Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stripes and Crepes

Wait… Has it been that long?

Wow, we’re on the ferry, crossing the Great Water (or perhaps it’s the Narrow Sea – not that far from France to England). In any event, we’ve left France and will be in England in a few hours.

We’ve spent the last two weeks traveling, staying only a couple of nights in each place. It seems the experiences have been coming so fast we have hardly had time to process them, let alone write about them! No hope of catching up now, but here are some highlights, in no particular order.


Let’s see if we can start at the beginning. First stop after Montpellier was the fabulous city of Bordeaux, known for its wines. And for its architecture (reportedly, when Paris was being rebuilt in the 19th Century, it borrowed heavily from the architecture of Bordeaux).

We had a great Airbnb host, a young English-speaking professional who took us  into the city and showed us around. We saw the magnificent palace along the river, and the truly incredible “water mirror fountain.” During the day this large, flat area is flooded to an inch or so deep, with water bubbling continuously and kids young and old splashing around. As the sky darkens, though, and the lights of the palace just across the street come on (about 10 o’clock in the summer!), the bubbling stops and the surface flattens. The lights of the palace reflect in the flat, still water. Then, the mist  comes on, making the whole scene otherworldly.

Bordeaux Place and the Mirror Fountain


Mist on the Mirror Fountain


And a short video:


Now we are in Brittany, the upper left hand corner of France. We’ve never been here before, and it is quite striking. Brittany is one of the more “independent” regions of France, keeping to itself and holding fiercely to its own traditions and history. (It has the distinction of sharing the Celtic tradition with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and a few other areas.) And the people cling to their own language. In fact, the French army had a bit of a problem during WWI when they found the recruits from Brittany did not speak French, only Breton. (That did not go well for the Breton men. According to one memorial we saw –and every town in France has a memorial to the World Wars – 240,000 Britons died in WW1.)

It’s all very much more French now, but the people are still proud of their traditions; the black-and-white striped Breton flag is seen everywhere. (And the blue-and-white stripes seen all over France? Started here, very prevalent here.) Houses – and churches! – are distinctly different here, with their steep slate roofs. And, water is never far, several rivers cross the area. And then there’s the Atlantic Ocean, so much different, somehow, from the more placid Mediterranean Sea near Montpellier.

The cuisine is distinctive. Crêperies are everywhere, serving sweet (dessert) and savory (full-meal!) crepes. Cider is also very prevalent. Normandy may be the cider capitol of France, but Brittany is right up there, too. And then there’s kir. Add a bit of dark red cassis liquor to a delicate white wine, or a fine Breton cidre, and you have a luscious, refreshing aperitif. Our new favorite!

We got an early lesson in both crepes and kir, as our first Airbnb hosts were true Bretons, living not far from where their grandparents grew up. The lady of the house demonstrated her crepe making technique (I’ve got a video!), while her husband shared his home-made cider with us. (And yes, their 1980’s house had a steep slate roof!)

Bridge over the canal at Lehon, Lanvallay, Brittany

Stones at Carnac

There are megalithic sites that are world-renowned: Stonehenge, of course; New Grange in Ireland; standing stones seen elsewhere in England and Ireland. But there are more such sites in Britany than anywhere else in the world (who knew?). We were on a (minor) quest to find ancient stones, and were well-rewarded. At Carnac, in the south near the Gulf of Morbihan, are huge fields of aligned stones, hundreds of them. Lost in the woods, or inaccessible in the middle of a farmer’s field, are more stones and structures. No one knows what purpose they served, or how they were erected, but typically they are around 6500 years old.
Standing Stones at Montneuf
Most impressive for us were the stones at Montneuf; some 400 stones were found lying on the ground; 39 have been erected in their original positions. The rest have been left for future archeologists. This was not the most extensive field of menhirs, but seems to us to be the most sincere, as it were: the fields at Carnac were swarming with people, while we were mostly alone in the woods at Montneuf.
More Montneuf Stones

Part of one of several extensive alignments of stones in Carnac

A small cairn at Carnac

An ancient burial mound

Some of these menhirs are quite large...

A bit of searching, and we found this just off the road

            Mont St Michel
Truly a classic, this one needs no introduction. Tides in this area, in the north of Brittany, are extreme (regular tidal range is 20 meters, 66 feet), with Spring tides even more extreme. And the land in this area is very flat, so a 20 meter change in elevation covers a lot of area! We arrived at low tide, with the ocean barely visible in the very far distance and the rock high and dry. We left six hours later at high tide, with the water lapping at the stone port entryway. We almost got our feet wet!

Mont Saint Michel coming...

...and going!

We took the night time tour of the abbey, at the very top of the island. The stone work, the structure, the maze-like rooms made it mind-boggling in itself, but there was an added “feature”: certain of the rooms had been augmented with a sort of sound and light show that made the whole thing strange, weird, and wonderful. And, the sun was setting at 9:30PM, and the tide was coming in.

A little time-lapse video I shot with my iPhone; real time was 10 minutes or so

It all made for an incredible experience, one for which we’re both very very glad. Although I must add that arriving at the car after riding the bus back from the “event” put me in mind of our trips to Disneyland in Anaheim, California when I was a kid: we could see it – the Matterhorn – from a long ways off, there were crowds of people, parking fees were exorbitant, we took a shuttle to the entry gates. And then, after it was all over and we were back at the car thoroughly exhausted, we could see the place in the distance, and felt entirely full and satisfied.

Mont Saint Michel from the parking lot

Tidal changes

On the sand - low tide
As a kid I saw photos in books of boats left high and dry from the tide changes in this part of the world. Now I’ve seen it in person! It’s quite remarkable, completely natural yet as outside our everyday experience as the standing stones at Carnac. I hope someday to be able to sit for six hours and watch the tide come completely in.

Harbor at Roscoff, High TIde

Harbor at Roscoff, Low Tide

One practical application of this extraordinary natural event is the generating station on the Rance River. A dam near the mouth of the river blocks the tide, coming and/or going, building a head of water that is allowed to flow through turbines, spinning generators to supplement the many nuclear power plants in France. In operation since 1962, it is the first of only two in the world.

Tidal dam and power station, Rance River (from the EDF website)

Brittany houses
One of the most noticeable regional characteristics in Brittany is the houses, distinct from the rest of France. New and old, the roofs are very steep and always done in ardoise, slate. We stayed in one house that was only four years old; the roof was covered by even, well-cut, 3-4” slate “scales.” Following in a long tradition!

16th Century houses on the bridge in Landerneau
Steep slate roof on 19th Century house on "Pink Granite" coast, near Perros-Guirec
And here's a couple of modern houses, also with steep slate roofs, from a Real Estate web site:


A medieval city (like so many in Europe), this one with a huge, well-preserved castle. We climbed the 138 steps to the top of the town's church steeple to get a good overview of the town. And on the hills in the distance, modern wind turbines churning out electricity!
The chateau along the canal in Josslin

The town and chateau from the church steeple (all 138 steps of it!)

Next up: something about England, I suppose!

Friday, July 15, 2016

We're OK

This is a quick one: we're perfectly fine.

It was with considerable dismay and sadness that we heard this morning of the terrorist attack in Nice that killed 80. Disturbing and upsetting as this is, we are not directly affected,

While both Montpellier and Nice are in the South of France, Nice is to the east, near the Italian boarder. Montpellier is 200 miles west of there, close to Spain.

We will continue with our plan, which is to dive to the city of Bordeaux, on the Atlantic seaboard (west coast of France; about half-way up). After a few days there, we will continue north to Brittany. At the end of the month of July we'll take a ferry to the south coast of England, where we will travel for August.

I hope to write more fully about our own Bastille Day in Montpellier later. Now, though, I don't have the time, nor the spirit. In a few hours we will be leaving a place we have come to love, leaving a few good friends we've made, and leaving with many, many great memories (and no shortage of photos!).

Today our main fears, as with all road trips, are crazy drivers and unsafe roads. These, I feel, are realistic fears, and ones we can do something about.

So we say au revoir to Montpellier, and with this perfect French expression we are not saying goodbye, we are saying "see you again."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Swinging Sainte-Anne's

Our time in Montpellier draws to a close. We have developed a huge appreciation for this town, for all it has to offer in the way of culture, sights, music, and, of course, food. And, we are constantly discovering new aspects, and things we like about Montpellier.

One concert series that interested us was the “Soirées de Sainte-Anne,” a series of evening concerts on the steps of the Sainte-Anne church. Or rather the former church, since it has been decommissioned as a church (whatever that’s called). Now it’s an art gallery and community center.

Like everything in the old part of the city (the écusson, or shield), Sainte-Anne was built a long time ago, in the XIXème siècle (which I think is the 18th Century, those Roman numerals confuse me). The steeple is very tall, and can be seen from many parts of the city (including the rear window of our first apartment).

Seen down a narrow street
From under the Arc de Triomphe

From the water temple at the Place Royal du Peyrou

For the summer, the good folks at Carré Sainte Anne, the square in front of the church, set up these Soirées, this series of open-air concerts. We went to the first, of classical music. It started with a group of children from the local music conservatory, and the audience consisted of beaming parents. We figured we’d come back later when the adults were playing. But what with one thing and another (there really is a lot going on in this town, especially on a summer evening!), we never did.

Then suddenly, it was the last concert of the series. A swing band, we were told. We had to check it out. Sure glad we did! Here’s a little video to give a flavor of what we saw, as the sky darkened and night came on...

A few days later, still jazzed from the excitement of the evening, I strolled past the old church. It's just not the same in the daylight....

Sainte Anne's Square; so empty and quiet!

Sainte-Anne at night, sans musique

Saturday, July 9, 2016

L’abbaye de Valmagne

Yesterday was the last day of Ramadan, the Islamic sacred month of fasting. During Ramadan, the faithful take no food or drink during the daylight hours. We live near the Maghreb quarter, where there are many immigrants from France’s former colonies in North Africa, and we’ve noticed that the cafés have been rather empty this month. Today, however, we see the sidewalk tables are occupied again, mostly with men sitting, talking over tiny cups of coffee, and smoking (smoking, smoking, smoking, like in every café all over France!).

It’s been hot, and the days long – especially for those who are fasting! The streets have not been exactly deserted, but they are certainly livelier today,

Meanwhile, we’ve been keeping ourselves occupied. Yesterday we were particularly busy, with lunch in a nice restaurant in a pleasant sea-side village, and dinner in another, quite different, sea-side village.

One of our goals during our stay in Montpellier was to connect up with locals. How does one do that? I don’t know. But Paula, the resolute researcher, found a couple of ways. One was through the French-English school, which hosts a tea every Wednesday afternoon to bring together French speakers with (wait for it!) English speakers. We found there was much for us to learn from this group, things about Montpellier, how to get things done, in addition to multi-lingual conversation. (And, as an extra added bonus, we are in high demand because while there are many Brits in the area, it’s hard to find a native speaker of American English. Score!)

Then, on Wednesday evenings, we’d head on over to Le Dome, a bar a few blocks away (it puts in an appearance in the June 21st “La Fete de la Musique” video, with the crazy piano).  Here it’s buy your own drink and converse in French, or English, or German, or all three (as some do!). And get questions answered about the city, the area, and how to get things done.

And now that we’ve gotten to know some locals, we’re getting invited out. Yesterday we went exploring with Bernard and Claude, a couple of fellows we met at the Language center. Well, it was an exploration for us; they’d been here before.

Paula and Claude plan their visit
“Here” was the Abbaye de Valmagne, a 12th Century abbey about a 45-minute drive away. The grounds were beautiful, but we learned that what saved the abbey were the huge barrels of Russian oak in the church.

Steps worn from centuries of use
It seems that many older buildings that become abandoned and fall into ruin over the years end up having the stones of which they are built “repurposed”: the old building is used as a quarry to provide material for new buildings. Indeed, many old buildings ended up this way. But after this abbey was abandoned, it was used for winemaking. The vineyards that had been long tended by the monks were updated and improved, and new wine presses (“new”: this was in the 19th century) installed. The side altars in the church were removed, and the space used for wine aging tanks. (As Paula says, “That’s MY kinda church!”)
Massive aging barrels of Russian Oak

"I'll come here for services all the time!"

We explored the cloister, and the garden. I thought about the sign that said the monks took a vow of silence; they were allowed one hour of conversation on feast days. Oh my. It was quite beautiful.

Quiet cloisters...

... looking on to the gardens

Decorative carved vase from ??th century...

A refreshing fountain in the garden
Stunning stone work over the fountain gazebo

After the usual wine tasting, and our purchase of a few bottles, we headed to the beach, or more properly, the sea-side town of Mèze, another 15 minutes away. It was a fine little town, although we’ve gotten used to seeing so many ancient stone buildings that if it’s not from at least the 16th Century it hardly seems worthwhile. But we found a nice restaurant, and the four of us had a fine sea food lunch.

No town in France is complete without a fountain: Meze, near Montpellier

The Pirate keeps an eye on the waterfront

The unassuming port of Meze

But the beach is nice!

This day, though, our dance card really was full. Silvie, whom we’d met at Le Dome café, had invited us to dinner at another sea-side town, Palavas-les-Flotts. She and her friend Kathie met us in her car not far from our apartment, and we drove the 20 minutes to the beach.
Karen, Paula, & Silvie in Palavas-Les-Flots

The Canal du Midi ends here in Palavas

This is one of several towns built along the extensive sand spit that separates the Mediterranean from numerous étangs, or lagoons, along the low and flat coast. And this part of the coast, no doubt in part due to the proximity of the big city of Montpellier, is very built up. We walked along a straight beach for about a mile and a half, the ocean on one side and continuous condos on the other. These are mostly vacation homes and rentals, fully populated this time of year, although there are some permanent residents.

The downtown area was quite touristy, the roads lined with restaurants and tee shirt shops. There is a short aerial tramway to carry paying passengers across the narrow mouth of the canal; we elected to walk up to the bridge. It wasn’t stunning, or marvelous, but it was a classic sea side town in full summer mode, with tourists (including the four of us!) strolling about and stopping to look and buy.

Walk around, or take the high road over the canal!

We found a sea food restaurant and had a good meal. The food was good, and so was the price, although I’d rather not drink wine from a plastic cup, or eat with plastic utensils (or pay extra for bread, very rare here!) But the food WAS good, and we had a satisfying time strolling about in the very warm evening as the sky slowly darkened.

Looking up the canal

All in all it was a busy and satisfying day.

Long walk back to the car in the sunset, past empty beaches and full condos

Monday, July 4, 2016

Line 4 is Completed!

The first of July, a big day for the Montpellier tramway! The tram is a cute, and certainly useful, thing about Montpellier. The little trains are a great way to get around, and to the suburbs to catch a bus out of town. And they’re fun to watch, with their bullet shapes and bright, playful colors.

Now a couple of stops have been added to Line 4, closing the circle and making that line a full loop. It’s also now possible to circle the old town, just outside the walls, which could not be done before. (There is no public transport inside the vielle ville – also called the écusson, or shield, due to its shape the streets are just too narrow.)

I’m still mystified as to why this is such a Big Deal. So OK, the initial vision is complete, and now there is a tram line that makes a complete loop around the city (the first in France!). But, any excuse for a party, so hey, we’ll go along!

The festivities started at about 7 o’clock, late enough so it was starting to cool down, with still three hours of daylight left (yes, it stays light very late here in summer!). First up was a drumming ensemble, 30 drummers from Brazil (I supposed they were used to the heat, so I didn’t worry about them drumming in the sun). Then there were speeches by the mayor, city council members, and… Manual Valls, the Prime Minister of France? Now that’s a big deal. All the way down from Paris to our little town!

(The low-level hisses and boos from the crowd reminded us that he, along with President Holland, is not very popular right now. There’s something about a restrictive labor law, among other things, that’s got people riled up all over France. The speech was ok, they just turned up the PA. No doubt M. Valls was glad to get away from Paris and the Élysée Palace to do something less political.)

Then some modern interpretations of ballet; music by the Montpellier Symphony Orchestra. And, finally, a spectacular aerial dance against the face of the Arc de Triomph, the setting sun providing a warm yet intense illumination.

All this was held in a park at the north end of the city, in the shadow (literally!) of the water temple (referred to locally as the Chateau d’eau, or water tower). We’d been up here any number of times. It’s a great place to watch the sunset, as the land drops off steeply to the west. Mountain peaks are off to the west and north, and barely visible to the south-east, the ocean.
The Chateau d’eau was built in 1768 at the end of the aqueduct bringing fresh water to Montpellier. The aqueduct itself is rather spectacular, particularly at night with the blue lighting that’s been installed.  But we couldn’t see the aqueduct this evening; all the action was in the park in front of the Chateau d’eau, with its alleys of trees and grassy areas. And the equine statue of Louis XIV, erected in 1718. Yes, this stuff has been here for a long time, and the celebration really was of Montpellier itself. 
Statue of Lous XIV, with the water temple; note mock-up of the tram, lower left
Elegant lady, in costume!

The new tram extension gives easier access to the patrimoine of Montpellier, its cultural heritage, things historical and geographic that give a local a sense of history, its place in the world. Like this park we were in, called Place royal du Peyrou (now with a tram stop!). Or the next stop up the line, the medical school. Founded sometime prior to 1200, it is the oldest medical school still operating in France and the oldest in all of Europe.

So yeah, there really is something to celebrate here!

Drumming, and dance to the Montpellier Symphony

Spectacular aerial dancing on the face of the Arc de Triomphe

It was a good crowd that showed up...

Tables had been set up, laden with food and drink. Once available, the crowd of 2000 did not hesitate to take advantage and it was astonishing to see all those lovely folks storm the table and grab food and drink. But then, we helped ourselves to some of that fine wine, too!

We finally left, passed under the arch and headed down the street toward home. First, though, we paused on the bridge to gaze down at the newly-completed street and it’s as-yet unused tram rails. A woman also stopped briefly, exclaimed to her companion “Montpellier really is a beautiful city!” and moved on. We moved on, too, full of wonder at where we were, and gratitude for the joy of being there.
New tram stop! Let's party!

What it's all about...

Another soft evening in Montpellier: 10PM!

We did, though, stop at a supermarket on the way home to pick up a baguette and some other essentials. As we were waiting in the check-out line, Paula suddenly looked down at her not-yet-empty souvenir glass and exclaimed, in joyful surprise, “I’m drinking wine in a supermarket!” We were not so far into our cups that we actually burst out laughing, but we came close.

It was a very fine walk home.