Friday, May 20, 2016

Going all arty

The musée Fabre is not a museum but an art gallery, with a fabulous collection of 17th and 18th paintings. There is a lovely restaurant in the courtyard that is a good example of how Montpellier seems to have achieved an exciting and successful blend of modern and ancient architecture, each complementing the other.

It is in two buildings, one a former Jesuit College that has been completely modernised at a cost of 61 million euros, and the other a grand mansion called the Hotel de Calabrieres-Sabatier-D'Espeyran (with a surname like that your mail wouldn't easily go astray) that has been kept in its original form as a showcase of decorative arts mostly eighteenth century.
Staircases in the restored mansion

My bedroom - in a past life

Floor tiles

Anemones, Charles Manguin. A personal favorite.

So I'm living basically next door to these paintings by Rubens, Dufy, Delacroix, Courbet, Renoir, Monet and their friends.

A special section of the musée focuses on a talented local painter, Frederique Bazille, who died in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, at the age of 28.

Bazille painting of Aigues-Mortes  

The musée actively encourages children from age two to enjoy art and to participate in artistic activities. There were lots of school groups visiting when I was there. I tagged along at the back of a kindergarten group for a while because the guide was speaking slowly and simply and, surprise - I could actually understand quite a lot of what she was saying. It was hard to resist putting my hand up to have a go at answering some of her questions when the kids got a bit stuck.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


First I have say it is not the same without Gerry and I only hope I can live up to her expectations (if only!). I'm giving it a go, anyway.

Montpellier is in the south of France:
sunshine and palm trees
vin table (cheap (ish) wines)
Van Gogh, Cezanne and the Fauves
Cannes and Cathar castles - like Carcassonne.

Specifically, welcome to Montpellier
sunshine on at least 300 days of the year, and palm trees
few foreign tourists (it attracts domestic tourists and is the place French people most want to live)
culture, parks, buzzing cafes and bars, music and dancing in the streets
young people (25% under 25), several universities, lots of students
extensive old town, minus walls, but mostly free of traffic
modern housing area near centre modelled on St Peter's in Rome, designed by Ricardo Bofill
medical school founded in 1220 and one of the biggest in France today
Jardin des Plantes - one of France's oldest botanical gardens, started as part of the School of Medicine
resting spot on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela
did I say sunshine already?
oh, and disappointing WiFi (I unreservedly now take this back, having found a couple of lovely cafes that have excellent 'wee-fee' for the cost of croissant and coffee).Can you see the coffee cup stains and crumbs? Yeah I know, Gerry would have had all this sorted, am I right, and it would be wine and beer stains.

So much to do and see - and all right here at my doorstep without needing to taking a single bus, train, tram or metro! Except there also great places to visit in the rest of the Languedoc-Rousillon region, and Provence is only an hour away on the train.

I'm staying in a first-floor apartment, in a quiet little street just two right turns from the main square (which is oval, and was full of police and demonstrators on May Day). There's a medieval Benedictine Church at one end of the street and the Musee Fabre (more soon) at the other.

The windows overlooking the street have these heavy wooden shutters that show how thick the walls of the ancient buildings actually are. The surprise in this apartment at no 16 is that on the other side, the floor-to-ceiling windows open onto an utterly charming garden courtyard (below) with an enormous lime tree, belonging to the facing ground floor apartment.

At the French-English conversion session at Le Bookshop I met Jean, who lives in the apartment exactly opposite me (too bad - with his wife). Just as I am spending time every day trying to learn French, he spends time learning English. His motivation is he wants to speak his dying words in English, "so my family will not understand what I am saying."

The apartment belongs to Nicholas. He is an Australian I met when we were both working at the National Library in Singapore in the 80s. He went on to have an amazing library career that included working as the National Librarian in Brunei, and then jobs at the Kew Gardens library, and the School of African & Oriental Studies in London. His last post was managing the Australian and NZ collections at the British Library. Like most of us, the constant brutalities of mismanaged restructures got him down, so he bought a little farm in the Lot region. He is gradually fixing up the old farmhouse and planting trees. But it is too cold to spend the winters there, and too isolated, so he has this apartment in Montpellier where he will live when he is too old to visit the farm. He has gone off to the countryside in Comiac and I'm staying in his lovely apartment.

OK, cooking my first meal in France on my own, here's a vegetable I have never had before - it's called endive. No problem, Nicholas has a copy of the useful 'Cuisine de tous les jours' which gives me a choice of recipes. Oh, they are in french. Pas probleme. Well, I don't think I'll be trying the other endive recipes in a hurry but my Endives au Gratin was passable.

Meanwhile the plate of smelly cheeses that Nicholas left has become stinky cheese extraordinaire and may set of the fire alarms if I can't finish it soon.  The Camembert Rustique has already infected the yogurt with its wild spirit, while the milk and butter are trying to walk out of the frig in protest. Such a lovely cheese it is, too.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Out and about - Aigues-Mortes

Aigues-Mortes is an easy day trip from Montpellier using an infrequent local bus service - $2.00 each way.

I somehow thought the name was a reference to a horrible plague. It sounds diseased. But it seems to mean simply "Place of Dead Waters".

Aigues-Mortes is at the start of the Rhone canal which in theory connects the Mediterranean to the North Sea, which would be a nice trip but parts of it don't actually connect. It is also surrounded by estuaries and salt lagoons that link to the Camargue. Think bulls, wild horses and pink flamingos. I missed the cruise but couldn't miss the salt mountains nearby.

The town is totally touristic, to use a word that has to get added to the Oxford dictionary soon, if it isn't here already. My touristic tolerance is being spoiled by Montpellier which is pretty much going about its business. Still, Aigues-Mortes is charming to wander around. If you can ignore the shops, you get to see a well-preserved example of a medieval fortified town. The ramparts were built in the 13th century and make a rectangle with protective towers at strategic points. You can pay to visit the main tower and part of the walls and I missed that too.

There are three little churches inside the walls. The cross outside the Chapel of the Grey Penitents features two hands, two feet, and a heart pierced by an arrow.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Seafood in Sete

Sete is a short train trip from Montpellier in the south of France. It sits between the sea and the large estuary (L'Etang de Thau) and is at the end of Canal du Midi.

Ferries run to other Mediterranean ports and also to Spain and North Africa, barges go to inland destinations, and some serious fishing boats look like they might venture as far as Iceland or beyond.

On the train I ran into Jane-Ann and Tim from Sydney. I'd met them the day before in a cafe and we'd eaten together that night at a little vegetarian restaurant, Tripti Kualai, run by followers of Sri Chinmoy.
My ultimate goal is for the power of love
To replace the love of power
Within each individual.
My ultimate goal is for the whole world
To walk together in peace and oneness.
–Sri Chinmoy
From the Sete station we wandered across a pontoon footbridge and along the quayside towards the Office de Tourisime and then got delightfully distracted by the lively Friday street markets. Seasonal artichokes, strawberries, white asparagus and endive, early heirloom tomatoes and globe zucchini. A million types of sausage and cured meats, confitures, cheeses from the local countryside. Huge pans of saffron-coloured paella with prawns the size of lobsters.

 We wandered along the quaysides. Sete is dubbed Venice of the south. Well, quite a different feeling. A bit more gritty and down-to-it. There are also beaches, and a busy container port.

Tim and Jane-Ann had been past Sete a week or so before on a hired canal boat. They'd had a week with Swiss friends travelling down the Canal du Midi, finishing up with crossing L'etang. They hadn't been gone into the canals of Sete for fear of not being able to fit under the railway bridge. For bigger shipping, the bridge swivels open, but only at certain times of the day. Any one interested in doing a trip on the Canal du Midi? Locks and all.

Finally, after all those food stalls and all those fishing boats, lunch!! It is all about seafood in Sete. We shared a platter of local oysters (shucked) that tasted as though they had been harvested that morning. I had moules and frites, a generous pot of tiny tasty moules basted in tons of garlic, wine and butter with fresh herbs (that picture shows only half of the remains), and Jane-Ann had sardines (cooked ones).

Prague Pictures

The title of this post is stolen from John Banville. Prague pictures; portraits of a city; one a series published by Bloomsbury in which serious writers riff on cities they know well. Peter Carey writes about Sydney, and Edmund White does Paris.

Anyway I was only in Prague for a few days and what I did was take pictures. On my last day I walked down the Vltava River to the Vysehrad fortress. It was raining on and off and freezing cold and there were hardly any tourists and I had the best day.

The walk took me past the famous Dancing Building and I took the lift to the fifth floor to see the views. The building was a collaboration between a local architect and Frank Gehry. The restaurant at the top is called Fred and Ginger. I had a surprisingly good coffee in the cafe on the floor below.

There's a small terrace, but the room inside is very elegant, all glass, with mirrored floor. I can't imagine what it would be like on a hot sunny day but this morning it was perfect. The glass art works must have been chosen or commissioned as each one perfectly suits the view beyond.

Some famous people are buried in the cemetery at Vysehrad - Kafka, Dvorak, and others. If I was to be buried, and I really prefer not to be, then I'd be buried right here. This is the most beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. (Maybe the Chatham Island lilies had some influence.)

I'd gotten one thing out of the way early - trying Prague's signature dish, dumplings (knedliky). My dumplings came with several bits of stringy tough meat in a salty glue-like, slightly lumpy dark brown gravy. The dumplings themselves? John Banville says their most striking characteristic is extreme viscosity. 'It [the dumpling] sits there on the plate, pale, tumorous and hot, daring you to take your knife to it, and when you do, clinging to the steel with a kind of gummy amorousness, the wound making a sucking, smacking sound and closing on itself as soon as the blade has passed through.' Enough said.

On this day I sat near the wood-fired oven in a local pub where two men were playing backgammon, and ate a perfectly done Al Capone pizza - eggs and ham - with a large bowl of salad.

Prague, magic city

Prague, City of a Hundred Spires, a UNESCO monument and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 

A walk up the hill to get oriented.
How can you not love a city that
has a vineyard in the main park?
Although it is the capital of Bohemia, literally, and World heritage listed, Prague didn't grab me immediately, as Budapest had. Maybe the cold was a factor - there were light snowflakes in the air two of the days I was there. But Prague eventually snuck into my heart bigtime. 

Petrin Tower

Day Two. The best way to walk around the Old Town is just let it unfold. Every new corner brings another beautiful streetscape. I was drawn down alleys and around corners, across squares and through arcades and into courtyards and around little gardens, and into pastry shops and cafes, until I started to recognise particular buildings and realised I was making circles.

A day or so later having got used to dodging the segways and being mobbed by groups of tourists on walking tours, I joined one of the many tours on offer. Tomas was my guy - follow that yellow vest. He studied history and culture at university in his provincial city before moving to Prague and he is now a full-time guide ("so be generous with your tips if you enjoy the tour").  He told us you don't say Czechoslovakia, and you especially don't refer to anyone as Czechoslavakian. That is a bad thing to say to a local, but now we can't even say Czech Republic, because just as I was crossing the border a few days ago this country quietly changed its name to Czechia. So it is not only me having trouble keeping up with the name changes.

Tomas told us "we are very proud of our chick peas. Our chick peas are very good and very cheap, cheaper than water." Oh, he said Czech beers. OK, now I get it. Tomas had lots of delightful stories to share. The Czech President is known to imbibe. Not just now and again, but consistently. He entertains his people endlessly, one example being when in the middle of some lengthy and deadly serious talks at the European Union, he rose unsteadily to his feet and announced very loudly "Death to all all vegetarians and abstinence" and then just sat down again.

From Tomas' clever, brief and entertaining talk about the nation's history, there is one word that I will forever remember as a key to what it is to be Czech. Defenstration. The political act of throwing people out of windows. It has been such a recurring theme in history that there is a common saying here 'never argue with the windows open'.

Defenstrations have happened more than once at the hilltop complex that includes the Prague Castle. The fortress is beautifully lit up at night. Tomas told us that the Rolling Stones played there once, when the country was just coming out of the communist era. His parents still talk about going and how they cried, it was such an event in their lives. There were few lights then, and when the Stones met Vaclav Haval they asked why. They were told, we have so many things we need to spend money on, it is simply not a priority for us at this time. Tomas said "Mick looked at Keith, and Keith shrugged, and Mick said, our boys will sort that." So the lights that illuminate the castle today are those set up by the Stones' road crew. Or so the story goes.

At the statue of Jan Zizka Tomas told us about this heroic and talented but largely unknown bohemian general from the fifteenth century who never lost a battle, even after he had been blinded. He always led his men from the front, and when dying he ordered that his body be skinned, and the skin made into drums, so that he would continue to lead his men into battle. (Janet, take note.)

Standing in Wencelas Square where it happened and hearing the story of the so-called Velvet Revolution sent shivers down my spine.  The result was the end of 41 years of communist rule and the creation of a parliamentary republic. Friday, Nov 17, 1989, a few students on a march that was not even overtly political in intent. Some police violence, students panicing, some blood in the streets. Saturaday, rumours flying around the whole town, 15,000 people gathering. More rumours. Sunday, 500,000 people in these streets. Vaclav Havel on that balcony up there, taking his keys from his pocket and shaking them to emphasise something he was saying, and then across the whole square, silence; except for the sound of 50,000 sets of keys being shaken in the air.

The result of this uprising? The Rolling Stones, jeans, McDonald's, the euro, and segways.
Kafka has only just been
'discovered' by young Prague-ites

Bridges over the Vltava - an old photo.