Monday, April 18, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Four: Montpellier: You Can/Can't Go Home Again

Ahhh, Montpellier!

There was little enough reason to stick around Narbonne, when I knew that the road I'd parked on eventually turned into the road that'd drive me straight to my next destination, Montpellier, the city where I'd lived for five years before having to return to the States. I'd booked four days in a hotel there, planning to use it as a base of operations as I went out into the countryside visiting wineries and seeing more of the landscapes I'd loved.

I left Narbonne early enough on Monday that I realized I could drop down to Sète on the way and grab some fish for lunch. Once again, it was a grey day, and windy. At this time of year, I remembered, the sun could warm you if you stood in it directly, but it wasn't making an appearance, and as I drove into Sète, I saw big waves in the Mediterranean crashing against the seawall: there was a storm out there somewhere, and it was a big one. After parking under the canal, I came up and walked around the main drag, then a couple of other streets, working up a hunger and noting that almost nothing had changed. I had in mind a tielle for lunch, a local specialty best described as a pie with octopus cooked in a spicy tomato sauce as filling, but the best place in town, the place that, in fact, was credited with inventing the tielle, was closed for the season. I settled for one of the canal-side restaurants -- one of the few that was open -- and had a fish soup with croutons (not so hot) and a rouille sètoise, which, the last time I'd had it, was cuttlefish under a blanket of hot, saffron-scented mayonnaise on a bed of rice, and this time was cuttlefish in a spicy tomato-based sauce with a dish of spaghetti on the side. It was far better than the soup, but the place wasn't exactly doing a lot of business on a Monday out of season.

It was too cold to do any more wandering, or to go up the hill the town is built on, so I got in the car and headed towards Montpellier. I'd arranged this trip so that I'd wake up at the hotel on Tuesday, walk downstairs, and go to the Tuesday market, which stretches out across the street. It wasn't the best season for the market, but I could tell just what time it was by visiting it, I'd spent so much time in the past buying my food there. Meanwhile, there was Monday to kill by strolling around the center of town, seeing what had changed and what hadn't. The hotel itself was much improved from when I used to stay there on my visits from Berlin: no more rickety furniture and lumpy bed, no tiny shower booth leaking all over the place. It was too cold to take breakfast in the hotel's wonderful garden, but it would be possible later in the year.

A quick stroll confirmed a few things. First, despite the Virgin Megastore's demise, the covered market was still open, although I'd heard otherwise. Neither the Musée Fabre nor the Pavillon Populaire had shows up currently, which, in the latter case, was too bad. Not having to endure the surliness of the Fabre staff was fine with me. Wandering out onto the Comédie, there were no patrons at the outdoor cafés, and slipping down the side-street towards my old place revealed that the former jeans store was now a beer-bar with an actual good list of beers (must be the American exchange students). The biggest disappointment was when I came to my old house, and the Lebanese snack bar was still in operation, but redesigned, and with someone I didn't recognize manning it. Had my pal Hani disappeared? Apparently: he wasn't there when I passed a couple of days later, either. There was a new burger joint where there'd been a nail salon, and I recalled the words of a Facebook friend whom I don't actually know who'd preceded me by about a week: he said that food in Montpellier had changed to pandering to students, and that cheeseburgers were now a fixed thing, even on the menus of decent restaurants. There was no reason for France not to have great cheeseburgers: they have good beef, many different cheeses, and great bakers capable of crafting a bun, but when I lived there, there was only one place that did a decent burger, the Vert Anglais (which, I saw, was now called something else). Now, burgers are omnipresent, and, at least in France, they ain't for dinner. Still, I wasn't worried about getting a good meal.

The saddest change was the old hat store on the Rue de la Loge, which had been run by an old man with a great story: he was Jewish, but didn't know it, and when the Occupation came, concerned Montpellierians hustled him out of town, ran the store for him, and got him out of hiding when it was safe again. That's as much a story about French laïcité as anything. But it was shuttered (I'd considered buying a straw hat there) and the few hats in the window were dusty.

Back at the hotel, I took care of some other business, calling my Apple tech support guy, Etienne, to tell him I had my old iPad and an old iPhone he'd asked me to bring, along with some sort of memory card for an Apple Cinema Display he'd bought. He'd wandered into the English Corner Shop one day, and impressed Chuck and Judi with his abilities, although back then he was only a teenager, and now, at 21, he's at loose ends, buying and selling computer stuff, and kind of vaguely thinking about coming to America. He's also into cars, and wants either a Cadillac or a Ford Crown Victoria, of all things. But his automotive knowledge would come in handy.

There was no question of where to eat on Monday: I'd already checked, and the Chat Perché, my absolute favorite restaurant, was open on Mondays. The menu in the window looked unchanged, but inside, it was a different story. The people running the place looked different, and there on the menu was the dreaded cheeseburger and fries, where the seiches a la plancha once were. There were other things, though, and I started with a fresh green pea soup, cold, and went on with a roulade of chicken breast stuffed with Conté cheese. And, of course, I had a bottle of Mas de la Seranne Sous le Figuier with it. My favorite winery, clearly keeping up the quality, I noted, waiting for the food. The soup was good, but the chicken was dry, and the vegetable side-dishes, always a highlight there, were bland. Bland! Clearly the Chat had fallen on hard times. Very sad. I remembered so many meals with friends (including the young woman whose philosophical conversations I remembered in the first part of this travelogue), and my sister's surprised "Who puts mint in mashed potatoes?" when she had dinner with me there. The Chat did. But not any more, apparently.

Montpellier's Muslims have tacos instead of cheeseburgers. I have no idea if this is a common North African street food, if one of them is called "a tacos," or whether some Moroccan guy thinks this is a taco. 

Of course, for the Tuesday market, the heavens had opened up and it was pouring. There were stands set up, though, and I decided to see if the storm would pass, and about 11, it relented, and I made a quick tour of a much-diminished market. The egg guy was there, and, moreover, he remembered me. We had a genial chat, and I almost asked him for one of the rubber bands he uses to keep the egg cartons closed. I'd been using one, my last physical connection with my Tuesday-Saturday market ritual, to hold my bags of Anderson's coffee shut back in Austin. But I figured he'd never understand why I'd want one, so I didn't. It was obvious that a lot of folks had bailed on showing up, but the Italian guy with the fresh pasta and salumi was there, busy as usual, the quiet guy with the best vegetables (usually) in the market was there, of course (most of his trade is with restaurants), but not many others had ventured out. The herb, spice, and soap people were obviously not there, because you can't display dried herbs and soap in a downpour, and I'd promised to bring back some of their famous Marseille soap, but there was a little guy with some hiding under a canopy, so I got it from him. It was kind of slippery because it had gotten wet, but it'd do.

The rest of the day, I just left the car in the hotel's newly-leased underground parking spot and did some random stuff. I visited my friend Kirsty, a Scottish woman who seems to have defeated the various crises she was going through when I'd left, and she filled me in on the latest idiocies that the city was perpetrating (not that, when a major hunk of the city is torn up, it wasn't obvious that something was going on), surprised the hell out of the woman who used to cut my hair by dropping in for another trim (this, too, was something I'd hoped to do), and, later, met my friends E&J, who made plenty of appearances in this blog back in 2011, for a catch-up at an Armenian restaurant, of all things (well, J is vegetarian, after all). A good, relaxed day.

The next day, Etienne had asked if he could tag along while I visited some wineries. Despite a surname that means "wine jug," he declared that he didn't like wine, but was curious as to why people did. The weather had turned brilliant, and it was a good day. And Etienne's car-geekery came in handy, too: I'd scratched the paint getting into the parking spot in the hotel's lot, and although it wasn't dented or a very serious scrape, I know that these things can come back and sting you, so I'd asked him if there were someplace I could get a quote for a quick buff-and-paint job. I managed to scratch it again getting out of the space and then out of the garage -- this wasn't a big car, but damn, I'd forgotten about French parking spaces -- so our first visit was to a Peugeot dealership on the edge of town, near where we'd get on the motor route towards wine country. The only guy who'd talk to us there kept us waiting for about 20 minutes, did a superficial look at the car, and, no doubt smelling panicked rich tourist, said if we left the car now, he could have it ready by the end of Friday for €3000. Um, no. Thanks, but no. But this was a concern, and it was preying on me a bit: I'd declined CDW when I'd rented it, and although people with more experience than I said that it might not even matter, I was hoping not to have to deal with insurance.

But now, our job was to get to Aniane, and the first winery on my list. Well, there were actually only two, but I was keeping my options open. Mas de la Seranne has been my favorite Languedoc wine since I tasted my first bottle on an early visit to Montpellier, and some of my favorite wine experiences have involved it (and one of my least favorite, when I spent €13 I didn't have on a bottle of one of their higher-end wines, Clos des Immortels, for a birthday treat was corked).  I'd always wanted to visit the winery, and now I had an excuse. I'd ordered a swell piece of luggage from a company that makes a collapsible suitcase that can contain cushioned holders for a dozen bottles of wine, which you can then check like normal luggage. (You declare 9 liters of wine for personal consumption at Customs, and the government charges you something like $1.35 a bottle). I'd bought one and had it delivered to a friend in Nîmes, whom I'd see later.

We got to the winery just as they'd reopened from lunch, did a tasting, and I discovered that they had a new high-end limited-production wine in the range, and upon tasting it, added it to the rosé and Clos des Immortels I already knew I wanted. Mme. Venture put up with us nicely, and let me take a photo in the room where the magic happens:

Well, some of the magic: the rest happens in the fields.
The next stop would be St-Saturnin, the traditional last stop on the little driving tour I'd give visitors, whisking them up and down the hills through medieval villages and UNESCO sites and, finally, stopping at the Domaine d'Archimbaud for a tasting with Mme. Cabanes, who was always gracious about it once she'd bullied me into trying her III Pierres white. I told her I didn't drink much white wine, but I'd loved her rosé at the Estivales, Monpellier's summer-long wine festival. Turned out the white was as good as the rosé, an astonishing feat for a region that isn't particularly regarded for white wine. This time she let me taste it again and made another sale, and so I made off with a white, a rosé, and her top bottle, Robe de Pourpre, a thick, intense red that calls out for a winter evening and a hunk of roast beast. To my surprise, Etienne declared that he'd never had a wine like that (well, I could believe that) and he loved it, so he got a bottle, too. As we drove away, he was making plans to serve it with a dish of magret, the breast of a duck that had been raised for foie gras.

It was a little early to head back, so I remembered that on the way in to St.-Saturnin, we'd passed Mas Conscience, which was not only back in the Terrasses du Larzac appelation like Mas de la Seranne, but, like them, had made an early transition to all-organic, certified and monitored. Their wines had been hard to get in Montpellier, but I remembered them as excellent, so we decided to check them out. Mme Ajorque was rather surprised to see tourists draw up, but arranged a tasting. Not only did I score two bottles, but I talked her out of a straw hat with AOC TERRASSES DE LARZAC on the band, decorations that had no doubt been part of the presentation at this year's Vinisud, the big biannual wine trade fair held in Montpellier. So now I really would look like a tourist returning from vacation on the plane! I also got a catalogue of their wines: starting this year they've imported a few pallets of wine to San Francisco and New York, and seemed open to talking to a Texas distributor. So next time I visit Austin Wine Merchant, I'll hand it off and see what happens.

It was a good day out in the country. The fields were yellow with wildflowers (ground cover, no doubt) with the occasional bright red poppy, and the vines had been grafted and were spindly green. Back in Montpellier, I parked in the outdoor lot near the hotel. No more scratches for me, and birdshit washes off. I dropped my haul off at the hotel, and fielded a text on my phone: "Headed in, traffic jam." It was from Gerry, the guy in Nîmes to whom I'd shipped my wine suitcase, who I was expecting to have dinner with the next night. It hardly mattered: I had no dinner plans tonight, and I was glad to see him. We had a fine chat over a nearly inedible dinner at Le Vieux Four, a restaurant I'd never really liked, but I was stupidly obsessed with having seiches a la plancha, a favorite that had disappeared from the Chat Perché's menu in favor of the cheeseburger, and I was also obsessed with eating someplace that didn't offer a cheeseburger on the menu, thereby narrowing choices greatly. The seiches -- encornets, actually; cuttlefish of a larger size -- could have been used to patch the tires on the Peugeot, and I struggled through two of them before giving up. Memo to self: never go on a restaurant search with low blood sugar due to having skipped lunch. I got back to the hotel, saw that Merle Haggard had died, and fired off a tribute on Facebook, then crashed.

The next day was my last in town, and I did...essentially nothing. Etienne checked in with two more shade-tree body shops he'd found who offered to do the job for €700 and €1100 (he'd taken pictures with his camera), and I decided that, with a $1300 hold on my credit card, I'd take my chances. I actually liked having nothing to do after all of the intense activity of the past week, and Friday would mark the last segment of the trip: drive to Perpignan, turn in the car, take a train to Girona, Spain. So Thursday, I wandered some, stopped in a restaurant Etienne had recommended for lunch (Les DouSoeurs, which had just opened when I left, and specializes in dishes from the Aveyron, in the north of Languedoc where there's no wine grown, but they make up for it with pork: the charcuterie-laced salad I had here was the best meal I had in Montpellier), wandered some more, found a small wine shop with a bottle of the Trois Lunes wine I'd had in Perpignan in the window -- the last bottle in the store, and the last of its vintage, the woman said -- and then wandered into a comics store and found that my favorite French comic artist, J.C. Denis, not only had a new book out, but one featuring his long-time character Luc Leroi, whom I thought he'd abandoned. I spent some time at the hotel packing, goofing off, and went back into town for a non-memorable meal.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'll return to Montpellier next time I'm in France because of the many friends I have there and the memories I also have, and because it's still the best place to base yourself for explorations of the surrounding countryside, and there are still places I want to see. And it was empowering to walk its streets now with no fear that my being broke was limiting me. I had spent a lot of time there frustrated, wanting to do things that I couldn't because my carefully-planned move was sabotaged by the capricious cancellation of a project I was working on with a music-biz sleazeball, and the subsequent $20,000 hole it left in my plans. Now I could walk into a good restaurant, drive a car into the hills, buy whatever I wanted (although I didn't want much). But knowing the town as I do, I no longer want to live there -- or, most likely, anywhere in France. The whole country still exerts a powerful pull on me, but, well, I don't know. At any rate, there's time to think before acting, and I have work to do.

And, I thought, turning out the light, there were still a few days to go, once again in unknown places.

Next: Spain And Out

1 comment:

Site Meter