A Travellerspoint blog

Montpellier

Le Fin

sunny 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. 

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:24 Archived in France Comments (1)

Cassis to Carcassonne

Le Grand Tour

sunny 10 °C

On leaving Marseille, we decided to follow the sea as far as we could on our way to Cassis which is a favourably described Mediterranean resort town. We drove through some pretty ocean scenery before going over a spectacular mountain range that is obviously a fairly popular (and strenuous) cycling route. 

Cassis lived up to its reputation and we took a boat trip out to view the Calanques which are a series of small protected inlets a little way along the coast. After spending a little bit of time facing the sun in one of the quay-side café bars, we decided to walk as far into the Calanques as time would allow. Following a picnic on a cliff top and some detouring down various paths, we set off on the 344km drive to Carcassonne in Languedoc where I had ambitiously booked a couple of nights accommodation. Although I took the "tolls" option on the GPS and maintained the 130-140 km/hr standard motorway speed, it was pretty dark for about the last hour of the trip, making it a fairly non-scenic experience.

Carcassonne consists of an old Cité enclosed completely within a castle as well as the Ville Basse outside of the walls. The hotel was inside the walls and the GPS voice got into an argument with itself trying to tell me how to get into it. After an unscheduled nighttime drive into a vineyard, we found a sign that said Hotel Client Parking and parked just outside the castle. We couldn't quite make out how to get inside so only took some of the luggage. Winter is very quiet in these places and we felt like we were the only people there clattering around through the gates and along the cobbled streets until we found the hotel. Owing to the quietness of the season, the hotel upgraded us to a superior room which was a nice surprise. 

Following check-in, I thought a reasonable thing to do would be to suggest that Sonia relax in the room for a time while I go to the car and retrieve the remaining larger suitcase. The castle is basically an oblong-circular area with a limited number of exit points and I thought that this should be a fairly straight-forward exercise. After spending some time roaming around in the moat areas and gazing hopefully into the dark through the arrow slots in the outer wall, I started to think that the entire car park must have only existed in my imagination. I did, however, finally find a path to stumble down but then discovered that I had found the start of the Ville Basse instead of the car park. Thinking "it must be here somewhere", I wandered around down there for a while before deciding that the sensible thing to do would be to retrace my steps back up into the "lices" or moat areas. It was dark, absolutely nobody was around and when a rat ran across my path, I started to imagine that I had been trapped in some sort of medieval role-paying activity. I found another downward path but it kept getting narrower so I climbed back up to the lices again. The weather was pretty cold but I certainly wasn't by the time I eventually circled most of the castle's inner and outer walls to find the car and lug the suitcase back up through the stairs and gatehouses. When I finally staggered in, I was too exhausted to explain my adventure to Sonia so quickly got changed for dinner and immediately ordered a bottle of red wine. 

Carcassonne is obviously very busy in the summer months but we spent a very non-crowded time in the Cité and down in the Ville Basse area. It seemed weird being one of about five people going past the two ticket booths and long queuing barriers straight into the Chateau and so forth but it made for a very relaxing visit and although the winds were a bit cold, the sun was shining and the winter colours were very pretty. Very few of the places inside the castle were open so we dined at the hotel restaurant both nights but the food and service were both very good. I sampled the famous Languedoc dish called Cassoulet which was nice although it contained enough protein and fat to sustain a small nation. 

Posted by Neil-Sonia 20:43 Archived in France Comments (2)

Marseille

Le Vieux Port

sunny 13 °C

Whilst I was a little unsure about driving into the middle of France's second largest city, it all went pretty well and we landed in an underground car park near to the hotel. I've discovered the value of the hazard flashers here. Although they are rarely used in our open spaces at home, in France putting them on allows you to put your car just about anywhere for a limited amount of time.

Marseille is a vibrant city in a spectacular location on the Mediterranean coast. We stayed in a hotel in the Vieux Port area which is in the very heart of the place. We went walking past all of the moored yachts into the main streets where one of the first things we encountered was a large group of young people doing some busking/street theatre/"flash mob" activity. It demonstrated the vitality of the city and was fun to watch for a time. After taking in some more of the night activity in Marseille, we dined at one of the many nearby restaurants selling bouillabaisse and other seafood based dishes.

The next morning, Marseille under a clear winter's sky was a very pretty sight. Although it is fairly gritty and seems to have a number of bars where damaged, weather-beaten, seafaring older male types give the appearance of having been rusted in for about 50 years, it is a very interesting place. There is a fortified harbour first founded by the Greeks in about 600 BC that is full of yachts and other smaller boats as well as dramatic churches, fortifications and monuments on the more mountainous parts of the city. All of this is set against the blue of the ocean and the whitish rocks of the landscape.

We took a little tourist "train" from the harbour up and around some of the main sights and this proved to be an effective and inexpensive way of taking it all in rather quickly. The tour went along the coastline and demonstrated the overall scale of the city very well.  A dominant landmark that we visited on this circuit was a large church on a hilltop with an even larger gold plated statue of Mary and baby Jesus towering above it. It was reassuring to know that I am not the only one with some translation issues as the English version of the tour commentary told of the statue being of "the virgin and the kid". I think computer generated translations leave a little bit to be desired.

In the afternoon we took a coastal route on the regular SCNF train that was mentioned in the guide book. The train followed the sea for much of the way and, although it was difficult to stop the train-induced napping, the scenery was spectacular.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 15:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

The Carmague

A Different French Landscape

sunny 9 °C

Following a drive along some dramatic coastline, we arrived in the flat, marshy lands of The Carmargue. Our hotel was a ranch-style place called Le Cacharel on the edge of the national park area about 4 km from the nearest town. There were plenty of horses and some other animals in the complex and the quietness of the season made for a very peaceful stay. Most businesses in the nearby town of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer had shut for the winter but we eventually found a restaurant open for some good paella. 

Apart from the owner, there was not a lot of English spoken amongst the hotel staff so I got to practice my French quite a lot. The owner's father had been a film-maker and must have been quite a Carmargue identity as there were numerous interesting photos and items of film memorabilia decorating the rooms and the dining and reception areas. They featured lots of men and women of wild appearance riding horses, fighting bulls and generally being fairly cool looking hombres.

The next morning, we went horse riding from the hotel. Being on these large grey animals took us outside our comfort zone a little but Grisout (my horse) and his companion were very patient with us and the "gardian" knew what she was doing as she rode along in front. My guy liked to stop and eat every now and again but we slowly made our way along some tracks, past a wading group of pink flamingos and through the marshes. The horses are obviously used to nervous riders as well as walking through the mud and water and we had a brilliant time. The gardian had little English and seemed impressed with my French so delivered all her descriptions this way. This required an exercise in concentration but I got the general idea and passed on what I thought she was saying to Sonia. Imagination has to play a part in this process but I think we discussed the differences in salt levels in the various bodies of water, the history of the area, the restricted fishing processes, the mating season of the flamingos, the way that the water levels are managed, Mt Ventoux and other distant geographical features, the small water animals that live in the canals, the differences between Carmargue and Spanish bulls, the personalities of our horses and the fact that the wind was pretty cold. It was a very enjoyable couple of hours. 

After checking out, we drove on through the general area and found a Parc Ornithologique that we had been told about. It was an amazing place and we got to see the flamingos and many other water birds at close range. From here, we drove past lots of rice fields and many black cattle before taking a ferry across the main branch of the Rhone on our way to Marseille.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

Ancient Provence

Roman Ruins, Rain, and Running Out of Time

sunny 11 °C

We set off on a rainy morning for a tour of some of the ancient sites in this area that was once an important part of the Roman Empire. First stop was Vaison-la-Romaine which is built either side of a steep river valley with a BC era bridge joining the two sides. There were more ruins here but the pouring rain made it all a bit impossible so we drove on to Orange where we visited a fairly intact roman amphitheatre which is still used for a variety of events. After this, the weather had cleared and we travelled further to the famous Pont de Gard which is a large three-tiered aqueduct. We spent another hour or so wandering around, over and under it before we headed off to the city of Nimes. By this stage, we were running out of daylight so we drove past the arena and temple and promptly got ourselves jammed in traffic outside the railway station. Following a trip back to our base town in the dark, we decided that is was difficult to see the scenery at night. 

The following morning, we set off for Nimes again for Frances to catch the train to Barcelona. It was about 7:30 and it was quite pretty with the sun slowly rising. We parked at the Gare in good time and waved goodbye to Fran as she set off on the next part of her journey. She is spending a few days in Barcelona before flying back to Paris and then on home to Hanoi. 

Sonia and I made the most of the good weather to visit the Roman arena, temple, gardens and belvedere. The arena is more intact than the colosseum in Rome itself and is still used for bull related sports. I'm not sure whether they still do actual bullfighting or not but I think there is a contemporary PC version where they tickle the bull and run around a lot. At the formal gardens on the other side of the historic city centre, we climbed a rather high Roman structure to get a good view of the city, the surrounding countryside and a snow capped Mt Ventoux. They are not quite sure why the Romans built it but it makes a fine lookout. 

From Nimes, we drove to St Rémy de Provence where we visited the ruins of a 6 BC Roman city called Glanum. After some extensive archaeological work, we were running out of daylight so decided to return to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Leaving our apartment here the next morning was a bit sad as we were very comfortable there but we packed up and drove back to St Rémy for another look before heading to Aix-en-Provence. St Rémy was the place where Van Gogh spent some of his mad but reasonably prolific times and we checked out the markets, wandered the narrow streets and participated in the national pastime of having a long and formal lunch. Rosé seemed to be the preferred lunch wine in these parts.

From here, we drove up into the nearby Alpilles where we stopped for a while at a fortified village with good views towards the sea and across nearby olive farms. I then took the "no tolls" option on the GPS for the more scenic drive to Aix. It is a larger city with our chosen hotel in the historic city area being accessible via very narrow streets with limited parking. After going to the trouble of squeezing the Renault into a tiny spot and paying at the on-street machine, we checked in where the concierge recommended that, owing to the possibility of break-ins, it would be better to put the car in one of the underground multi-level secure parking stations that they have throughout the old city. So we unsqueezed  it back out and, after getting lost and doing some circling, we went underground.

Aix is a graceful place with numerous fountains and a very atmospheric city layout. It is also obviously a university town with many young people about and a vibrant arts scene. We spent a couple of days here wandering around, visiting a couple of churches and old buildings, checking out the markets in the town "places" and eating a lot. We enjoyed some Vietnamese, some Japanese and a very good meal at a little restaurant that specialises in local Aix dishes. Sonia was also able to do another Paris-style blast of shopping in one of the boutiques. 

From here we will drive to Arles to check out a little more Roman engineering before heading down to The Camargue.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:39 Archived in France Comments (0)

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