Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Knocking Around The Zoo

The Extreme Walks continue. A week ago Sunday, I got it into my head to figure out where the Montpellier Zoo is. I'd heard it was free, and it appeared to be in a huge park to the north. I figured to myself that it was easy enough to walk north, so I took off. Remarkably, I went the right way, but I was actually, I see by the map, too far to the east to actually hit the Zoo, and I would have eventually come to Castelneau-le-Lez again. Fortunately, a road sign alerted me to that, and I went down a remarkable street called the Rue de Nazareth, which took me around the back of the huge military school which nests in the north end of the Beaux Arts district. This street is lined with ancient villas, some of which are attached to the military school, others of which are private. Their grandeur and solitude have been compromised by the encroachment of boxy apartment complexes, but it's still cool to see the big wall with the gate and barely glimpse the two-story stone house within, cushioned from the street by a stand of stately trees.

I then hit a larger street going off at a 90-degree angle and knew this was the road north. It climbed gently uphill, and at one point, I hit a long, narrow park called St. Odille Park, which was a nice relief from the sun, and filled with French Girl Scouts doing their thing. From there it was a brief walk to the University Paul Valérie (the arts and letters division of the main University), which I knew was near the Zoo. The road made a V, and there was a map, so I took the right-hand road, and, after passing more villas and apartment complexes, it got steeper and led to a large sports stadium which was crawling with security, for some reason. Just past that was the entrance to the Zoo, where, except for a building in which there's a mockup of an Amazonian rain-forest (which has its own webcam) and costs €6, the whole place is, indeed, free.

There were a couple of drawabacks, though. First, it was Sunday. On Sundays, every parent in the world who's got bored kids in the house has an idea: let's go to the zoo! Especially if it's free! And, since it's a "zoological park," there's loads of room for the kids to run around. This is good for parents, not so good for solo visitors. Second, I got there at feeding time. Lots of animals don't like to be gawked at while eating (this human included), so the keepers tend to leave the food in a private place and the animals go there to feed. I was told that the lemur exhibit was particularly cool, and I got to see a bunch of lemur butts as they ran into their enclosure to eat.

I wandered around some, and finally saw some large antelopes called addaxes back in an exhibit. Those, and the parrots rioting in a cage by the entrance, were the only animals I saw. But I was also critically aware of one thing: I was far from home, and needed to get back, and the only way I was sure of how to do that was to walk back. I hate walking back the way I came, though, but I was pretty sure that I hadn't come the easy way. By the time I was back at Paul Valéry, I saw signs to the center of town, so I just followed them. This led me a totally different way than I'd come, past a huge hospital complex, a small sports stadium, and a bar that specializes in beers of the world, where I'm going to head sometime soon for a beer which (unlike French beers) tastes like a beer. Then there were a bunch of unfamiliar buildings that were at least 100 years old, but I'd never seen before, a hill, and, next thing I knew, I was coming up one side of the Jardin des Plantes and found myself over on the northwest corner of the centre ville!

So what did I wind up doing the next Sunday? A couple of friends from Berlin (with whom I'd done a food blog when I lived there) were visiting, and they'd bought picnic supplies and wanted to eat outdoors, since the weather was great. I thought they meant in one of the parks near the house, but they wanted to go to...the Zoo! So this time we took the tram and the shuttle which runs to the Zoo from the St. Eloi tram stop, far less taxing on the feet, and instead wore ourselves out finding the picnic area at the "Asian swamp" display.

The Zoo, you see, is a park. You walk and walk down trails (10km worth), and then there'll be a fence. That will be an exhibit where, if you're lucky, you can see animals. Almost without exception, the animals at the Zoo are suited to life in a climate like the one here, and don't require a lot of water (so there are no hippos and no elephants). There's an emphasis on endangered species (which, of course, is a classic way for zoos to get funding), and nothing really showy. One exception to the dry-climate rule are the rhinos, who need a wallow:

But beyond that, you've got things like onagers (the ancestor of the modern donkey), various deer and antelopes, buffalo, a bear pit with gorgeous Siberian grey bears, and this guy, whose name I forgot to write down, but is the world's largest flying bird. (Oh, and speaking of water, we did find the Asian swamp picnic area, but the swamp itself was temporarily out of business, for some reason).

Since he's a couple of meters tall, I would love to see him take off. My guess he needs those long legs to achieve escape velocity.

The other thing about the Zoo being a park is that the trails wind around, and, being on top of a hill, every now and again, you'll get a great view. On our way from the bears to the lions, through a break in the trees, this beautiful village appeared, with Pic St. Loup looming behind it. The picture doesn't get the whole thing, but it just made me appreciate, once again, where I'm living.

Yup, for €1.60 you can take a bus to that view. Next task is to figure out what that village is. It, too, may be walkable from a bus stop. But that's for another day. The weather is cooling off, though, and while the sun shines, that makes it ideal for walking.


  1. Pretty sure that that village on the hill is Montferrier-le-Lez. Was on my list to visit but of course I never made it. It's part of the Agglo, so there are buses.

  2. etnobofin is indeed correct. It's Montferrier-le-Lez and, if you have the guns for it, can be walked to (although a much more civilized way would be on a bike!). Past the zoo, and outside the city limits, there's a bike/pedestrian path that can take you to the village. From door to door it'd probably be 6 km, I'd say. I've got a map here.



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