Friday, June 28, 2013

Courtesy and Condescension

I was sitting at my desk Saturday mid-afternoon after coming back from the market, and was wondering what I'd do with the rest of the day (as I do all too often these days) when the phone rang. The display showed an Austin area code, but not a number I recognized. I answered and was surprised to hear the voice of my friend Andrew, who told me that he'd come over to do some business in Spain and had brought his youngest son, Abe, with him. Andrew brags a lot on his kids when I visit him in Austin, and yet, since they're boys and there are three of them, they're always in motion and I've never really met any of them for more than a second. At any rate, Andrew had realized how close they were to Montpellier, and, in a flash, jumped in the car and was on his way here. I gave him some basic instructions, and in no time the two of them had arrived, scored a hotel room, and were ready for my tour.

I've gotten pretty good at it, integrating the parts of Montpellier's history and geography into a walk through the center city, and it's always more fun when the people you're showing around are smart and have good questions. We walked for a while, stopped for a drink, and then continued on. At one point, we came upon the Panacée, once the seat of the Medical School, which for the past several years has been undergoing transformation into some sort of contemporary arts center. I'd been there when it was still a wreck in 2006, but it was hosting the first Montpellier Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art, which had some remarkable pieces in it. Unfortunately, it was also the last Montpellier Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art, and not long afterwards the renovation started.

There was a good-sized crowd, and what looked like copious drinks and snacks, and from what I could tell -- the place was packed -- they've done some nice things to the interior. What little art I saw was, alas, what I've come to think of as "subsidized avant-garde," which seems like an oxymoron until you figure that someone got a grant to produce it, and while technique is very much in evidence and very slick, content is sorely missing. I made a note to come back and take a look, nonetheless.

We left, and the sun was beginning its descent. I wanted to get to the top of the Corum, the opera house/convention center with a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside -- you can even see the Mediterranean -- before sunset, so we climbed Rue Bocaud towards Rue Salle d'Éveque, a narrow street with some impressive houses on one side of it, whose back yards border the Esplanade.

Now, one rule about a lot of older European cities is that the architectural action is in the courtyards and interiors, which are almost always closed to the public. Thus, at the top of the Rue Bocaud one finds the Hotel Bocaud ("hotel" meaning "grand house" in French). It's intriguing because of the sign on the front, which I've noted before while totally getting it wrong, embarrassingly enough.

The inscription reads that in 1561, Jean Bocaud, a regent of the University, became the first Montetpellierian to request a Protestant (Huguenot) burial. In terms of city history, this couldn't be more provocative, and ties in with the monument on the Esplanade to the Protestant preachers and ministers who were executed there.

More importantly that moment, a car passed us as we were walking, and the door to the Hotel Bocaud opened, providing a tantalizing peek at the interior. It quickly closed, though, as they usually do. We got to the Hotel, and I stood there translating the sign and talking about its implications as Andrew and Abe listened attentively. As I was talking an older couple appeared and opened the door. They were apparently returning from the Panacée opening, which had evidently just let out, and the man, tall and wearing a fine linen jacket and equally fine straw hat, paused for a moment, then turned to me. "Would you like to see the house?" he asked. Well, of course I did.

"This is not so interesting," he said, gesturing at the immediate building. "But the stairway is quite fine." This was through a couple of glass doors, through which my guests scrambled, cameras and iPhone at the ready, while I chatted with our host, explaining who we were.

Kind of out of focus, but notice the busts on the wall.
I didn't get as close a picture as I'd have liked, but the details were very nice. "The busts, alas, aren't famous Frenchmen," our host noted to me, "but, rather, Roman emperors." He chuckled. Bringing light into the stairwell was a window set in the ceiling.

Emperors and sunlight
Then we walked into the side yard, where people parked their cars, and he pointed out the building next door, which he referred to as the Maison Sully, but which I know as the House of International Relations, where the twinned cities have given plants for the gardens and several consuls have their offices. I was more interested in the space between us and the Esplanade. "That used to be the city ramparts, you know," he said. The city wall was apparently dismantled in several stages, and small bits of it are still up. Nobody had done any serious gardening at the Hotel de Bocaud, though, and it was all weeds of some kind, although weeds with nice white flowers.

We just stood around, enjoying the quiet and the late afternoon light. Abe discovered a kumquat tree and pulled one off. "Hey, they're really sweet, not like the ones we have in Texas!" he exclaimed, and I translated for the old man, who smiled.

Andrew snapped a couple of photos, and then we thanked our host for his graciousness. He'd even begun to try a little English so he could talk directly to the Texans.

All in all, it was an unexpected and magical detour in the routine, and I was quite glad it had happened.

* * *

Dinnertime was approaching, but Andrew wasn't very happy. He'd lost his glasses -- brand new glasses, at that, bought just before he'd left Austin. We spent some time trying to figure out where this might have happened. Andrew decided it was the café where we'd had our drinks, so off we went to find them, although it was all the way across town. He fretted all the way there and then, when we inquired, nobody had found them. Nor were they on the ground by our table. They were gone. Eventually, we made our way to Gourmet Gulch, as I call the Place de la Chapelle Neuve, where no fewer than five restaurants surrounding the square maintain tables (although the one which actually occpied the Chapelle Neuve, where the University's law school had been in the 18th century and which had been a chapel before that, had gone out of business and was being renovated into another restaurant). We had a good, leisurely meal, with a big pichet of Saint-Christol, but Andrew was inconsolable. 

After dinner, both of the Texans were exhausted, but Andrew decided that an after-dinner drink was in order. I first tried an excellent wine bar, but that wasn't acceptable. Another bar was chaotic and didn't have much in the way of libations. Then inspiration struck: we were right by Ste.-Anne, and O'Carolan's Irish bar. They'd have something, although sad to say all their tables outside were full. But that just meant room indoors, so we walked in. As we tried to look at the blackboard with the menu on it, I was approached by a young man, barely much older than Abe from the looks of him, who'd heard us speaking English. "Where are you from?" he asked me in English. I replied in French, "Moi, j'habite Montpellier, à deux pas de la Comédie," invoking the fiction so many real estate folks indulge in here that everything is "two steps from the Comédie." My friend from Seattle who had been here the previous week was told that the place she got from Airbnb was "deux pas de la Com," and it was all the way at the top of the hill, a five-minute walk. 

But he apparently didn't hear me. "Are you enjoying your stay? Are you English?" No, I told him, I live here, and I'm American. Ignoring me, he turned to the Texans, who were kind of wishing he'd step away from the blackboard so they could read it. "And what about you? Are you English?" He kept grinning, which I found unnerving. I had an inspiration and suggested we order Calvados, which may not be local, but is a perfect obscure after-dinner drink. "Calvados? I do not know, perhaps we have Calvados." Fortunately, they did, so we took our glasses into a back room (one nice thing about O'Carolans is its sprawl -- perhaps the only nice thing about it) and tried to talk above the din of a group of binge-drinking French kids. "What was that all about?" Andrew asked rhetorically. I watched one of the kids at the other table drop a shot glass full of ominously colored liquid into his beer and chug the result. I thought about the old gentleman with his linen jacket and straw hat, and then I thought about Abe, who, at 17, seemed to be the most civilized person under 40 in the whole bar. 

All photos in this post by Andrew Halbreich. Used by permission; all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Mystery of the High Castle

If it should ever occur to you to visit me here in the beautiful Sud de France, and should you have the time and the money, and should various other factors work in our favor, I'd ask you to rent a car (assuming you lived in the U.S. or Canada or outside France, at any rate -- that way you get unlimited mileage instead of 250km) and I'd take you on my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour.

That's how I spent yesterday, and, save for one snag at the end, it all went very well. And, fortunately, the person I was showing around was of a very inquiring turn of mind, so we saw and did a lot of things.

The tour always starts in Sommières, a small town, formerly walled, which has a Roman bridge from the first century AD leading into it, a castle of sorts (pretty ruined, and not open to the public) looming over it, and a couple of decent places to have lunch. Yesterday, I didn't think I was going to get across the bridge, because there was a profusion of odd waterfowl, including a pair of black, black swans, who kept giving photo opportunities. At one point, a huge mammal appeared, nearly two feet long, leisurely boogie-ing downstream in the river. It looked to me like a muskrat, they have muskrats in France? Anyway, he was determined and it was odd to see his hind legs propelling him along as his nose and most of his body stayed dry.

Sommières Market Square and Beyond
I've posted lots of pix of this town, which does a brisk trade in British tourists and the sorts of things they buy, but with its lazy river, medieval superstructure, and quiet vibe, it makes a nice start to the tour.

Leaving Sommières, I head down a road that leads through wine country, and, eventually, to Pic St. Loup, a mountain visible from downtown Montpellier. It has a twin, l'Hortus, a "limestone escarpment," which makes it, technically, not a mountain. On the side facing the Pic, it has sheer limestone cliffs, in which, apparently, have been found Neanderthal dwellings. There is a winery, Domaine l'Hortus, which produces some very wonderful and affordable wines, although that could be said about the whole Pic St. Loup area. It's been "discovered" by the wine world, but there are still bargains to be had.

It's possible to climb the Pic all the way to the top, where there's allegedly a small chapel founded by the saint who gave the mountain its name. I've never done this, but the mountain is quite dramatic just from the side of the road. But it's l'Hortus which continues to fascinate me. The main reason for that is that I thought I once spotted a huge castle on it -- but only for a second and, because I was driving, only out of the corner of my eye. The place where this apparition appears is not conducive to taking one's eye off the road, though, and until yesterday I never got a good look.

Fortunately, as I said, my passenger was very interested in all kinds of things, and we found a convenient place to stop. We got out of the car, and through the trees, with the aid of my trusty zoom lens, I was able to snag a couple of pictures.

Very Mysterious
Now, this is out in the middle of nowhere. What you can tell from these two photos is that the building has buttresses and that the windows are arched. It doesn't look at all recent.

A little further along, we spotted a fine place to pull off the road and got out and found a better vantage point. Here, it was possible to get a shot of the entire ruin.

Even Mysteriouser
It may, with enough time, be possible to hike up to this thing, but I'm not sure how. (Remember, all of these pictures are at almost the maximum of my 36x zoom). Anyway, as you can maybe feel if you stare at the pictures long enough, it was nice and warm out there. I'm wondering if there's not a way to this place from the top of l'Hortus, and if it's possible to get closer to it.

Now that I've established just where it is, I notice there's a very tiny village up there called Le Fesq, and a road (D122) that may pass not far from the castle. I need a higher-resolution map than Michelin can provide, though, and even then the historical context will be missing. Who built this? Why? When? Who trashed it? It's pretty clear that the roof's been blown up.

NOTE: Later, after posting, we found it: this long essay is in French, but this is it.

At any rate, the rest of the trip -- the quiet of the tiny Romanesque church in St. Martin de Londres, the UNESCO sites of Pont du Diable and St. Guilhelm le Désert -- went well, but we arrived in St. Saturnin too late for me to buy a six-pack of the IV Pierres rosé from the Domain d'Archimbault, dammit. Making things worse, at the superb visitors center that serves Pont du Diable and St. Guilhelm, my friend got to taste the IV Pierres white, a masterpiece of a white wine, which this region isn't exactly known for. But not me. No, I was driving.

Not that I'm complaining. I saved that for the trip back into town, Friday afternoon Montpellier rush hour, which was just about as much fun as it sounds like. But we got away with €8.50 worth of gas for the whole thing, which I found remarkable.

So now I need your help. If anyone has some details on the castle/fort/thing I'd like to have them. And I'd also like more of you to come visit before I leave France, which is going to happen at some point. Great food, wine, scenery, and castles guaranteed.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

As I Was Going To Saint-Gilles...

...I met a man with 40 eels. Wait, that's not right.

But I did go to Saint-Gilles yesterday, because Elijah Wald, a writer I very much respect, was in the neighborhood, and that's where he was headed. We'd been meaning to meet up while he was over here -- his wife, Sandrine, is French, and her mother, Martine, lives in Provence -- and this was when our schedules coincided. Martine was driving, and we agreed to meet at the train station in Tarascon, which I can get to on the TER, the local-train service in this region.

It all began very auspiciously: I went to the train station the day before to buy a ticket, because it was a very early (for me) train, only to discover that the ticket machines didn't take paper money and I didn't have a bunch of change. Okay, I'd get it in the morning. The line in the morning, however, wasn't moving, and I didn't want to miss the train, so I just went back downstairs to the track, figuring I'd pay on the train. The train came, we took off, and...nobody ever asked me for a ticket. Rather than feel guilty, I decided to treat this as partial payment for the €80 ticket I'd bought in March from Barcelona to Montpellier that the Spanish railroad refused to honor.

Tarascon is a place you can hardly miss if you're headed to Avignon: you cross the Rhone and see the huge castle on the river.

Tarascon Castle from Wikipedia

We found each other just fine, introductions were made, and we piled into the car and discovered that Tarascon is as hard to get out of as Montpellier is, but eventually we were on the road.

The day was supposed to involve visits to Saint-Gilles and Aigues-Mortes, and I was enthusiastic because the abbatial church in Saint-Gilles is supposed to be a UNESCO site, and I sort of collect those. I say "sort of" because I'm not like the obsessives in Japan who have books they fill with rubber-stamps they get at all the historical sites they visit, but I do realize that there's usually something of compelling interest at these places, and it's not always obvious. I enjoy figuring it out.

Saint-Gilles, however, is pretty obvious, since there's only one thing, really, in town: the church. We came at it from a funny angle, and Martine managed to puzzle a local by asking directions to it while standing with her back to it, more or less. One thing we found immediately was the choir. Or, rather, what's left of it.

The choir, sort of 

The Wars of Religion in the 1600s did lots of damage (hell, they pretty nearly destroyed Montpellier), and this remnant of the original church shows that clearly. My book here says it was a Huguenot attack in 1622 that blew this up. There are a few nice details on it, and that door leads to what's supposed to be a classic spiral staircase that architects still study. I walked around it and noted that there were some nice details.

But the real deal is the church itself. The 12th century sculptures on the entrance (which wasn't the main entrance back when it was first built) are an amusing hodge-podge of stuff -- Elijah and I spent some time trying to decode one sequence which had Jesus and the disciples coming into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Sts. Peter and Paul fishing (from an entirely earlier section of the story) and, um, some city, which may or may not have been falling apart. Medieval manga wasn't doing such a great job here.

Of course, after the Wars of Religion came the French Revolution, and what the hatred of the doomed Protestants hadn't achieved in the 17th century, the armed revolutionaries of the 18th century tried to finish off. This meant that all of the faces were shot off of Jesus and the saints, something it's unlikely the earlier crowd would have done.

If you click on that and enlarge it, you'll see that there's a Christ in Glory on the left and a Crucifixion on the right and on both of them, the faces have been terminated with extreme prejudice. Why so angry against someone you'd expect many of these people to believe is the son of God? Easy: he was the excuse for the Church, a horrendously corrupt organization that operated hand-in-hand with the French monarchy, which had basically conquered the piece of land that we see on the map of Europe today as part of the Wars of Religion. The dissidents, the Catholics who didn't totally by into the rules coming from Rome, the followers of the Swiss theologian John Calvin, all of them were keeping needed revenue from a spendthrift monarch and his BFF, the Pope. It's why Montpellier, a Protestant stronghold, was burned and a huge fort (now a high school, symbolically enough) got plopped down on what was then the city's outskirts and stocked with lots of soldiers. Then, when the Revolution came along to depose that monarchy, the outburst of violence was also aimed at the corrupt Church. Since Saint-Gilles was the fourth-largest center of pilgrimage in European Christendom, and, thus, did a thriving business in exploiting pilgrims who either came there directly or were on the Arles route to Santiago de Compostella, the Church was living large there, and the resentment was likely pretty large.

Enough of the carvings on the front of Saint-Gilles' church remain, though, that it's pretty wonderful to look at:

Inside, as you might expect, there's not much, although there's a nice, albeit undecorated, reliquary with a hunk of some saint in it. There's also a crypt, and if you buy a ticket to it, you can also go up the spiral staircase. Instead, we opted for a visits to the "Romanesque House" across the street, three! three! three! museums in one.

Which means, as you might expect, that there's not enough to actually fill a museum. There are, in one room, lots of bits of the exploded church.

Another floor celebrates the profusion of bird life in the nearby swamp, the Camargue, with a bunch of dusty taxidermy -- and a hippo skull, which means that if you're headed there, you should be very, very careful. (I'd suggest a rifle, but if there really is a European hippopotamus, it's very likely to be endangered). The top floor may have had a kitchen in it, and is dedicated to the slim possibility that Pope Clement IV (r 1265-1268), who is known to have been born in the town, may have been born in that very house! Then you go downstairs and there's another set of stairways which'll show you the equipment for winemaking, olive processing, sheep shearing and woolmaking, and other local industries.

We refreshed ourselves at a nearby café and, invigorated once again, set off for Aigues-Mortes. I was there a couple of years ago and blogged about it then, and was a bit apprehensive, because tourist season had just about begun, and it's heaving with them in the summertime. We took the scenic route, though, and went through a landscape of rice fields, still flooded, that reminded me of Louisiana but for the lack of crawfish traps. Once in Aigues-Mortes, we set about assembling a picnic lunch, which we then enjoyed in the Square St. Louis, gazing at the heroic statue of the guy who launched the First Crusade, one of European Christendom's most notable disasters. ("They did, however, discover cushions when they got to the Holy Land," Elijah reminde me). This was the only part of the trip I'd have changed: if I'd realized we were going to picnic, I would have suggested picking up the supplies in Saint-Gilles because it was less touristed, and more likely to have good cheese, sausage, and pâté. And bread: what we got was from the Baguépi chain, something to avoid if you're travelling around here, since it's one step up from Wonder Bread in baguette form. No biggie: if that's the biggest complaint, it's hardly worth mentioning.

After checking out Aigues-Mortes, we headed to Montpellier, through the Petite Camargue and its pink-water salt flats. The pink comes from billions of tiny shrimp, and finds its way into the wings of the local flamingoes, who were boycotting the place a few years back until the salt producers changed some of how they were doing business and they returned. They're not pink all over like their Florida (and front-lawn) cousins, but they're graceful and that flash of pink as they fly is pretty wonderful.

Back here, the group got my walking tour of the city (still a work in progress, but it's getting better), and then, exhausted, they piled into their car and headed back to Provence. They'd parked under the shopping mall near my house, and I went with them as far as the escalator, because I knew that I was just tired enough that if I came back here to The Slum and then tried to go shopping, I just wouldn't make it.

A great day, great folks, and I hear they'll be back. Also it appears that Elijah is working on a major book, about which, in true writerly style, he gave no clue. And now it looks like there's another Stateside visitor on the way next weekend. Guess the season has begun. Anyone else on the way?

Saint-Gilles out the window of the Romanesque House

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