Learning to Love Where You've Landed

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.

I thought the trompe l'oeil bookshelves were kind of cute. The dead ficus tree, not so much.

Vacation-Rental Blues: I thought the trompe l’oeil bookshelves were kind of cute. The dead ficus tree, not so much.

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).

The upside of the French railway strike: Driving the autoroute through Provence.

The upside of the French railway strike: Driving the autoroute through Provence. (Photo credit here. I was too busy driving.)

 

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?

Graffiti on Les Arceaux. Say what?

Say what? (One of the first things I saw in my neighborhood in Montpellier: Graffiti on Les Arceaux.) I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or an honest misspelling.

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.

Hey, Montpellier. Eighties New York called. They want their graffiti back.

Hey, Montpellier. Eighties New York called. They want their graffiti back.

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's SUCH a long, arduous walk into the centre ville! It takes a WHOLE TEN MINUTER, three of which you have to walk along these dumb old 17th century arches. How awful!

It’s SUCH a long, arduous walk into the centre ville! It takes a WHOLE TEN MINUTES, three of which you have to walk along these dumb old 17th century arches. How awful!

 

After you walk through the Arceaux, you have to walk through this ridiculously shady row of Plane trees. I'm JUST SURE!

After you walk through the Arceaux, you have to walk through a park, including this ridiculously shady row of plane trees. I’m JUST SURE!

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The shade trees line this stupid esplanade with a historic statue and an Arc de Triomphe. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Vive La France and all that.

As you're walking through all those trees, you might have to look across a vista like this one. If you can stand it!

As you’re walking through all those trees, you might have to look across a vista like this one. If you can stand it.

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:

Place de la Comedie. A huge car-less pedestrian area. Two words: BO-RING.

Place de la Comedie. A huge car-less pedestrian area. Really? What’s a city without cars. Where’s the noise, the fumes, the congestion? (Photo credit.).)

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Just another Belle Époque building in La Belle France. Whatevs. (Photo credit.)

A bunch of car-less medieval streets wind around the city's ancient heart. And again--what is WRONG with these people? How do they live without traffic?

A bunch of car-less medieval streets wind around the city’s ancient heart. And again–what is WRONG with these people? How do they live without traffic?

And there are just TOO MANY cafés.

And there are way too many cafes. Does that suck or what?

And, once back at our apartment, it became apparent that we were staying in a total DUMP!

Because really. Who'd want to sit around looking out those windows?

Because really. Who’d want to sit around looking out those windows?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 comments to Learning to Love Where You’ve Landed

  • Nancy LoBalbo

    We have stayed in Montpelier a few times as we find it a really convenient 1/2 point between our friends in Aix en Provence and family in Toulouse. We always rent a car and my husband seems to enjoy driving the autoroute (I love the sights). Montpelier is a beautiful city but I have to agree that in the rain it can be trying. We were there for a few days in April 2015 and it poured steadily the entire time..but even in the rain, the Place de la Comedie can be breathtaking.

  • Loved reading about your recent adventure here, Wini! The pictures are beautiful!

  • Fun story ;))
    Thanks for the scoop on Montpellier.
    They have a very nice drawing museum FYI

  • You had me worried for a little while. Graffiti really spooks me and that poor ficus really needs some love. Love may not even be enough, but sometimes they surprise you if you water them and set them out of the way. But, I am glad you stuck it out and shared with us those gorgeous photos.

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