My bus arrives at the outskirts of the Montpellier metropole and dumps us contents out between parking lots and tram stops. As is my habit, I open Maps to orient myself in the city lines and to find the correct tram into the side of town where I will find my Airbnb. Unfortunately, the program tells me all public transportation is unavailable. I look around to assure myself this is not the case and see a mob of people hovering around the tram’s automatic ticket station and paper map. The crowd does not thin, so I start the long walk into town parallel the tracks. At the next station, I use my human navigation skills to select the correct tram. My host messages me and pushes back the arrival time by three hours, stranding me with my weighty bags downtown in the nearly seaside city. I pass the time wriggling around the narrow, hilly streets crammed with fashion, overpriced knick knacks and jewellery. Here planted palm trees border wider boulevards and under blinding sun could remind you of a Californian dream. I enjoy an actual limonade and a bit of journaling time before I start searching for my lodging.
The address given does not exactly match what I see in front of me at the location. I double back on roads and peek down alleys and search out numbers I cannot find. My host stresses me via messages since she has to leave in minutes for a meeting. Through stuttered and frantic French explain myself and my confusion. I find the door to the courtyard, but the door to the building has broken buttons and eventually she caves, coming down to open the way for my teary self. Kindly, perhaps with a bit of guilt, she shows me around the airy two bedroom apartment. Between the stressful shifted arrival and the fact that the bed turns out to be a clic-clac, or futon, I kick myself for paying more to take a break from hostels. You do tend to roll the dice with Airbnbs. I crash for a few hours.
That first evening, showered and rested and at peace with all things difficult and unfortunate, I don a cute get-up and meander into town with an adventurous spirit and camera ready. The very heart of the city welcomes only pedestrian traffic into its stepped and colorful alleys. I nab pictures of intentional and unintentional street art while window shopping wide-eyed. The air bustles with the joviality of so many vacationers interacting with so many keen shopkeepers over dinners and dresses and wooden children’s toys. My browsing of pricey, unnecessary items complete by the evening’s start, I cross over to the west side where I find the city’s Arc de Triomphe, a portal to the Promenade de Peyrou, a gravelled park-like space. Trimmed trees frame the stretch that centers a bronze and majestic King Louis the 14th on horseback. At the far end, I arrive before a shallow pool looking awful green from the sun and the summer over which a marble monument stands. Beyond the promenade, extends the Saint-Clément Aqueduct traveling out over trees turning hues and industry unimagined when construction began.
With still more sunlight to burn, I loop back under the arch and into the vibrant lively city. Montpellier’s famous and sprawling botanical gardens pique my interest, so I slip in quietly half an hour before closing time. Between bamboo and palm fronds I see the verdant atmosphere turn glimmering gold. On the trek home at the onset of night, I capture space invaders and yellow vests by camera lens. Montpellier strikes me as the chic side of artsy.
I get up early to take advantage of my only full day in this Southern spot. I have a coffee and a read before arriving at Musée Fabre. The usual tour awaits me beginning with the great Flemish artists and their captivating takes on peasant life. A move to France brings class and visions of the aristocracy seen through parasols. The museum explodes on the upper floors with rooms stretching high in red and wide over marble. Delacroix makes his usual appearance as we spin into the 19th century. Higher still lies more contemporary art, symbolized here by the heavy use of monochrome and large swaths meaning nothing. In the final rooms hide the flashy names like Monet, Manet, Courbet, and Degas. All in all, an excellent museum well worth the no money I paid to gain entrance.
My next objective is to reach the sea officially. Still without any navigational aide, I manage to take the right tram in the right direction to reach the drop off point where shuttles wait for tramfolk to cart off to the stretches of sand and limitless blue. Totally and completely unprepared, I thank my stars I find a (disgusting) public toilet in which to change. Sandaless, I flop onto the beach crowded with bodies and accents of all kinds. I find only small patches of sand left unturned where I can plant my things and soak up the sun. I alternate between snacking and reading all while being roasted alive by a punishing late August sun. The heat renders me tired not long later, and I take a walk along the crowded sand looping, looping to arrive back at the drop off location. On the bus back, the man next to me cheerfully chirps to himself that discipline is important when we are all told to fasten our seatbelts. Curious.
That evening I take myself out to dinner for empanadas, which seems fitting enough so close to the Spanish border. Over sparkling water and real spice I chit chat via telephone to those across the globe. On the trek home I slow my stroll and hatch across the pedestrian paths of downtown. The street lights cast a glow on the grey bricks below that reach out for block after block of warm air. With yet another bus in the earlier hours to find the next morning, I call it a night and a trip having only explored the tip of an iceberg-sized city. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Lyon where I plan to spend the final days of this Southern voyage.
Until next time,