Friday, July 27, 2012

End O' Month Miettes

Ah, summer in Montpellier! The intense blue sky, the mild breeze wafting by, the confused tourists looking at the maps they picked up in the tourist information center, the sound of cicadas.... Oh, wait, those aren't cicadas. They're jackhammers. The demolition of the old hotel continues apace, and this has had some rather unfortunate side-effects. First, of course, there's the noise. There are also jackhammers in a roped-off area on the Comédie, but I have no idea what's going on there, and they're not going all day. The hotel hammers are. They seem to be taking it down from the top story, logically enough, and as of yesterday the roof was gone. Another problem is the dust. There's just tons of fine dust in the air all day long and with the windows open, a necessity when the temperature hovers around 85ºF (29ºC), the whole house is getting covered with a fine layer of grit. The third problem is that the Hotel de la Comédie, the amazingly inexpensive hotel where I generally stash my guests, is right across the street from the dying building and thus even noisier and dustier than my place a block and a half away. That's okay: there haven't been any visitors yet this year, for some reason, except for a couple who came, stayed a day, and pushed on, eventually aborting their entire trip because they hated France so much. No fair, you guys: you don't even live here!

Meanwhile, the resettlement of the building across the courtyard continues. On the ground floor, the guy's moved in a whole bunch of plants, and all the ceramics littering the courtyard means he's not even close to finished. He spends most of the day, often with a woman, doing this and that to the inside of the house and yesterday he had a long thing that looked like a hose, into which he was threading wires from here and there. No idea what that's all about, but at least nothing crashed: he's blown the electricity in the next-door violin shop a few times. Upstairs from him, the tween girl or girls (I'm not sure who lives there and who doesn't) have acquired a piano. This is not 100% good news, as it means we get to hear "Für Elise" butchered from time to time, as well as flowing arpeggios that owe more to New Age music as anything. Fortunately for the neighbors, she likes to practice as much as most kids taking piano lessons do, so it's not that big a problem.

One nice thing about summer is that starting in early July, the city puts on the Estivales, the huge wine-and-food festival that takes over the Esplanade every Friday evening. I've only been once so far, but I've already made two discoveries. Or, rather, rediscoveries. As usual, I prefer to try rosés, since red wine always tastes "hot" in the summertime (and yes, I know some barbarians chill it), and I had the opportunity to try two I remembered from years past.

On the left is Domaine d'Archimbaud's oddly-titled Les IV Pierre. This turns out to be a fairly notorious wine because of its utter individuality. Usually when you taste a rosé the first flavors you get are of fruit or maybe flowers, but this is like you've just licked a piece of limestone someone's smashed a peach on. The mineral tastes are right up in front, which is highly unusual, although the fruit is right there, too and comes marching in just a bit later. Although the bottle says St. Saturnin, and, indeed, Domaine d'Archimbaud is located in that town, a lot of its wines are actually grown in the Terrasses de Larzac area, as I believe this one is. At any rate, it's a bargain at €5.60 a bottle -- if you can find it. I have yet to find a place in Montpellier that sells it or their equally-impressive reds. On the one hand, I know where St. Saturnin is and maybe next time I'm with someone driving near there we can stop off and score some of this. On the other hand, I'd rather walk to somewhere nearby.

On the right is Domaine de Poujol's rosé, a four-grape (Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre) mix with a really distinctive no-nonsense full-bodied flavor. The wine is produced by Robert and Kim Cripps, Brits who've spent a lot of time in the Napa Valley in the U.S., which explains, perhaps, the assertiveness mixed with subtlety the wine displays. Kim recommended this with spicy foods and it stood up real well next to a garlicky pasta puttanesca I made the other night. It's €7 at the winery, which, from the list of dealers on their website, is about the closest place for me. Others may be luckier: you Americans will note that it's distributed by Kermit Lynch. It's in the Grès de Montpellier area, and near a lot of more famous places, but I know from past experience some great things come from here. I've made a note to buy a couple of their reds when it cools off, too.

There is, however, one place I'm scared of buying a drink around here:

Every time I walk past this place it just creeps me out. But no, it's supposed to be "Feel Juice," not "Feet Juice."

Finally, a warning for visitors. I really hate to come off as a xenophobe, since I get enough of it aimed at me on a daily basis here, but do beware of the Romas if you're in Montpellier, the people you might call gypsies. Every Tuesday and Saturday, as I head off for the market at the Arceaux, I get assaulted in the Peyroux park by guys holding petitions they want me to sign. I've never so much as looked at one, although, because they pretend to be deaf-mutes and, of course, they're not. Sometimes they're very, very aggressive. This past Saturday a guy came running up to me and, playing along that he couldn't hear me, I waved him away. He fell back and started walking closely behind me making growling noises, and then he started barking. I was a little worried: there are those who'll tell you that the Romas and the police here have an arrangement, so if you get attacked, you're out of luck. Nothing happened, though. The only time I ever saw someone sign this "petition," it was a young American hippie guy, travelling with a friend. He'd been approached by two girls, signed their petition, and then been ordered to give them five euros. He told them he only had three and they had him and his friend backed up against a fence. I never did find out what happened, although I saw him later. The thing is, one of those girls also offered to "help" me buy a tram ticket the other day (try never to use the ticket machines at the Comédie stop or you'll be surrounded by Roma kids offering "help") and a few days later, I saw her squatting with a cardboard sign announcing that she was hungry and in need of money for food. Usually, there are several waves during the summer, with the current one replaced by another after a few weeks and moving to another territory. You can see the encampments from the highway as you come into town.

The thing is, the Roma have been here forever, and in Spain, the government has gone to great lengths to integrate them into Spanish society. The xenophobia of the French doesn't allow this, however, so they remain a marginalized, hostile, crime-oriented group of people. Would they integrate if they were allowed? Probably not all of them, just as in Spain. But it might be worth trying. Meanwhile, don't think your lack of French will be any protection: a couple of weeks ago, a guy chased me through the Peyroux, waving his "petition" and yelling "Eeeengleesh! Eeeengleesh!"


  1. You know the money is in Montpellier down here by the total absence of Roma in Nimes. I had almost forgotten about their existence till I read this post!

    Also, nice to see you've got all your 'faculties' back and can describe what you are tasting. The 'peach-smashed-limestone' is one I won't soon forget.

  2. Had some colorful encounters with the Romas when I visited Granada--my first morning there, I decided to get out and see the town early while my travel companion slept in--walked up steep steps to the Alhambra, and at a landing, all huffing and puffing, I was accosted by a Roma lady, essentially offering to give me a palm reading. What the hell. She was quickly done, and then started shouting "Amore! Amore!" Then I gave her a bit of money as a tip, about a dollar, which she was amazed by. I hardly thought it was anything, but then the rest of the time I was in Granada, every time I would encounter Roma women, or they would spot me from a distance, they would start chasing after me shouting "Amore!" There was one point where there was 30 of them chasing after me in a main plaza...

  3. Dear Ed, I expect you'd be interested in reading an article/slide-show in today's New York Times travel section...."36 Hours in Montpelier".

    Oddly enough, the article doesn't even mention the Cathedral (which I could look at for hours on end, trying to solve the puzzle of "What were they THINKING?")

    Level Best as Ever,

    David Terry

  4. Thinking? The thing was trashed in the Wars of Religion, just like most of the town. Only old part left is those two tubular towers, which are 13th century, and the walls which adjoin the Medical School, which are visible from its courtyard, if you can get in. Most of the Cathedral (I assume you mean Peter and Paul) wasn't built until the 19th century: the Revolution got it too!

    Btu yo, Morue got big cheese. I still haven't gone there. When are you guys here next?


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