October, 2012

Day 1, October 8.

France is one of my specialty destinations and I’ve been many times in South of France and Spain but somehow I never got to see Montpelier and Languedoc-Rossilion area – Mediterranean Southern France between Marseilles and Spain.

Opportunity came up when I completed Languedoc – Roussillon study and needed to visit the region to complete my knowledge. In addition I had some business to do in Spain so it fitted me well to come after Granada to Barcelona to France.

I arrived Montpellier from Perpignan (see my Barcelona trip report  ).

In next few years there will be high-speed TGV train which will link Barcelona with Montpellier in 1.5 hours but for now I took train from Perpignan which Salvador Dali called “center of the world” . I do not think so but this is my humble opinion. Nevertheless, trip was comfortable enough and they announced train stations on the way so I did not miss Montpelier. Otherwise I might end up at final destination Avignon.

My hotel was in walking distance from train station but I did not want to drag suitcase and I took taxi for 7 euros. My hotel Pullman Montpellier, 4*, located next to the shopping center Antigone adjacent to Gallerie Lafayette – my favorite department store!

The rest of the group were supposed to arrive next day but I booked one extra night before trip to explore city on my own including Jewish Heritage.

I walked through the mall to the Place de al Comedie, which is the main square. It has Opera house called “Comedie”, and the square was lovely, in the shape of the egg, that’s why it I’s called “l’Oeuf” (The egg). There was a lot’s of pedestrian areas with cafes. The town had nice building like in Paris or Nice, with neoclassic 19 century architecture. The colorful trams were circling the city and there was nice boulevard with trees like small Champs Elysees and Tulleries Garden in Paris. I had some delicious food at mall’s court.

Day 2, October 9

After breakfast I’ve met Christine, the tourist board representative. Christine and I have been corresponding for some time and she had been very helpful in my research on Jewish Heritage in Montpelier. She’s been successful in arranging few meetings for me.

We went to the synagogue where was Succot service. The synagogue was Sephardic with separate men and women seating. We were on top floor and I watched Simcha’s Torah service.

Afterwards we went to Maimonides Institute where I was introduced to Michael Lancu  who is in charge of Maimonides institute. Michael showed us Medieval Restored Mikweh dated to 13th Century and one of the best preserved in Europe. The Jewish community played an important role in city’s economic development and intellectual influence. First Jews arrived after fall of Massada, in the year of 73 and settled in south of France.  In 11th century, Guilhem rulers of Montpelier declared that who wants to practice medicine, regardless of origin or religion, are welcome to come to Montpelier. As a result, in addition of excellent physicians already practicing in Montpelier, it was influx of doctors from Spain a

nd other parts of France, also teachers, scientists and aphotecaries.  However, there is very strong evidence that medicine was studied in Montpelier long before that, by rabbinical teachers.

The school of medicine was founded in 1220 as a result and it is the oldest surviving Medical School in Western World, being in existence over 700 years. One of the famous students there was Nostradamus.
Currently very popular Museum is the Musée d’Anatomie. The Jewish doctors and teachers played an important role on medical school, as one can see from engravings on the entrance of the school, names of Jewish professors. I saw hallway with its beautiful staircase, a collection of busts of the great doctors going back to Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.), and also plaques showing the names of virtually all the professors of the medical school from the rabbinic period of the 11th century to the present day. I saw a room where graduates took Hipocratic Oath.

In 13th century, Jewish community thrived with synagogues and mikweh were built in the Jewish quarter on the rue de la Barraleir. This lasted until 15 century until Jews were expelled by Charles the V, and they left for Avignon, welcomed by Popes of Avignon.

In modern Montpelier, now, there is small Jewish community, with synagogue and preservation society of Maimonides to preserve Jewish history. That’s where I went with Christine and we toured the medieval treasure – Mikweh, I saw ritual bath, disrobing room and natural water still present there.

We walked through the city, Christine pointed on Vegetarian restaurant (unfortunately no kosher restaurants are available). There was different artwork on the buildings and the street made by local artists. Lot’s of gardens and pedestrian walking spaces and many students.

I parted with Christine until afternoon and did some shopping. I bought some clothes and good walking shoes. It was not time for lunch but I got some delicious pastries in the bakery. I had enough time to get to hotel and meet the rest of the group.

The group had 20 people – agents from USA, all French specialists and all women! It is going to be interesting… Christine came in and we made introductions with Montpelier tourist board. The first activity was a walking tour again but this time we visited 19 century mansion which is now converted in upscale B&B. Then we went to visit Violin maker.

We learned that the first record of violin-makers in Montpellier dates back to 1768, when an anonymous luthier came from Italy to setup a musical instrument and repair shop. In 1792, there were five luthiers, including one woman, with workshops near the theatre, on the Grand Rue and next to the treasury building. By the 19th century this number had grown to over 15 shops selling instruments, though mostly focusing on repairing them.  With its wars, emergence of recorded music and new forms of leisure, the 20th century was hard on the profession. Then local violin making took off again in the 1980′s. Today there are 9 luthiers in Montpellier, providing special orders as artisans and fine instrument-makers. This explains why they are somewhat “hidden” in workshops, rather than on display behind a boutique window. The Violin Maker was 35 year old man his name is Nicholas Gilles and he showed us the parts and process how makes it and he won many awards for his work. These violins are going to professional musicians and cost about $25000. We were told later that he is well know luthier with many orders in USA. It must be very rewarding to have your work used in all countries around the world by famous musicians. Maybe in hundred years, his violins will become thought after like Stradivarius’!

Then we walked back to hotel, also stopping at souvenir shop where we sampled local products and bought souvenirs.

Dinner was at hotel’s restaurant, with various local suppliers taking turn of sitting at each table with agents and talked about their products. There are some interesting offers like biking along Mediterranean cost, wine tasting, and one gentleman owned 4 people barge on canal du Midi. I got good contacts now for clients coming on day trip on cruise ship in Languedoc region ports like Sete for example.

Day 3, October 10.

We checked out from hotel and left for Rivelsaltes, a small town famous for winemaking. We had wine tasting in local winery Caze http://www.cazes-rivesaltes.com/ . It has large estate which produces 14 wines, all of them “bio-dynamic” which I believe translates into organic wines. No chemicals involves in the process or growing, fertilization and natural preparation in rhythm with nature. We had nice lunch there. I liked their muscat.

The lunch was paired with two wines and was delicious. The appetizer was sautéed mushrooms in the puff pastry in delicious sauce. Then came roasted chicken with red wine sauce and mashed potatoes and turnips.. Desert was stewed apples, plum and caramel ice cream.

We bid farewell to winery owners and departed for our next stop Perpignan in about 1 hour drive. This is 2 days in a week I visit this city but at least I saw more than train station!  It has strong Catalan identity. It used to be a Capital of Kingdom of Majorca therefore many cathedrals and manors reflect that heritage. We’ve met local guide there who shown us highlights of the town – Cathedral of St. Jean, a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. We saw a monument to fallen soldiers and victims to Nazi’s occupation. The Catalan Museum built in the town gates in middle ages, looked interesting but we did not have time to go there.

After Perpignan visit, we left for Collioure, small seaside Catalan romantic town in the Eastern part (Pyrenees-Orientales) near Spanish border. It reminded somehow with colors some villages of Cote D’Azur, but without it’s glitz. I read about it but nothing prepared me for the beauty of it at sunset time. The colors of the castle and the fortress on the sea (looked something like Dubrovnik walls), small medieval alley-streets, colorful flowers, sea and mountains in the background were just unreal. No wonder that the King of Majorca in 12th century made it his summer residence. Like other French Catalonia, it became French only in 17th century after Treaty of Pyrenees returned Languedoc to France. It has French and Catalan Heritage (3 languages French, Catalan and Spanish).

The colors of Collioure attracted Matisse who came in 1905, followed by Andre Duran. The town itself has trail of painting of together they produced 242 paintings, drawings and sculptures in and around the village. These works displayed such vibrant colors and brushstrokes that the artists were referred to as ‘la cage aux Fauves’ (wild beasts) and it is from these Collioure  works that the new art movement, Fauvism, was formed.  Some of their work is shown in copies by following a trail that winds itself through the village, with replicas at 20 sites where these Fauvist works were first painted.

The area is also well known for wines and anchovies. Colliore has official 3 languages: French, Catalan and Spanish. There is also forgotten language Occitan.

Speaking and name “Languedoc” – means in “Language of Oc”. Oc was ancient Occitan language which later died. There are only few people left who spoke Occitan in Provence and Languedoc-Rossilion. Nowadays the government encourages to restore heritage and children in school of south of France started studying the language however the generations skipped it is rarely used.

After delightful few hours in Collioure (mental note to myself – come for 3-4 days, do nothing, enjoy fauvism painting, watch the sea, drink inexpensive and very good wine and eat anchovies would be my next ideal vacation)…. Someday… It is a town I can live very happily there.

Next stop was dinner in seaside restaurant La Littorine in Banyuls-sur-mer. The restaurant was nothing remarkable from outside, location is on the water (it was dark and cool already when we arrived), but food pleasantly surprised us. For appetizer, they served local specialty, anchovies. I use to like them growing in Ukraine and could not find anything as lightly salted small fish for years. These were just perfect. Some of my travel companions, probably used to Italian anchovies, asked for more salt and salted it!  The main course was cod, again not everybody’s favorite but I loved it. The desert was Tart Tatin (apple tart) and ice cream. Like our Apple pie with sorbet, only pastry is delicate.

We went to our hotel in La Faucelle 4*  http://www.lafauceille.com/  in Perpignan. On arrival, in the room I found welcome present – delicious macaroons.

Day 4, October 11

In the morning I struggled with bathroom to get shower work. I am getting tired of trying to figure out different shower technology! I almost gave up and sat down in the tub, decided to take quick bath and then I noticed instruction to turn one faucet in certain direction. I did it and it worked, however, the small shower head turned on with such force that it jumped out of my hands and wet everything outside the bath. Quite exhausted after this shower adventure, I dressed up and went downstairs to restaurant. Other people were not that lucky with shower head, it hit something in the bath and shortened fuze and plunged a room into darkness. We laughed it off, however, a mental note – maybe this hotel is not for some of my picky clients.

We are departing for Aude – department of 5 lands named after River Aude with rich history Cathar country, castles and abbeys, cradle of Christianity.

Our first destination was Narbonne, the first town in Christian Community. It is divided in the middle by Canal de La Robine. We visited Roman excavation site and Cathedral St, Jeast et St. Pasteur in gothic style, that cathedral was never finished. Then we visited local covered market with beautiful displays of food.

After Narbonne, we left for Abbaye de Fontroide, privately owned by Fayet family who bought it and restored it. Now it is a cultural center, beautiful gardens. It was founded in 11c by Benedictine monks and later on became Cictercian. It was very interesting monastic town, with everything necessary for simple living. We visited cloister with beautiful flowers, church, rose and herbal gardens. There are also other numerous abbeys in the region – the largest concentration of abbeys in France are in Languedoc-Rossilion.

We had lunch at Abbey’s restaurant  – delicious vegetable tart with goat cheese on top, chicken with curry sauce and Polenta Cakes and mushrooms. French toast in Chantilly sauce and ice cream

After lunch, we departed for our next destination – Canal Du Midi, very popular destination in France, the masterpiece of engineering and Unesco Heritage site. I took barge cruises before and I can tell you it is the most relaxed, quiet and peaceful type of traveling. In summer, lot’s of tourists British, Russian and Dutch tourists come to navigate in the waters of history. Americans mostly take barge cruises with captain and crew, either shared or chartered. Canal was built from 1666 to 1681 to link the river Garonne to the Mediterranean sea, this explains the name “Canal of the Two Seas”,  Now it is flows from Sete to Toulouse over 240 km through idyllic villages, old trees and vineyards. People get of at locks, and bike or walk on the canal banks, used many years ago by horses who pulled barges. The complex system of locks, aqueducts  and bridges, built by Pierre Paul Riquet engineer/builder. He spent 14 years of his life, and fortune into project. It was said that it defied rules of engineering and physics. 4 centuries later it still functions.

On arrival to Carcassone, we took 1 hour barge ride on Canal, admiring scenery and listening to history and engineering explanation.

Afterwards, we went to the medieval town of Carcassonne which was our place for the evening and overnight. Carcassonne built on both sides of the River Aude, occupied since 6C BC. The lower city, called La Cite, is on the right bank of the River and it is Unesco Heritage site, the medieval walled fortress from 11th century with 3 km long walls and 52 tower, impressive military architecture and 1000 years of history. It is perfectly restored medieval town, no cars are allowed within walls, lucky 47 people live there and millions of tourists visit it every year. Every turn afforded new photo opportunity. Tourist must pay entrance fee to enter it, but walk on the the walls is free. There are numerous souvenirs shops with knights and swords which holds romantic warrior memories of the past. At the end of the Cite, there is a beautiful Romanesque and Gothic cathedral.  No wonder Carcassonne was often use for setting of movies, mostly French in 1920’s and most recently, 1991, American Movie “Robin Hood” was filmed there. Walt Disney drew inspiration from the fortress in his adaption of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”.

We checked into 2 hotels in the Cite, Hotel Le Donjon and Hotel De La Cite. I was lucky to be at hotel de La Cite 5*, it is best hotel within the walls, perfect place to savor fairytale atmosphere. It had so many nooks and crannies to explore and I got lost many times, but every time I lost, I found some other photo opportunities like beautiful garden or nice view of ramparts. The room I had was French country style, green and pastel colors, which was facing the yard. I only stayed in castles few times in my life and this one definitely was one to remember! IN the evening when the Cite became illuminated, it was beautiful site. We walked to the local restaurant Brasserie Le Donjon where we’ve met for dinner with local tourism officials. The dinner was local specialty food, Foie Gras on the toast with salad greens, paired with sweet muscat and figs. It followed by Duck cassoulet with sausage, it was delicious. Dessert was Pistachio ice cream.

After dinner, we gathered for drinks at Library bar for digestif.

We had nice breakfast at restaurant adjacent to the hotel. It started to drizzle.. Our luggage was loaded in  small cars to take it to the gates and very soon we were leaving Carcasson towards Gard region – the western part of Languedoc-Rossillion. First stop was small town Uzes, it was pretty and we spent there about one hour. We sat at café and did some browsing in stores in medieval streets.

We continued to Pont-Du-Gard, so well known landmark in France that it is displayed on 5 euro bill. It was built in 50 ad by Romans to allow the aqueduct of Nimes to cross the Gard River. It is a genius of Roman architecture and engineering. It was built to provide the city with water, to create fountains, roman bath and make it prestigious town in Roman Empire. Bridge has 64 arches spread over three levels rising 48 meters above the river and spanning 490 meters. It is a highest Aqueduct Bridge of Roman era. A height commanded by the slope and required water pressure to carry it upward even though the gradient was not regular. As a result, Romans built a structure weighing several million tones with a slope of less than 25 cm per km. It was operating without problems for 140 years! Later on, on second level, the bridge was built.

We had lunch at Pont Du Gard restaurant (region specialty was Bull – tasted like beef). Then we’ve met Pont du Gard monument manager who introduced us to the guide. After learning about history and architecture, we were invited to walk aqueduct. This special activity is not possible for regular tourist and not part of the admission – if you want to do it, it has to be made in advance with Pont Du Gard management and they assign you a guide. We walked 95 steps up on left bank and then walk through aqueduct on higher level. We descended the other bank of the river 75 steps down (spiral stairs). We had great opportunities for photos. Then we walked around the river for more photos and went to the museum. It had interactive exhibits, movies and general information on construction. It is great destination for nature, walks, engineering minded clients, and families. Special group activities also can be arranged. It is indeed is unique site.

We continued to Nimes – Roman town where we scheduled to stay overnight.

Nimes is another ancient Roman city dating back 2500 years ago. It was very important city. Like in Rome, but on smaller scale, it boasts The Magne Tower – part of Roman walls, Roman Temple which dominated city forum, Temple of Diana and old Roman Baths, and the Arene (Amhitheatre). Amphitheatre was built in first century AD and measuring 133 meters long and 21 meters high. It hosted gladiators and other type of ancient fights. Now it is used for bullfights and musical events. We were lucky that one our guides, Danielle who was leading our group all week, she is originally from Nimes, so gave very detailed tour. One of the interesting facts that coat of arms of the city has crocodile and palm which is very unusual for Roman cities. Turned out that celebrating Anthony’s victory against Cleopatra, Emperor Augustus commissioned a coin. One side of the coin showed crocodile with a Palm leaf at his tail, symbolizing Egypt submission.

We had dinner in local restaurant – Onion tart for appetizer and cod in butter sauce with mashed potatoes, desert was flan in a sauce with plums.

We stayed overnight in Novotel in historic center. Good location, but hotel was un-inspiring.

Next morning we left for Monpelier – our final destination.

However on the way, we had one more surprise – the town of Pezenas. It was beautiful small town located in the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc’s vineyards. During 12 years, Molière and his fellow comedians performed in Languedoc and Guyenne. Pézenas was his favorite place of stay because his protector lived there. It is very artistic town. We visited beautiful mansions, one of them housed Louis Xvi on the way to get married.

Pezenas also had good size Jewish community in medieval times, Jews were found in the manufactures and sales of glass, perfume, oil. We walked through medieval Jewish district. There is a sign ghetto but we were told, it is not right – Jews lived in their own community, not ghetto. There is also archeological find of Mikweh, but not officially confirmed yet.

We had lunch in the restaurant/wine bar of new 4* hotel, La Distillierie. The local wines were very good. There was vegetable appetizer with roasted vegetables potato and hardboiled egg. The main course was delicious duck burger. I forgot what we had for desert but I enjoyed it.. J . We inspected hotel and I liked it. It is just short walk bridge on the river and it is very quiet place. Many of the rooms had kitchen so it is perfect to enjoy local market specialties and do light cooking. The town was delightful.

We continued back to Montpelier. On arrival we checked into 4* Hotel Crown Plaza and went for another tour of the city. The highlight of this tour was going on top of Arc de Triomphe and see the magnificient views of the city. We also visited local art museum. There was an exhibit of Carravagio – his work brought from various museums in Europe. The large line of locals, many with children were waiting to enter to the exhibit. Since we did regular museum exhibits, we did not have to stay in line. It has collection of paintings and sculptures 17-19 century and some contemporary sculptures.

The farewell dinner was at restaurant Giraffe in the historic town and it was very nice, we reminisced on the trip, thanked Languedoc tourist members and our guides who made this trip possible. On the way back we took group photo.

Most people left next morning, and I had some time until my 4pm flight. It was Sunday so all stores were closed. I went for a last morning walk in the city. It was animated on Saturday, but today, on Sunday it was marathon and many people were on the street. I did find Monoprix supermarket where I did some food souvenirs shopping. I watched marathon runners at street side café, the weather was perfect. At Art museum Montpilerieans still were lined up, with small children in tow, in the lines for Caravaggio!  I was impressed by their commitment to the art! It is really nice, easygoing city. I will be back for longer time!

Same driver Jean-Paul who was with us the week, came to transfer me to airport, and I left for Gatwick on EasyJet. Flight was on time. I spent the rest of the day at Sofitel Gatwick, too tired to go somewhere and had light meal at Chinese restaurant. Next morning, I went to the terminal by foot. My flight was delayed few hours but I was comfortable settled at business lounge with food and internet. The flight to Tampa was uneventful.

It concluded my next successful trip to Europe.

Special thanks again to Christine Combet of Montpelier tourist board for arranging synagogue visit and opening of MIkweh site and providing all interesting touring of the city! Also to our guides Diane and Danielle from Montpelier sharing their love and knowledge of the region with us for the week.