Tuesday, June 7, 2016

About Montpellier. Boredom factor for this post - high

Yes! I am totally with all those French people who have voted Montpellier as number one for the place in France they would most like to live. It is one of those rare things - a very livable city. Eighth-biggest city in France, the old town has the biggest pedestrian zone of any of the French cities and what a difference that makes. The main square, which is oval, is Place de la Comédie, and it is totally pedestrianised with underground parking.

Of course there have to be some vehicles for deliveries and so on but there are many little lanes too small for 4-wheeled transport. Motorbikes and bicycles get a bit annoying at busy times of day but what a small irritation really. The municipal vehicles and the post delivery are little electric vans that sneak up behind you because they make no noise whatsoever. Brilliant!
Mostly it is lovely and quiet in my street. I eavesdrop on the people who walk along Rue Fabre, but otherwise the only background noise is the birds and the soothing sound of the fountain around the corner on the Esplanade. Ah, but the street cleaning. Every morning between 6 and 7 I wake to the sounds of the street below being swept, washed and vacuumed. When I throw open the shutters the road is wet. Thank you, city council, since French men piss all over the place and French women are so good at ignoring the leavings of their otherwise so-well-behaved dogs (even though the authorities helpfully provide receptacles that dispense doggy bags). And there is the garbage collection, which inexplicably often seems to happen at around 10.00pm. Equally inexplicably they leave the communal rubbish bins in different places all the time.

Every corner that makes a bit of open space fills with chairs and tables and even in the little alleys, bars and cafes spill out onto the street. At night the streets of the old town are buzzing with activity and conviviality.

I was at one of those little bars last night, La Ruche - The Beehive. Five beers on tap, three French and two Belgian. Pints for $5 during happy hour. A bartender from Manchester. A menu featuring fish and chips with mushy peas, bangers and mash with mushy peas and baked beans on toast. My companions - Christian from Dublin who is a librarian working in the city archives; BJ from Canada who has lived in France for more than 10 years and has citizenship; and Bernard with his 7 'AND A HALF' year old daughter, Ilze, both from Montpellier. The daughter is half Lithuanian and the father went to college in the US. We speak a mix of French and English, with Ilze who doesn't speak English being the teacher and asking us questions we have to answer in French. I eat everyone's mushy peas.

The suburbs that surround the old town are a blueprint for urban communities. There are four tram lines that each cross the wider city from one side to the other, and a network of buses joins up the gaps and the surrounding villages and towns. Here's a view from where the old city walls used to be, looking north-east.

In lots of places (not here) the tramlines are planted with grass. Mostly they are separated from the traffic. Following the tram lines there are wide bike paths with lighting, rubbish bins and seats for pedestrians. Bikes are allowed on the trams, and there are city bikes for short hire at many locations. Where there are blocks of flats, there are also wide green spaces with trees and dog parks and playgrounds and patisseries and boulangeries.

 I walked along one of the bike paths that runs beside a tiny creek with crystal clear water and the I could identify at least three different frog species enjoying the spring sunshine and croaking their little hearts out. Parallel to the bike path, the remains of an old roman way that once linked Spain and Italy. Just like that!

All along the main river, the Lez, there are bike paths and in parts a wide promenades with more cafes and restaurants.

Montpellier is one of the fastest growing cities in France and this lends the same sort of dynamism that I experienced in Cairns in the 1990s. Because a lot of people who live here have come from somewhere else it is easy to make connections that quickly turn to friendships. Something that just didn't happen in, say, Ballarat. The mediterranean climate is attractive, though it can get impossibly hot for a few weeks in summer. At any one time there are around 70,000 university students here so the rhythm of the town follows the academic year and it goes quiet during the summer vacation when the students leave and everyone else goes to the beach.

There was a big jump in population in the 1960s during the Algerian War when many of the French colonials were forced to leave. These are 'Pied-Noir', white settlers born in Africa. Bernard's mother was from a family that had lived in Algeria for generations and he was born there. Many colonials walked away from their land, leaving their businesses behind, with no option of returning home. Yet they were not really welcomed in France, where they were often seen to have been the cause of the conflict.

Montpellier had a female socialist mayor for some time, maybe that helps to explain the way that suburban sprawl has generally not Just Happened, but has been planned to provide a balance between habitat, environment and economic activity. I find the city to be an incredibly successful example of blended ancient and modern architecture.

This is Place de L'Europe, making a wide semi-circle and joining the Lez and the old city via pedestrian zones.

There is a big North African population and I have noticed a bit of segregation in that there some denser, less-well planned suburbs that are a bit run down. Unemployment is quite high. The medical Shopping at Le Grand Bazaar, a tram-ride away, I feel like I could almost be in Morocco or Senegal.

I think already wrote about La Mediatheque.

In contrast to the UK where public libraries, never well-funded to start with, are being closed down or are now staffed by volunteers, here there is an amazing system of public libraries that are alway busy. They really are multimedia centres, with computer gaming rooms and extensive video and music collections, and they are in stunning modern buildings with plenty of light and open space. The only problem for me is that the wifi is only accessible to members.

So how can I come back to live here?

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