MONTPELLIER, France — Thank goodness for the TGV, the high-speed train that took us from Aix-en-Provence to Paris in just three hours. This weekend, we took our fourth and final day’s ride on the train — one hour and 10 minutes between Aix and Montpellier, a distance of about 80 miles each way as the crow flies.
We had come to visit Monique, the mother of our good friend Bernard Cabrera in Boston. Monique has become a friend in her own right on visits to the United States and our visits to France. When she invited us for lunch this time, we didn’t know what a treat lay ahead.
The meal was five courses, progressing from an entree of shrimp, asparagus, radishes and avocado; to a main course of calamari stuffed with pork; to a salad; then cheese, and finally cafe gourmand (three dessert samples and coffee on the terrace). And through it all we talked, exclusively in French, for more than four hours. We touched on life, family, travel, technology and lots more. Kathy and I would get lost in the French from time to time, bien sur. But time living here has taught us to persevere, smile, nod and keep the conversation moving forward. It works.
Montpellier is a lovely city of about 250,000, with narrow streets, historic buildings, beautiful toy and clothing stores for kids, outdoor cafes, a botanical garden, and an imposing and impressive old medical college. It’s a bit edgy, too, with a fair number of homeless street people. So it’s wise to keep your city smarts about you. We arrived the day of an outdoor used book market, which made for some colorful photography.
If you visit here — and it’s worth the detour for a day or two — I’d recommend these three places:
1) Stay at the Hotel de Palais at 3 Rue du Palais des Guilhem.
You’ve got to book early. I’ve never managed to get a reservation here. Last time we visited, I tried four full months before our July arrival. But it’s one of few hotels right in the old city of Montpellier. It’s listed in three key French guides for 2014 — Petit Fute, le Routard and Michelin. And its location, atop a hill, near the old medical college, in a lovely square, is absolutely perfect. This isn’t a fancy place; it has but two stars. But it’s charming. The 26 rooms range in price from about $100 to $140 a night, according to the website
2) Stop for lunch, a glass of wine or the afternoon dessert buffet at Sister’s Cafe at 3 Rue des Sœurs Noires.
We first passed this cafe — next to a church and playground, with tables, some shaded, on a whimsical square with painted concrete pillars — on the way to Monique’s for lunch. Had we not been headed somewhere else, we’d have stopped on the spot. Whatever the plat du jour was, it smelled divine. We came back for a glass of wine at about 4:30 p.m., but were too full to also partake in Sister’s afternoon “patisserie buffet” or to order one of its ice cream specials. Sister’s is only open until 6:30 and stops serving at 6, but it’s a really sweet spot. Carve some time to at least sit here and watch the people pass (see my slideshow The View from Sister’s Cafe). Open every day but Sunday.
3) Save time to poke around this magical game and toy store: Pomme de Reinette at 33 rue de l’Aiguillerie.
We have a picture of this store on wall of our home in Lexington, Mass. It always has a magical window display that draws kids like hummingbirds to nectar. Inside, the store is crammed floor to ceiling through a maze of rooms with toys, marionettes, antique post cards, games, and all kinds of other odds and ends. Come early. It gets crowded in the narrow aisles.
Lost in Translation: Take 3
We stopped at Cafe Riche off the Place de la Comedie before boarding the train back to Aix. Listed on the menu were:
(1) A tuti fuitti — a mix of passsion, vanilla, strawberry and kiwi ice creams with whipped cream. According to Wikipedia, a tutti frutti, of Italian origin, ” is a confection (often ice cream) containing a variety of chopped fruits and/or flavors.” I did not find a tuti fuitti.
(2) A Singapour Sling — This cocktail, with origins in the city of Singapore, where perhaps they sometimes sing and pour, is a nix of gin, cherry brandy and fruit juice.
Couldn’t find this particular spelling on Google. So we’ll give the Cafe Riche five stars for interpretive spelling.
We’ve finished our four days of rail travel, bought online at Rail Europe before we came. This arrangement allows the traveler to book a certain number of days of rail travel per month in one or more countries. It must be bought in the United States before the travel begins, and it is discounted.
Don’t mistake your Rail Europe packet with a ticket, however. The high-speed TGV trains in France require a seat reservation, which must be bought at an additional $11 per person per train ride. In Aix, the TGV station is outside of town, so we have to spend another $5.50 a person to get the bus each way to and from the station.
It’s all something to weigh as you choose your mode of transportation.