the HEB, there were, of course, no bags. So I had to go through the whole thing again to pay 11 cents for a bag. "Don't lose this," the woman said, pointing to the bar code the scanner had printed out. "It's for the gate." And it's true: you can't leave the corral without it. This whole thing is such a pain in the ass I don't think I'd shop at this place if it were in my back yard, which it isn't.

It's only been open since Saturday, though, and they were still stocking some of the shelves. And it's nice to know you can go to Ikea on the tram. But I don't think my next walk will be to the Odysseum, although it's true that the aquarium is pretty nice. And yes, I took the tram back.

I'm still waiting to hear about work, and I'm still not getting paid, though. Where should I walk next, I wonder...


  1. The comment on the cemeteries was a bit backward: whatever the other graveyard might have been, practicing Jews may only be buried (and they must be- cremation is against the will of G-d)in a Jewish cometary. The surprise was , if it was actually old, that it had not been desecrated. Nazis really enjoyed using Jewish tombstones for footpaths or to grind for cement.

  2. I am sorry to know that your money trouble has not been solved yet. I will read the post tomorrow.... I have hardly been at home these past few days. I really don't like the new part of Odysseum.

  3. Something I spotted on a Montpellier plaque and have no googled :

    Holiday Inn Montpellier-Metropole
    Built in 1898, just a stone's throw away from the Place de la Comedie, Holiday Inn Montpellier-Metropole was once the residence of Queen Elena of Italy and still preserves something of its comfort, charm and style.


  4. Which explains why it's still got signs that say Hotel Savoy, since I think she was from the Savoy family!

    And G, not so many Nazis down here, I don't think.


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