Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Poking around Provence

I went to 3 towns in Provence: Montpellier, Avignon and Arles. And I liked all of them. I'd been to a few when I drove around the area for a few days in 2015, as well, and I'm not actually sure there are cities or towns in France that I won't like.

I was hoping to stumble across locations that might work as longish term stops for me, where I could stay for a few weeks or more. But given how almost anywhere would be just fine, it's hard to make a choice. 

I didn't really *do* anything much in any of them, because I was just trying to get a feel of what it would be like to live in each place for a while. So I went to the grocery store, did laundry, looked at places to eat.

I think I'll look at a few more, see if any place really stands out for any reason over all the others. Anyway, here are my impressions. 


Montpellier is, among other things, a bit quirky. It has the rear ends of cars sticking out of buildings, and the airport's twitter account can get a little random. 

For instance, when the time changed, they said, "This weekend, everyone can sleep an extra hour...or not!" And included an extraordinary video that is probably a favorite of airport workers everywhere.

Anyway, I liked the town a lot. It's got buildings as elegant as you will see anywhere, even in back alleyways.

But it's also a college town, so it doesn't have that over-polished feeling.

The Place de la Comedie is the main square, and it is hu-u-u-ge. When I went on a Saturday, it was crowded, and filled with all kinds of activity. 

The actual theater is featured in the photo at the very top of this page.

But when I passed through the square, or nearby, on other days it was just a nice big space with people strolling around or hanging out. Here's a photo of the other half of the square.

I loved the train station, it's beautiful inside and out. Montpellier is enough of a major location that there is a fast train from Paris, and direct trains to all manner of other locations.

So it would be an excellent place to use as a base, making it easy to explore all over the southern part of France. And that train station would be a joy to leave from and return to, especially compared to the gigantic chaotic stations in Paris.

Montpellier's a good sized city, about a quarter of a million people. So it's big enough to offer pretty much anything you need, including a wide variety of international food. Although I was still surprised to see Mexican food in more than one place. That's still not something you see often in Europe, except for London.

Another huge plus is all of the outdoor dining, which I love. Entire blocks look like they're lined with tables and chairs, and every even slightly largish space is filled with them.

There was one place that looked like they were right smack in the middle of an intersection.

So, all in all, Montpellier has a lot to offer. Of course, if you were looking for a tourist guide, this sure as hell isn't it.

As I've said before, I'm a really lousy tourist. I just like to live out my nerdy life in different locations. But when I finally feel the need to venture out of doors, there are certain things I want to have available. And, in addition to everything else, Montpellier gets bonus points for sunshine and palm trees.

And, oh yeah, happy hour. I haven't come across this on the Continent before, but I definitely give weight to any place who appreciates the concept of happy hour.


I love Avignon. I came on a day trip when I was driving around Provence in 2015, and liked it enough that I was very happy to get the chance to spend more time here. While the city has just under 100,000 people, the only part I'm really interested in is the old city within the rampart walls.

Unfortunately, my lodging was about a ten minute walk away. While that may not sound like much, it was the difference between night and day. The only way I'd spend weeks here was if I found an affordable place inside - which is easily doable if you reserve far enough in advance, but that is often a problem for me.

The old city has a great deal of charm. Many of the streets are so narrow there are no real sidewalks to speak of, you have to walk in the streets and stand on ledge while flattening yourself against a wall when a car passes.

Even those little cars the post office uses in the States aren't used here, the mailman rides a bike.

There are lovely pedestrian streets lined with commercial enterprises.

And the official buildings are impressive.

As is the theater...

Lots of outdoor dining.

Though you will notice that there is no one sitting at any of those outdoor tables.

And that's because the weather was just a little too chilly, and the wind blowing a little too hard, to be comfortable eating outdoors.

Which is why the timing needs to be right for me to stay in this area. I think maybe May or October should be safe enough. I'm sure there are a lot of other times when it will be perfectly comfortable, but it's hard to know in advance when booking a place for several weeks.

I did manage to visit the main attraction here, although there are others. Avignon was kind of like a vacation home for the popes to get away from Rome now and again. The Palais du Papes was a chance to find out how Popes lived several centuries ago, which is an uncommon variation on my hobby of visiting old houses.

I'm going to have to give it its own post, though, because there was a lot going on there that I found interesting, none of which had to do with religion, and least of which was the fact that it's now filled with contemporary art exhibits, which I found somewhat bizarre.

Seriously, this ape was one of the first things you saw upon entering the residential part of the palace. I

But more about that later. The last place I visited in Provence was Arles.


I mentioned previously that I was going to make this stop as part of my Van Gogh fangirl tour. And I'm glad I did, even though it was fraught with complications.

My phone service ran out on the 9th and I was leaving for Africa on the 12th. Since I didn't want to pay for another full month just to use for a few days, I had no service when I got there. I didn't think it would be a problem, because my maps work with just the GPS. However, there were no taxis at the train station, nor was there any wifi. There were numbers to call for a taxi...but I had no service.

In hindsight, what I should've done was just take a day trip from Avignon. Because the Van Gogh museum was walking distance from the station, while my lodging was a much longer trek. About an hour and 15 minutes later, I did get a taxi, but it was a long, cold wait.

Just one of those travel snafus that could have been avoided with a little more forethought. Live and learn. I don't let them bother me much anymore.

The town of Arles looks just completely beat up. 

And yet, somehow, I still found it more picturesque than seedy.

I don't know if it was the Van Gogh influence, but almost everything looked to me like it belonged in a painting. And parts of it weren't as bad as others.

Some of it was quite charming.

The museum itself was probably disappointing to a lot of people. It had exactly one painting by Van Gogh. It was called "Entrance to a Quarry".

However, there was also a handwritten note from him to Gaugin, which I found very interesting. It would have been interesting under any circumstances, but it refers to Gaugin's visit to Arles and the movie Loving Vincent takes place right after that visit.

There was also a typewritten version, in both French and English, because his handwriting wasn't the easiest to read.

I walked around the city a bit, besides going to the museum. But I don't think this is a place I will feel any need to return to.

Although I could have used the wifi at my lodging to summon a cab back to the station, I decided to just walk back, even though it was about a 40 minute walk. Probably a bit more rolling my luggage. But I was able to take a paved path next to the river for a significant part of the journey, and that was an incredibly pleasant way to finish off my visit.

So that was my time in Provence. It was starting to get a bit chilly there, so I was happy to be headed for Africa, where it was a good 15 degrees warmer.  So stay tuned for Morocco, coming soon.

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