Wednesday, April 26, 2006

March 10-12 Montpellier Weekend

I’ve only been to Montpellier once and that was only to its train station. Shortly after we met Ian and I rendezvoused there (he was living in Grenoble and I in Barcelona) and we spent a romantic weekend at a friend's village house in Castelnau d’Aude in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

The drive from Barcelona is three hours and sections of the freeway just into France near Fitou are extremely windy. Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It sits on hilly ground six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. It has a large and long established university. At its center is the Place de la Comédie, which is a pedestrian zone with parking garages underneath. A public tram also serves this area.

We parked underneath the Place de la Comédie and walked three blocks to the Holiday Inn. The room was nice, but it seemed odd to me that it did not have a telephone in the room. I almost never use a telephone in a hotel room, even though I speak enough French (or Spanish) to be understood, I usually opt for the reception or concierge staff. I always related great showers with hotel rooms in France. More often than not they use fixtures manufactured by Grohe, which really are good products.

Like many European cities Montpellier is a city that is best enjoyed by walking. It was a bit chillier than Spain, but nothing that a fleece jacket couldn’t handle. We had breakfast at an open-air café of baguettes, butter, jam, milk, tea and coffee. We wandered through the downtown streets and into a church or two; French church doors are almost always unlocked. We found a farmer’s market set up under a massive and ancient aqueduct. I always loved these markets with everything so very fragrant and colorful.

We drove to Narbonne for lunch, which is served so much earlier than in Spain, At 2 pm when most Spaniards are beginning to sit down, the French restaurateur is washing lunch dishes and thinking about preparing the supper menu. When in France I hanker for the warm goat cheese salad. Being in Languedoc I want to accompany that salad with Fitou, which is a young red wine grown in and around the city of the same name near the Spanish border.

For sentimental reasons and because it is near CDD, a wonderful discount wine depot in Lezignan Corbieres, we also drove to Castelnau d’Aude. At CDD we bought a case of Fitou, two bottles of Blanquette (basically a Champagne but produced in this region) and two rounds of goat cheese coated in ground peppercorns. When we lived in Spain we often made the wine run to CDD and clinked home across the border. It was hard for me to buy so little at such a great place.

To me Castelnau D’Aude is always quite picturesque, no matter the time of year. We drove through and didn’t see a soul. It was a blustery day, but with some fruit trees beginning to bloom there were promises of spring.

In Montpellier we had dinner at L’Entrecote steak house on night and a Chinese restaurant across from the hotel the next. Both were good experiences albeit very different.

On our way back to Spain we decided to turn off at the Fitou exit and see what was there. At first it didn’t look very charming, in fact there was so much new construction I wondered whether or not they had bulldozed the old town. However, we finally saw sign for centre ville (city center) and found the familiar close cut winding streets. We also happened upon an auberge, which are best described as small country hotels with meals although more substantial than a B&B. This one was called Auberge Vidal. It sits atop a steep hill, one that had us spinning car wheels and making more than one attempt to reach its parking lot.

The man who greeted us, who I can only assume was Vidal, was a friendly broken English speaking man who apologized profusely for not having seats in the jam-packed great room and showed us to a quickly set table off a sun drenched patio. Lunch was a largely seafood buffet (the raw oysters were great), several vegetables, including my favorite French green beans, all sloshed down with the vin de maison (house wine), Fitou, of course.

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