I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1. One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die. It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.
However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance. It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together. My visit to Ypres last year was very different. There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.
First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.
And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.
And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.
And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.
Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France. The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to try and make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.
Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour. With these aids, their style of painting was able to evolve and they could now paint outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds using ordinary subject matter.
Stained Glass Window in Rouen
Spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral
Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur. As we stood facing the church, in front of the house on the opposite side of the square from whose window Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls. But that was good.
The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why he painted so many versions of it and who so many were painted in the rain.
Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages. Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century houses, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.
Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine. Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.
It is here that Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement. Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint into wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours. Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.
The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another with the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.
A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next. Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace. To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France. Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.
Monet’s Rocks – Mari Nicholson
Monet’s Rocks – M Nicholson
The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village. They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves: they came also to paint the beach scene, for Etretat was a very fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.
(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre). From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.
Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.
Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known. Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses. Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum. The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.
I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine. If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints. Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.
Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement. Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.
Stained Glass Window in Rouen
Spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen
Notes: I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings. It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).
If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.
Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.
A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.
It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days. It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater. This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.
During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit. Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, frequently made Pézanas his base.
The famous playwright toured with a troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son. In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.
At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends. Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.
As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th century. It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem. Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl. (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).
Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving. New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.
The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners. You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building. Details herewith.
The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break. Adults €6: children €4: families €15
Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc
Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites. The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:
With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.
This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty. Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe. At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business. People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.
Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions. In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.
It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares. Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.
GRAND ILE ISLAND
This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.
The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where Petite France, is located. A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter. The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.
If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war. It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.
Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights. This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.
PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)
The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal. These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town. If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm
The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city. It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year. Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.
Try to arrive at the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock. The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality. Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.
The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night. Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mime artists and clowns.
And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing. After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.
But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe. If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.
A few recommended eating places: Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.
First up though, is wine. Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).
Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.
Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.
Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourg institution. Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.
Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it. A modest but excellent wine list available. Average €32 for three courses.
Just literally bridges. I thought of all sorts of ways in which to interpret the challenge, but when I started looking through my photos I decided to go with the obvious. It’s too hot for serious thinking today, so here is a selection of some of my favourite bridges.
Above – Sur le Pont d’Avignon
Amsterdam, Triana Bridge Spain, and Ponte Vecchio Florence, Italy
Rome, Italy: Pisa, Italy: and the famous painted bridge at Lucerne, Switzerland
La Somail, France, Linked houses in Strasboug, Williamstad, Curaco from our cargo boat.
The Daddy of them all – the bridge at Avignon, France.
I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer. I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.
On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.
I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.
Honfleur is not far from Rouen so it seemed a
good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter. But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors. As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.
Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares. It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.
The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.
Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone. The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.
Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.
The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur. The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.
An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street. Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.
Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.
This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France. The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull. Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work. The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.
Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations. Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light. Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area. The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world. Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing. Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.
It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost. However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September. If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.
Montpelier had been experiencing rapid growth since the 1970s. The city was on line to become the new regional technology centre and there was a need for expansion and for more public housing. In 1979, the newly elected municipal council of Montpelier, with far-seeing vision, decided to develop a whole new district to provide for this expansion and link the centre to the River Lez. The plan for the stunning development incorporated a west-east axis consisting of a landscaped boulevard and a series of squares enclosed by residential blocks each of seven-stories, to terminate in a new waterfront “port” along the Lez.
Magnificent Buildings along the 1 Kl-length of Antigone – Mari Nicholson
Thus did Antigone, surely the most attractive of new developments in France, c0me into being. The 1-Kilometre length of this development was built on the grounds of the former Joffre Barracks, located between the old centre of Montpelier and the River Lez which meanders along the eastern side of the city. It is known as the Champs-Élysées of Montpelier and the master plan was designed by Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – who also designed the majority of the buildings – as a series of grand neo-classical structures with pediments, entablatures and pilasters on a gigantic scale.
Neo-Greek Statues with Fountain – Mari Nicholson
The Antigone squares are idealised, perfectly proportioned Renaissance spaces with grand names like La Place du Nombre d’Or. Neo-classical Greek statuary that harks back to another age is dotted about the boulevards and plazas in streets that were planned to allow a paved walkway from Place des Echelles de la Ville to the River Lez. A continuous movement of wheeled devices and small battery-powered minibuses provide transportation within the mall.
Antigone is an enormous project in every respect. It includes about 4,000 new dwellings and 20,000 sq. meters of commercial space, the Languedoc-Roussillon regional government headquarters, office space, various government offices, restaurants and cafes, schools with special housing for students and artists, sports facilities, and underground parking. This new development is town planning n a grand scale.
among the water spouts with Greek statue centre – Mari Nicholson
The only other project of this size and scale designed by one architectural firm is the Karl Mark Hof in Vienna, but this has a mere 1500 dwellings as compared to the 4,000 at Antigone and almost no other services.
A visit to this remarkable area of Montpelier makes it easy to see why it continues to attract worldwide attention.
Just six kilometres south of Montpelier lies Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside town with some very fine seafood restaurants lining the canalised section of the River Lez that runs through the centre of the town just before it enters the sea. This has the effect of splitting the town into two sections, a Left Bank and a Right Bank, the names by which they are known.
See Palavas by Chair Lift- Mari Nicholson
In the centre of the town is the distinctive ‘lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ with its popular revolving restaurant: next to this stands the church of Saint Pierre with its attractive garden. There are few other sights to detain one in this seaside resort – it is a place for relaxation and enjoyment of the watersports and the facilities on hand. What is a charming sight, though, is the canalised section of the town on which the fishing fleet makes a fine picture on a sunny day as they get ready to set sail. And again, on their return, photographers line up to photograph the fishermen who sell the fish directly from the decks of their boats to customers from the nearby flats and even from towns beyond.
The restaurants that line the canal are a magnet for visitors from Montpelier, especially at weekends, and you should be prepared to wait a while for a table and again for the meal to be served once you have chosen a restaurant. The favourite meal is mussels , served n every imaginable style, and always in the traditional big, blue enamel pots beloved of French restaurants. They can be recommended.
Those who enjoy the fun of local markets should visit on the mornings of Monday, Wednesday and Friday when there is a market in the town.
The seafront is a short distance from the town centre and has a wide sandy beach, not what one would call a ‘golden beach’ but nevertheless, sandy and clean. It is seven kilometres long and with this massive stretch of seaside comes all the water-related sports activities you could wish for – kayaking, jet-skis, windsurfing, paragliding, swimming, snorkelling and diving. Most of the equipment can be hired from concessions on and around the beach.
The sprawl of apartment buildings that is a backdrop to the beach either side of the centre is not especially handsome but the little harbour is attractive and from the small concrete pier are some good views of the town and across the bay to La Grande Motte. And as I said, the good stretch of sandy beach is an ideal spot for families and couples to enjoy the facilities on offer.
Just outside Palavas, a short walk away, there are natural ponds that are home to an interesting selection of wildlife. What attracts most people to the area, however, are the flocks of flamingoes that live here and that make a visit to the ponds something rather special.
How to Get to Palavas-les-Flots from Montpelier
By Tram or Bus, but the tram is so quick and fun to ride that I recommend them. Purchase tickets before boarding, multi-lingual ticket machines at each tram stop. A day pass is recommended if you plan to use the tram much. Be sure to validate your ticket in the machines, being found without a valid ticket means an on-the-spot fine of around 30 euros. Not speaking French is not accepted as an excuse.
One-way tickets cost €1.40 round-trip €2.50. A 24-hour bus and tram ticket is €3.80. Line 28 runs to the beach at Palavas les Flots.
The “Navette des Plages” bus runs non-stop to the “Face a la Plage” beach, between Palavas les Flots and La Grande Motte. Bus 131 runs to Palavas-les-Flots.
If there’s a city in France that can offer more in the way of enjoyment, relaxation, places to visit outside the area than Montpelier, then I have yet to find it.
Known as the sunshine capital of France because of its 300 sunny days per year, Montpelier lies just 11 km from the Mediterranean coast and has its own wide sandy beach within an easy tram ride.
Montpelier combines recent history and old-fashioned elegance with a youthful feel, mostly due to its large student population and its university. It had the first medical school in France at which Nostradamus and Rabelais studied and is a delightful mix of old buildings in the centre, and major new-age industries in modern buildings around the edge. Lovely beaches are nearby at Palavas-les-Flots. What more could anyone want?
As easy town to get around, the places listed as ‘must-sees’ are more or less grouped together, the Place de la Comédie, the Peyrou garden, the Charles de Gaulle esplanade, t the Arc de Triomphe,.and the Saint-Roch church, all on the well-trodden tourist route. However, like European capital cities such as London, Madrid, or Paris, the city abounds with special neighbourhoods with individual identities, some specialising in artisan work, some in antiquities and others devoted to food and wine. Their social mix gives them a fascination lacking in other towns in the region.
The Three Graces Statue, Montpelier
The centre of the action and the beating heart of the pedestrianised centre is the Place de la Comédie. During the morning there is a market at one side of the Place where the local farmers set up stalls and sell fresh fruit and vegetables: off to one side of this is the flower market, a static garden of jewel-coloured blooms and plants. During the season an old-fashioned carousel is stationed at the other end of the square near the Opera House (a useful place to arrange to meet someone as is the statue of the Three Graces). In the middle of the square street artists demonstrate their talents as magicians, living statues, cycle gymnasts, mime artists and break dancers. Passengers coming from the St. Roch railway station with their wheeled luggage skirt around them as they dodge the colourful trams that glide over the yellow paving while students watch from the nearby cafes, their books open before them.
The large student population makes it a lively spot all year round and gives the city a buzz. The cafés, bars, and bistros in the pedestrianised city square which spill out onto the street are one of the attractions of Montpelier and it can be difficult to find a table at certain times. One of the busiest cafés, the Café Riche, is also the most popular and dominates the square with a grand awning bearing the name and date of its foundation.
Couer de Bouef Tomatoes – a Speciality of the Region
The Montpelier region is known for its local produce, its excellent wine, its fine dining and its farmers’ markets. It has 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in addition to other excellent eating places and bistros. Being right in the heart of the Languedoc, the opportunity to sample the luscious wines of the region as well as those of nearby Roussillon shouldn’t be missed, and tastings at nearby vineyards are easy to arrange.
The old town with its medieval narrow streets is lined with upmarket boutiques and antique shops interspersed with restaurants and typical houses of the area fronted by private courtyards, a world that sits quite comfortably with cutting-edge design and architecture in other parts of the city. Check out the mock-Gothic Pavilion Populaire and compare it with the modern, glass-clad town hall. Even transport gets into the act, with designer trams from the hand of no less than Christian Lacroix!
Wander along Rue Foch, a road carved through medieval Montpellier to the Arc-de-Triomphe, a glorious golden stone arch which could only be in France and which was built to honour Louis XIV. Just beyond this point, you will come upon the king mounted on a horse on the magnificent Peyrou Promenade.
King Louis XIV on Horse
Antigone is Montpelier’s new modern part of the city, is located to the east of the historic centre and is the biggest single development to be built in France. This extraordinary development which extends the city to the banks of the River Lez, has been designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and was completed in the 1980’s.
As it’s name implies, the area is based loosely on the architecture of Ancient Greece and a further link is apparent in the boulevards with names like Rue de L’Acropole and Rue de Thebes that open out and lead you into large squares with names redolent of famous Greek events, like Place de Marathon and Place de Sparte. The neoclassical design of the buildings, the sculptures, and the layout, are dramatically different to the architecture of the old town, and although on a larger than life scale, it is all well proportioned.
At the end of the Antigone district is the Place de Europe, a huge semi-circular area with a crescent of buildings. On the other side is the River Liz adding to the drama of the site and on the opposite bank the ‘Hotel de Region’ also built in the neo-classical style.
The fishing port of Palavas-les-Flots is worth a trip even if it’s only for a bowl of mussels served with chips (French fries to some) or garlic and herb breads in any one of the ways in which they are served here. The port is making great efforts to turn itself into a seaside resort but despite the attempts of the many boat owners to entice you aboard for a sea trip, a fishing trip or a tour around the lagoons, it remains firmly a place to visit for its great food. Bars, bistros, and ice-cream parlours line the central canal and you can walk a few miles along the spit of land to the medieval Maguelone cathedral which stands between sea and lagoon.
Best Guide Book
Montpelier and Beyond Travel Guide is a pocket guide to the best of Montpellier, written by two award-winning travel experts Donna Dailey and Mike Gerard and published by the team behind the successful Beyond London Travel. Available from Amazon as an e-book or a download for Kindle.