Hidden Montpellier

When we return to a city that we’ve already visited, it’s fun to seek out the less well known sites that are still interesting to see. We did so with Bordeaux and that revealed several links back to revolutionary America that I don’t think we ever learned in history class. Now it was time to discover what we missed on our first visit to Montpellier. The featured photo across the top of today’s blog post is one of the best known spots in the city, La Place de la Comédie, but even it holds a secret. Here to the left is a closeup of one of the buildings there that the locals know as the scaphandrier, a word I’d never seen before to describe something that is viewed but perhaps not noticed by thousands of people every day.

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Secret coastal France

While I generally look only at a few of our local or national newspapers, Bill has a more rounded approach that incorporates sources outside of France, including the US. He spotted an article  by Terry Ward in the travel section of CNN that he knew I would want to see. The title was “The secret stretch of coastal France that’s nicer than Nice” so naturally I wanted to find out where that was. It didn’t take more than two sentences to see the mention of our region, Occitanie, and then our departement, Aude, to know that the author was talking about Carcassonne and our coastal neighbors Narbonne and Gruissan. Now to find out why it’s a secret.

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Two castles and an aqueduct

Since Nîmes is less than a 2-hour train ride from Carcassonne, we’d been there on a day trip and now we were staying a few nights to explore some of the surrounding sites. On previous rail journeys through the area we had spotted two castles across from each other on the Rhône river in the towns of Beaucaire and Tarascon so we wanted to see those up close. Before that, however, was a visit to the  UNESCO World Heritage site connected to last week’s blog post about Uzès. The word “connected” is especially fitting since it’s the 2000-year-old Pont du Gard aqueduct that formed part of the link that brought water from its source in Uzès to Nîmes, 50 kilometers (31 miles) away.

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St.-Jean-de-Luz and Pau

We were expecting to take today’s trip two years ago and I was going to call the blog post “Walking to Spain”. We would have gotten off the train at the last station in France, Hendaye, walked across the La Bidassoa river bridge to take a photo of the Bienvenido a España sign and then returned to France to continue our journey. The arrival of Covid and all of its associated travel restrictions forced a postponement and a rearrangement of our schedule but it all worked out fine. We still took a southbound train from Bayonne but exited 2 stops before the border (featured photo above) to spend the afternoon where Louis XIV, the Sun King, married his Spanish bride and future Queen of France. The next morning it was time to discover where the Sun King’s grandfather had been born 100 km (62 miles) to the east in the city of Pau.

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Basking in Basque Country

We live between a river and a canal and we can easily walk to either one but our house doesn’t have a water view. When we go out of town, therefore, we like to stay in a vacation rental or hotel that gives us that vista we are missing at home. Since the city of Bayonne is located at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers and if you follow that latter one a little further to the west you’ll reach the Atlantic Ocean where the beaches of Biarritz sit a few kilometers south, it was going to be easy enough to find a suitable view. That was especially true for this trip since going to a summer resort in the winter meant that there was little competition for space. Because it offered better train connections we chose Bayonne from where we were able to take day trips and still get back each evening to peer out at the passing boats below.

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Just relax

France has 35,000 communes (cities, towns, villages) so choosing just one to make your new permanent home can be a challenge. Fortunately for us we already had friends here who could help us narrow down the possibilities (And the winner is) once we knew the general area where we wanted to live. Having a train station, a market, and being on or near the water were some of the important considerations. Each year, various media outlets release their “Best Of” series where they classify locations into the most attractive, job hubs, ideal for retirees, among others. Although not a newspaper or magazine, a business called Emma, has compiled what they label as “The ranking of the French cities most conducive to relaxation.” This company manufactures the best-selling mattress in the country, so as sleep experts they undertook the study “with the hope that the results could help the agglomerations to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants.” Confirming what we already knew, the quality of life in Carcassonne is pretty good since it’s number 2 on their list.

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Amiens in 2 days

We’ve visited the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris a few times including climbing up 422 steps to where the gargoyles stare out at the city and it has always been impressive in size, height, and history. When I read that the similarly named cathedral in Amiens could hold the Paris landmark inside with room left over, I knew that it would be something that we would want to see. That “someday” visit turned into a “let’s go now” trip when I learned that author Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days) had lived in the city for 18 years and that his house where he wrote many other novels was now a museum. But those were not the only surprises that awaited us.

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