For badge holders only – part 2

Welcome to Part Two of our guided walk around Montpellier – for those who missed Part One, you can find it here.

At the end of last week’s post, we were on the corner of Rue de la Coquille, where we were admiring the most amazing architectural feature!

Xavier Laurent, our guide, continued our walk towards Rue Foch and its focal point, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe.  On the way there, we passed in front of the Palais de Justice, the central court-house.

The Palais de Justice translates literally (as you may have guessed) as “Palace of Justice”.  It certainly is a palatial building and it is definitely designed to impress!  A long flight of stone steps leads up to a huge portico of Corinthian columns, surmounted by a very ornate pediment.  On either side of the portico, wings of the building project forward, creating a courtyard, which is closed to the street by iron railings.

In the days when Montpellier was a fortified city, there was a gate in the place where the Arc de Triomphe stands today.  The Arc stands at one of the highest points of Montpellier.  Naturally, it is not as big as the one in Paris, but it is impressive all the same!

If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the heads of some people on the top of the Arc. Our group was larger than the maximum number allowed up there, so our guide split us into two groups.

The decorative reliefs are in homage of Louis XIV, glorifying his achievements during his long reign of 72 years!

To begin with, I thought the two faces of the Arc had identical reliefs, but on closer inspection they turned out to be different.  The reliefs in the pictures above are the ones celebrating the battle victories.  The two medallions in the pictures below celebrate the construction of the Canal du Midi, and the victory of Louis XIV over the French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  The central figure in the second medallion used to hold a cross in its raised hand, but that was knocked off some time ago!

The next medallion shows Louis XIV as Hercules, crowned by Victory, and the one below that remembers the capture of the town of Namur in Belgium by French troops.

After I took all those pictures, it was the turn of our part of the group to climb the 88 steps to the terrace atop the Arc!

Xavier, our guide, had told us that the views were worth the climb, and he had not promised too much – the views from the top were magnificent!!

The large open space on the other side of the Arc from Rue Foch is called the Promenade du Peyrou – a tree-lined public space with a statue of Louis XIV at the centre.  The statue which stands there today is a replica of the original, which (naturally) was melted down during the French revolution.  The original was monumental in size, and, according to our guide, no building in Montpellier could be taller than the tip of the fingers on the original statue’s raised arm!

The building behind the statue was the “Chateau d’Eau”, a water tower of sorts.  If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the arcades of the aqueduct to the left of the building, which brought water to Montpellier and the “Chateau d’Eau” from 1768 until sometime in the 20th century – the aqueduct and the “Chateau d’Eau” are no longer in use today.

Once we had had our “fill” of the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe it was time to descend the 88 steps of the spiral stone staircase.  The top of the  Arc de Triomphe can only be visited with a guide and I felt very privileged to have been there!

The next stop for our guided tour was a mysterious place – the medieval mikve.  A mikve “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism” according to Wikipedia.  I found the Wikipedia article very interesting and instructive – do read it if you want to find out more.

The mikve is located in the cellar of a house in Rue de la Barralerie.  It was discovered by chance during renovation work:  the cellar had always been very damp, so it was decided to dig in attempt try and find the cause of the dampness.  In the process, the archaeologists were called in, and they discovered the remains of the medieval mikve.  If you’ve read the Wikipedia article, you’ll know that a mikve has to be filled with naturally occurring water, either rainwater or a spring or well.  In Montpellier, the mikve is filled by an underground water course.  No wonder that cellar was always damp!!  There is speculation that the synagogue was close by.  When the jews were chased from the French kingdom in the 13th century their places of worship would have been repurposed or destroyed.  It’s a miracle that the mikve survived!

The bath itself had been completely filled in with debris and covered over, but once it was all cleared out and restored, it filled up again with crystal clear water.  The water was so clear that it would have been easy to forget that it was there, had it not been for bits of leaves floating on top.

The picture above was taken from a small room above the bath, perhaps used for undressing / dressing oneself before and after immersion?

I felt quite awed when I climbed the stairs on my way out, thinking of the many centuries that this place had survived!

The mikve was the penultimate stop on our guided visit.  Xavier, our guide, walked us back to the Place de la Comedie – we stopped not all that far from where our visit had begun.  He gave us a little history of this magnificent square, which goes by the nickname of l’oeuf, the egg!  The Place de la Comedie is very much a 19th century creation, with its impressive buildings in the style of the Paris architect Haussmann surrounding it.  Originally there was an egg-shaped island on the square, with roads around it.  I’ve always known the Place de la Comedie in its present pedestrianised version, so that it’s difficult to imagine it with roads and cars.  Below is a picture from 1949, which shows a view of the square towards where the Polygone shopping centre is today.  You can see the egg shape quite clearly.  If you take a look at an aerial view of Place de la Comedie on g**gle maps, you can see that the egg shape is still there – for the moment, as plans are underway to resurface the entire square!

The square takes its name from the Opera Comedie, the 19th century opera house of Montpellier.  A succession of opera houses have stood on the self-same spot, all of them destroyed by fire, apart from the current one, which was built by a disciple of the architect Charles Garnier, of Paris opera fame!  I’ll leave you with a picture of the opera house at dusk, all lit up!  There’s much more to discover in Montpellier.  You’ll see for yourself when you next visit!

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For badge holders only

Most of us have been there at some point:  you’re visiting a place and you come across something that looks really interesting.  You have lots of questions, but there’s nobody to answer them. Mobile internet has made things a lot easier – smartphones allow us to call up information so easily, yet the information is only as good as the search terms we enter.  You really want someone who can tell you all about it – a real person, A GUIDE!!

More and more towns in the Languedoc area now offer guided visits.  I recently went on a guided visit of the historic centre of Montpellier – I booked it via the tourist office in Montpellier. A good number of different themed visits are organised by the tourist office there – this link should take you to the full list of visits on offer.  I went on the “Centre Historique” visit, which started outside the tourist office on Place de la Comedie.

After handing a badge to each participant of the guided tour, our guide, Xavier Laurent, gave us an overview of the history of Montpellier.  I’m going to give you a very brief summary:  the city has no Roman past, it was founded around the 10th century by the Guilhelm dynasty.  In the Middle Ages, the settlement expanded and prospered and became a centre for trade across the Mediterranean.  Montpellier became famous for its University, especially the law and medicine faculties, and the city was a stopping place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  For more information, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for Montpellier.

Montpellier continued to prosper and grow – it later became the administrative seat of the Herault departement and the Languedoc Region, and today it is in 7th or 8th position in the ranking of France’s largest cities. The university culture, started in medieval times, is still thriving today!

Xavier walked with us to Rue de la Monnaie, where he showed us bronze markers which were set in the pavement, and told us why they were there.

Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela usually wore a scallop shell on a string around their necks.  It was a symbol that was used along the pilgrimage routes – scallop shells would be affixed to buildings and doors, to denote shelter and welcome.  The real shells could be used by the pilgrims to scoop food and water, a bit like a spoon.  In Montpellier, the markers in the pavement denote the routes the pilgrims would have taken across the city.

From Rue de la Monnaie we went on to Rue de l’Aiguillerie and to the Hotel de Griffy.  The notables of Montpellier built their mansions in the centre of the town – many of them still exist but it’s unusual to be able to peek behind the doors!  Our guide had the keys to the enormous gates of the Hotel de Griffy, so we could have a look!!

In case you are wondering why I am only showing you some windows and not the whole facade, in the historic centre of Montpellier, most buildings are five times as high as the streets are wide, so it’s very difficult to get pictures of an entire house!

The Hotel de Griffy was divided into separate apartments at some point during its more recent history.  We were not able to visit the interior of the house, but we could see the courtyard and the staircase!

The four facades around the courtyard were identical, but above each of the central windows of the first floor was a different mask, sculpted in stone and representing the four seasons.  Lots of faces to watch all the comings and goings – if only they could tell us what they have seen…

The other windows were decorated with sculpted ornaments of various kinds, some of them probably heraldic.

The staircase took up one entire side of the courtyard – it was monumental!  The finely wrought iron balustrade dates from 1790, when the whole mansion was given a makeover.

From the Hotel de Griffy, our guide took us to the Montpellier equivalent of the Champs Elysees: the Rue Foch.

We were headed for the triumphal arch at the western end of Rue Foch, but first we admired the facade of the prefecture building.  The prefecture is the administrative headquarters of the Herault department.

A little detour around the back brought us to rue de la Canourge and this extraordinary street corner!!

This shell-shaped corner had been built in the days when the streets were frequented by horse and cart.  It  allowed the carts to turn the sharp corner without scraping the walls in the process!  On the wall of the building opposite are traces of tracery. 🙂

Join me next week for a view of Montpellier from the top of the triumphal arch and for a visit to the medieval mikve, and find out why the Place de la Comedie is called l’oeuf (the egg)!

Light up your heart

The city of Montpellier has a special sparkle in the run-up to Christmas, when night falls early and festive decorations light up the streets in the heart of the city.

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I wrote about my visit to the Christmas market in Montpellier about this time last year.  This year I have a different treat in store for you:  for three days at the beginning of December, the city centre’s landmark buildings served as canvases for the most wonderful light shows!  There were nine locations in all, and I managed to see the shows at five of them.  I started with the Arc de Triomphe, which was lit up spectacularly before the show:

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I shot videos of all the sites I visited, so here are two of the Arc de Triomphe – if you receive this blog by e-mail, you may have to visit the blog page, in order to watch the videos.  The amazing light show turned the building into a futuristic spaceship, which took off for a flight through space!

Next, I stopped at the Prefecture, a very imposing building by day, and really funky looking that night:

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The theme for the show at this building was a magical circus, with strong men pushing pieces of a giant puzzle into place.  Have a look!

At the church of Notre Dame des Tables the students of the Montpellier School of Art and the Montpellier School of Computer Graphic Animation and Visual Effects had been given free hand.  Their work was varied and highly entertaining.

Here are two videos:

Not far away was the Musee Fabre, where the show drew inspiration from some of the great paintings which are on display in the museum.

The show made you believe at times that the building was really moving!

As it was getting later, it became time for something to eat!!  My companions found a Lebanese restaurant in one of the side streets near the railway station.  The place was buzzing and warm, and we had a wonderful meal!  Meze to start with, followed by a large grill platter – very tasty and plentiful!!  The restaurant is called Al Manara, and you can find their website here.

The meze dishes were tabbouleh, hummus, aubergine caviar, cucumber with yoghurt, and beans with tomatoes.

On the grill platter we had grilled chicken breast (marinated beforehand, tender and juicy!), lamb kafta (minced lamb with onion and parsley), chawarma (a kind of kebab, with a wonderful sauce), as well as tasty rice and some salad.  There wasn’t room for dessert!!

But there was time for one last light show, at the Eglise St-Roch!

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The facade of this church transformed into a kind of factory before our very eyes!

As this is the last post for this year, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful and happy festive season!!  See you next year, I hope!

Fou de Sud

A little while ago, my “garden neighbours” told me about a new restaurant Fou de Sud on the outskirts of Montpellier.  Their son is a consultant for catering businesses, and he had recommended this place to his parents, who had promptly tried it and were smitten.  Word of mouth is always the best advertising, and the least costly!!  🙂

I made a note of the name of the restaurant and looked up where it was, and the next time I was in Montpellier I went to eat there.  Fou de Sud loosely translates as “Crazy for the South”, and the place is more of a concept than a restaurant. The name may be a bilingual double-entendre = “Food de Sud” — because that’s what it’s all about, much more so than the straight French meaning (thank you Annie!).  The restaurant is part of a “market hall”, which was started by seven associates, each an expert in his field, with the aim of showcasing the best food products the South of France has to offer.  Appropriately, the establishment is in the building of the Sud de France marketing consortium, which promotes products from the South of France all over France and worldwide.

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The building appears to be brand-spanking-new, and it is very striking!  Unfortunately, the access to the car park is a little tricky; blink and you miss it, or in this case, I missed it! 🙂  But I got there in the end!!

The market hall is large and very well stocked, both with groceries and fresh produce.  The meat and fish counters were very inviting and tempting!  One of the ideas behind the concept is to sell from producer direct to consumer, bypassing the traditional distribution methods and reducing the carbon impact of food and shopping.  80% of the items for sale are produced in the South of France, and there are around 2000 different types of product from over 50 producers.

After I’d had a good look at what was on offer, and made a mental note of all the wonderful foods I wanted to buy later, I went into the restaurant.  There’s a long counter, behind which you can see the chefs prepare the food!  And you can also have a look at some of the wonderful desserts!! 🙂

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Since the weather was beautiful, I decided to have lunch outside.  The restaurant has a terrace which is surrounded by glass, and which can be covered with sails for shade.  As you can see, it was pretty busy!

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The food was delicious too!!

octopus salad

Octopus salad

Steak Tartare with wonderful home-made fries

Steak Tartare with wonderful home-made fries and salad

Strawberry mousse

Strawberry mousse

chocolate mousse

Chocolate mousse

Before you ask –  no, I did not eat all this by myself – there were two of us!! 🙂  I’m not normally a fan of raw meat, but, having seen the meat counter, I knew that it would be perfectly fresh, and it was incredibly good!!  The fries were very good too!  And can you tell which dessert I had??  Of course the chocolate one – and it was pretty spectacular!

All in all a very good meal and a great place to stop at, if you are in the vicinity!

Fou de Sud is located at 3840 Avenue Georges Freche, 34470 Perols (a suburb of Montpellier).

 

Happy Holidays!

For as long as I can remember, the festive season has been synonymous with light for me.  In Germany, the nights draw in very early around Christmas, and the festive illuminations make those dark nights brighter.  I grew up there, in the days before everybody had electric lights on their (sometimes artificial) Christmas trees – we had real candles on a real tree.  I would only lay eyes on the tree on Christmas eve, when the candles were lit as if by magic (my parents never appeared to have anything to do with that!!), and the whole tree was sparkling with glass ornaments, tinsel and sparklers.  At the time you read this, I will be decorating my own tree, with tinsel, glass ornaments AND electric lights!  As I am writing this post before that tree will be trimmed, I won’t be able to share any photographs with you, I’m sorry!

But I do have some other photographs to share with you – I visited Montpellier very recently.  On my meanderings through some of the narrow streets, I passed by the entrance to a church, which had in the past always been locked.  That day the doors were wide open, so I had to have a look in – and I’m very glad I did!  The church was the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, the chapel of the white penitents. This lay brotherhood was founded in Montpellier in 1517.  In 2013 it had 49 members, aged 25 to 103 years!  The chapel, which dates from the 17th century and earlier, serves as their headquarters.

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The interior is richly decorated, with much gold leaf in evidence.  Parts of the decor have been restored, whilst other parts are still awaiting much needed work.

On the balcony at the rear of the chapel are two mannequins, dressed in the traditional white robes of the penitents.

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There was a reason why the chapel was open to the public that day:  the very large Provençal creche or nativity scene!

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The popular Provençal nativity scenes appeared during the French Revolution, when la Terreur had closed churches and forbidden worship.  In 1793, at Christmas, people in Marseille started to make small figures, which could easily be hidden in case of police checks.  They used clay, paper, the white of a loaf of bread – whatever was to hand.  The figures represented the faithful, who could not go to midnight mass.  They were given the names santouns, little saints in Provençal. Today they are usually called santons.

The tradition became very much part of Christmas in Provence, and spread to Languedoc too.  In 1803 a santons fair was held in Marseille.  The traditional costumes of today’s figures hark back to the days when the santons were first made.

Did you notice the chapel with the white penitents?  And did you notice that baby Jesus was missing?  He will be placed in his crib with great ceremony on Christmas eve!

After that wonderfully unexpected stop, I made my way to Place de la Comedie and the Christmas market.  The centre of Montpellier was beautifully decked out in lights.  Here are some pictures of the Opera Comedie, of the Place de la Comedie, and of the streets surrounding the Place de la Comedie:

This year, the Christmas market stretched from the Place de la Comedie all the way down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle – there were over 100 stalls in all!

IMG_3724There was a nice assortment of edibles:

. . .  and gift ideas:

Note how I have far more pictures of food 🙂 – somehow I’m drawn to that!!

This will be my last post for 2015, and so I would like to wish all of you and yours a wonderful festive season!!  See you again in the New Year!

 

Have you ever been g**gled?

Earlier this year I visited Montpellier – perhaps there was a specific reason or perhaps it was just for a day out, I don’t remember.  The weather was beautiful, and as it got nearer to lunchtime I headed for the Place de la Comedie, a beautifully open square in the centre of Montpellier.  The square is lined on opposite sides with beautiful buildings, with the most impossibly ornate facades. Some of the detail on those facades is just amazing, and not really visible or able to be appreciated with the naked eye – you really need a very good zoom lens or a magnifying glass!!

The third side of the square is occupied by the Opera Comedie, Montpellier’s municipal opera house and theatre.

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As you can see, it’s pretty grand!  The fourth side is open, and leads towards the Polygone shopping centre, as well as the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined area, linking the Place de la Comedie with the Corum, the new opera house and performing arts centre.

To the left of the Opera Comedie stands the Grand Hotel du Midi – you can see the gold mosaic from that building in the first gallery of pictures above.  Walk past the entrance to the hotel, down the side of the theatre, and you get to the Brasserie du Theatre, which is in the same building as the hotel.  The restaurant has a very unassuming frontage onto the street, just a door really, leading into a little foyer, from which stairs lead up to the restaurant.  The interior of the restaurant is very much belle epoque, with mirrors and plaster work everywhere.  I felt too self-conscious to take pictures of the interior – I’m sorry!!  You can see some good shots of the interior on this site.  The weather was so nice that lunch was being served on the terrace.  🙂   The terrace is on the first floor, so from the street you don’t really see it.

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The fountain in the centre was a nice touch, and added to the great ambience.  The midday menu was very reasonably priced at 15.90 EUR for two courses, and it included a glass of wine.  My dining companion and I decided to forego the starter and have dessert instead. 🙂  The steak was delicious, and the salmon was cooked to perfection.  The dessert of the day was tiramisu – yummy!!

After a relaxed and unhurried lunch, we went for a walk around the pedestrianised centre of Montpellier.  There’s much to look at, be it shop windows:

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…or architecture:

The amazing building above is the Hotel des Tresoriers de la Bourse, which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then there are of course the wonderful door knockers.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a kind of fetish for door knockers! 🙂  The variety is seemingly endless, and only limited by the fantasy and imagination of whoever designed and/or made them.

Whilst walking down Grand Rue Jean Moulin I came across this strange-looking car:

On closer examination it turned out to be a G**gle car, not the one which is driver-less, but the one which takes the pictures that allow us to virtually explore in street view.  Here’s the camera array:

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Nobody seemed to pay the G**gle car much attention – the shop windows and the shopping itself were much more interesting.  We continued with our walk, and found some more lovely things to look at:

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I’m sure the Maison Justin Boch is no longer trading, but the lettering is just lovely, and the square so inviting.  Just a few steps away was the Padova ice cream parlour.  It’s not as though I hadn’t had enough to eat at lunchtime, but I couldn’t resist it… 🙂

The Hotel Saint-Come is today part of the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The tourist office offers guided visits of the building in its program – I’m going to try and book that for a future visit.

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Down one of the side streets I found this wonderful glass veranda.  Look at the detail from the tiled frieze.

Back on the Esplanade I noticed the facade of an old Gaumont Cinema building:

And then it was back to the Place de la Comedie, where it all started.

Now, if you go to G**gle maps, and look at the street view of Grand Rue Jean Moulin, you might just be able to spot me with my camera in my hand, taking a picture of that car.  You’ll have to go to the May 2014 version though – for some reason the street was photographed again in June 2014.  And if you look very carefully, you might even spot me several times!  I had great fun walking past the car a number of times 🙂