Have you ever ended up at a yearned-for destination only to have that sinking feeling that it’s not all that you expected? That happened to us in Montpellier–a city that, at first glance, looked like a big fat mistake on our itinerary.
After two weeks in Ireland, which went nothing but beautifully, we arrived in France amidst all kinds of strikes and floods—and let’s not forget that the country still considers itself in a state of emergency after the terrorist attacks last winter. Soldiers with machine guns in Cannes were not an uncommon sight.
Since our Ryan Air jet landed in Nice, most of the week has gone mostly well, though there have been a few bumps in the road. Notably, our train to Montpellier on Saturday got cancelled due to the SNCF railway strikes.
The thing is: The strikers never let you know which trains will be affected until about 1 day before. But fortunately, we had made a “plan B” and reserved a rental car just in case our train was cancelled–and it was.
I won’t go too far into the little French hassles we endured: You know, like the railway ticket office closing 2 hours early when we went to get refunds for the unusable train tickets, or the rental car agency telling us they may or may not have a gas in the tank of our car…Things like that go under the rubrique of “C’est ça voyager”–that’s what it means to travel (in France anyway).
On the up side, the drive from Cannes to Montpellier is spectacular; French autoroutes are the best-maintained in the world, and the route takes you through Provence, and all those amazing causses and Alpilles, and garrigues….and other geological formations that only exist here, amidst the scrubby plant life and flowers that shockingly flourish in such a rocky part of the world.
Alas….we got to our studio in Montpellier late Saturday afternoon as it started to rain. And things went downhill from there.
When our landlady met us at the apartment and opened the door, all I could see was the cheap, angular IKEA-kind of furniture, a dark and gray interior, and, of all things, a dead ficus tree.
Really? A dead ficus tree? Is this a common decoration anywhere?
She showed us to the garden in the back, which looked sad and bug-infested in the muggy, late afternoon drizzle. Honesty–it felt swampy and weird. And her partner or colleague or whatever was working in the garden gave us a grumpy hello, asking us how long we were staying.
“Seven nights,” I said.
“I haven’t finished the yard work,” he said. “So I’ll give you the rake and you can finish it.”
I think it was supposed to be a pleasant joke, but it didn’t really come off that way. He did, in fact, kind of leave a few things strewn about: a sack of leaves here, a garbage can there (we’ ve since tucked them away).
As it was getting late, Dave and I immediately went looking for supplies we’d need on Sunday when all the shops would, presumably, be closed.
Our hearts sank even more when we saw that there really weren’t many shops around here; we’re in a very residential “real” neighborhood, not the quaint heart of Montpellier, which is a good 10 minute walk away.
We walked into the centre ville, the heart of Montpellier, but all we could see of the city was the weekend trash piled up, the graffiti everywhere (there is a surprising amount here, even in the nicest areas). Sure, we caught a glimpse of its medieval heart, but what French city of any import doesn’t have a medieval heart?
We had a decent dinner, but it was quite joyless, given our sullen moods. And sometimes, even a good glass of wine and a fine meal doesn’t work its magic. (When a good glass of wine doesn’t give me a lift, I know better than to drink a second one!)
We walked back silently in the drizzle, trying hard not to point out all the flaws we were seeing: the trash, the graffiti, the dour gray buildings in the neighborhood.
Before we went to bed, we started researching other spots to go. We had all but agreed to stay here a couple day and just bag out of here, even though we’d paid in full for the studio.
What a difference a day makes.
The next day was a bright and sunny Sunday. Many of the shops in our neighborhood were closed, but that was okay–there were enough people out and about enjoying the day that the city suddenly sprang to life. We began to joke about how harsh we had been about the place….an effect is best shown in photos:
It gets worse! Once you get to town (after that arduous 10-minute walk), these are the kinds of sights you’ll have to endure:
And, once back at our apartment, it became apparent that we were staying in a total DUMP!
All joking aside, I’d give Montpellier five stars out of five. I highly recommend it as a place to visit (though not everyone would need a week here!)
Indeed, it’s a fabulous city–it just took us a day to figure that out. The studio was good: I’d give it four stars out of five. It was pleasant and super-clean and quiet, but the neighborhood was, alas, a bit uneventful. Still, the walk into the heart of Montpellier was stunning. We’re glad we came.
The takeaway from this story: Give everywhere you go a chance…sometimes it takes a while before you see its charms.