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Food, Wine and Biking around Montpellier

01 August 2009

by Chris Durrant

I teach German and a bit of junior French at high school. My French was pretty rough so I decided to apply for, and was fortunate enough to get, a Ministry of Education 'language immersion scholarship' to the south of France. Not content with just sunning it and soaking up the language, food and local vintages for three months - I decided to take my bike along as company. It would be handy for getting around Montpellier, exploring further afield, and working off the local gastronomy I planned to sample.

"It's alway warm in the south of France" I assured myself, although not in March as it transpired. Still, I went light on clothes and managed to jam them and my bike into a Ground Effect Tardis as my sole piece of checked-in luggage. Incidentally the Tardis fits neatly in the luggage rack of a TGV (the fabulous, fast French trains). My carry-on bag, maxed out at seven kg, swallowed the balance of my clothes, a tablet loaded with reading, and laptop for talking to my wife and two young children. Three months was a long time to be away but Skype worked pretty well. The kids in Dunedin had Dad join them for breakfast each morning - 'sitting' across the table on the laptop, in France.

After 43 hours on planes and trains I staggered across the road from the main train station at 11 pm to my host Mum's apartment. I wolfed a fresh omelette, washed it down with a glass of rosé and was promptly off to bed. School started the next day at 8:30 am. My 'Mum', Madame Ranson took her foster duties seriously. Wine always accompanied the three-course meals she cooked for me, the four young Mexicans, and the Japanese girl, and the Nigerian girl, and the 14 other students ranging in ages from 16 to 78. At one stage or another, they all stayed in her large apartment right in the centre of the student town of Montpellier. As a longterm guest in my middle years, I was privileged to have my own private mini-apartment around the corner. It was a mere 100m stroll for breakfast and dinner each day with Madame and the younger students.

The first week of school reminded me of what the kids in my classes go through on a daily basis (poor things). Respite was in order. So on Saturday I took a gentle ride on the purpose-built cycle path to the beach. I got lost of course and promptly blamed my GPS and French signs. 'Toutes Directions' means all directions and I still fail to see how that is possible.My theory is that Napoleon's legacy is at fault. France is very, very centralised. Everything has to go through Paris before it heads out to the regions - roads, or at least directions, included. I was constantly tackling some roundabout that did in fact branch off in all directions, often sending me back the way I had come, so I could take a different road running parallel to the one I'd just beenon. This along with the absence of km distance information under the name of the destination made for some protracted days in the saddle. But I would remind myself that I was in the south of France so managed not to get too wound up.

Clearly I needed Google maps. With good cell coverage in most areas, I set out to procure a SIM card for my phone. This led to the first Kafka moment of my stay. I did not completely understand the woman in the Orange cellphone shop as she spoke French at me. And I mean 'at me' - it's not only English speakers that believe to be understood entails speaking the exact same sentence again and again, but louder with each repetition. I thought I scored a bargain - five euros credit for texts and unlimited internet for nine euros. But she-of-the-phone-shop had to activate the account, which of course she didn't. I discovered this when my credits expired a short time later - I was being charged the normal (high) internet rate. Rrrrgh.

I returned to the shop to remonstrate. After being ignored for a while, I then struggled to explain the situation in my not-so-flash French. She made a call, then handed me the phone. "Someone will talk to you" she promised. It was classic Telecom, but in French. "For blah blah click un, for blah blah click deux". I understood only a little but managed to negotiate the maze to reach an actual person. She also spoke rapidly and loudly. A week into my trip I could buy stuff and get the drift of most conversations but detail beyond normal speaking speed was a bridge too far. I hung up and was studiously ignored by everyone in the shop who were suddenly really busy.

I walked, well stormed, out and tried another provider, SFR. There I learned "of course they won't provide this service to foreigners". I was proud of myself because the bad news was delivered in French and I understood it perfectly. Hence the Kafkaesqueness: "No one understands you, in fact they deliberately misrepresent you and all actions are futile; relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality."

Marching back to Orange, where I planned to eat the SIM card or some such other futile protest, I struck a chap whose English was better than my French. He was sympathetic. I was grateful. Two days later all was resolved and I was in business.

There are five statutory holidays in France during May! With school closed as the first of these rolled around, I made an 87 km excursion to Sete for lunch. Smoked fish as an appetiser. I'm still not 100% sure what kind but they were delicious so long as you didn't look them in the eye. The main was tuna with ratatouille, followed by tartelette au chocolat for dessert. All for just 17 euros, including a half-bottle of sauvignon and espresso. Worth working up an appetite for.

During a less memorable outing to get provisions, I locked my bike outside a shopping centre. I was inside for less than half an hour. As I descended the steps to my bike (possibly not the safest spot to leave it) some rascal was trying to steal it. I yelled something clever like "Vas y" which means "Go ahead". I hope he took it as an ironic threat because I really don't know what I meant. I followed it up with a tirade of Anglo-Saxon epithets calling into doubt his heritage and warning him that he should immediately leave the area before something bad happens. Luckily for me (because he looked quite fit and tall) he took off like a scalded cat. I soothed my distraught bike and observed the cuts in the Kryptonite lock. Average time before someone in Montpellier tries to pinch your crappy old bike with buggered forks, dodgy chain, worn-out gears and thin brake pads - about 20 minutes.

A week later, I discovered a gentleman with a hack saw blade attacking another poor sod's bike. Middle of the day, in full view of anyone who cared to look. I yelled at him too. Apparently you can repurchase your stolen bike at the Saturday market to keep the cogs of underground commerce turning.

Prior to my crime watch cameo, I had ridden to Pic St Loup - a 658 metre peak just north of Montpellier. After getting lost leaving Montpellier, as usual, I then couldn't find the track that supposedly winds around the impressive peak. I found an alternate trail above a vineyard that was a pleasant substitute. The locals were fine with bikes on walking tracks, providing you announced yourself in good time and travelled at a sensible speed. Likewise when riding in town. France is very cycle friendly.

Feeling peckish on the way home, I ran across a caravan that is possibly the best pizza joint in the south of France. It certainly was the best pizza joint on my way home that day. The freshly made, family size meat-lovers bacon extravaganza cost eight euros. A further euro landed a can of coke and some banter about the last Rugby World Cup (they are still not really over it in the rugby-mad south).

Only 25 km to the south of Montpellier is Montagne de la Gardiole. It boasts fantastic dedicated mountain bike tracks with big views of the Mediterranean. Chris Akrigg's video provides a feel for the terrain. Never mind it's filmed in Spain, not France. And that I ride really slowly with both wheels on theground. Other than that, just the same, same!

After another week of passé composé and the dreaded subjonctif, I escaped to the Pont du Gard. About 75 km from Montpellier, I elected to catch the train to nearby Nimes so I could check out its amazing Roman amphitheatre en route. It is reputed to be the best preserved outside of Rome.

I like trains. Especially the local SNCF bike trains. As they come into the station, just spot the carriage with a velo icon, wheel your bike in and hang it against the wall. There are seats next to the racks so your bike doesn't get lonely, or stolen.

The road from Nimes to Pont du Gard presented myonly serious headwind in nearly three months riding about southern France. Strangely it persisted even when I was travelling in the opposite direction. A UNO protected heritage site, the famous stone bridge has been around for 2000 odd years, surviving the locals back in the 6th century pinching materials to construct other buildings. It wasn't until late last century that divers inspected the foundations. All was okay. Roman engineers appear to have known their stuff.

After a very agreeable two-course lunch (mountain pork, potatoes and tomatoes, and café gourmand - which is like three desserts and a coffee) it was time to pedal home. I bought a kilo of fresh cherries on the way from a roadside stall, drank a very good Austrian beer at the station caféwhile waiting for my train and made it home just in time for dinner with Madame Ranson.

Near the end of my French sojourn Montpellier hosted FISE, Europe's biggest extreme sports competition. I was torn between tripping out of town and staying put. Weekends had become scarce. I stayed, and it was worth it. Gotta love socialist France where everyone gets to watch a major event for free, and you're still allowed to eat foie gras.

I sold the bike before leaving, swapping the weight allowance for stuff purchased from Decathlon - the French sporting goods version of the Warehouse, but on steroids. It (the bike) was old and I'm sure will enjoy retirement with its new student owner in the south of France.

Montpellier is a great base for biking. There are plenty of tracks. It's sunny. You can always get a bite and a drink by the roadside. Next time I'll take the family. Being there is better than Skype.

Oh yes, and for those concerned about your tax dollars, my French improved from A2 to B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. A1 is crap; C2 is native. My B2 is a good nudge beyond Year 13 at high school.