11.01.2012 - 13.01.2012 6 °C
Our next destination after Carcassonne was the city of Montpellier which was our last stop before taking the train to Paris and flying home. We had all day to get there so took a scenic route through Montagne Noire and part of the Midi-Pyrenees area. It was a fairly relaxed drive on country roads where we saw cliff-side villages, remnants of Cathar castles, a minor car accident and lots of farms, vineyards and national park areas. After a little more motorway driving, we arrived in the city before dark for a final bit of getting lost before finding the hire car place and saying good-bye to the little black Renault.
Montpellier is a vibrant and youthful city with an almost completely pedestrianised central area and a lot of shops, bars and cafés. We visited a photographic exhibition, a number gardens and historic sites, the oldest Faculty of Medicine in the western world and a new piece of civic development that adjoins the old city called Antigone. We also did a little more shopping before preparing for our journey home.
The trip has been a marvelous experience and we have enjoyed the scenery and the people. Standards of service in France are high and they generally have formal and highly specific ways of doing things. The use of greetings and common courtesies are also still routinely practiced with an expectation of a "bonjour" when passing a stranger in a corridor, a "pardon" if things are a bit squeezy somewhere with the luggage, a "bonjour, merci, au revoir" sequence even when browsing in a shop, and the commitment of a lot of time to personal transactions in hotels, shops, cafés and restaurants. It has been fun to have a little bit of the language and I think the French people I've met have appreciated it, even if they haven't always understood it. Some have even bothered to give a mini on-the-spot language lesson which has been entertaining. A man in a kiosk in Aix, for example, refused to sell me phone credit until he had instructed me on the correct pronunciation of the name of the telephone company and made me say it back to him. It went something like, "non, Monsieur, vous ne dites pas le "b" dans "Bouyges Telecom" ... c'est "Ouyges", pas "Bouyges" ... maintenant, vous le parlez ..." before the ten euro could be handed over.
It has been good to see a mixture of big cities, regional centres, smaller rural places, coastal areas and a number of the obvious tourist haunts. Although there has sometimes been a "fermé" problem with being in the smaller places in winter, the flip-side has been the absence of queues and crowds at tourist sites. In lots of the Roman ruins, galleries, parks, etc. that we have been to, we have frequently been two of the five to ten people in attendance.