IT'S ALWAYS a pleasure to head over the hills and far away for Montpellier, the big city, to gulp down draughts from the deep well of urbanitis. Village life is all very well, and there's much to be said for living in a rural community where every
IT'S ALWAYS a pleasure to head over the hills and far away for Montpellier, the big city, to gulp down draughts from the deep well of urbanitis. Village life is all very well, and there's much to be said for living in a rural community where everyone knows everyone else, and their business too, but every now and again it needs putting into perspective, it needs putting into a wider frame. This really refreshing, even if it only consists of settling down on a city centre terrasse with a grand crème (latte doesn't exist here, and even café au lait raises a questioning eyebrow), watching the girls go by and dreaming of mostly imaginary past conquests.
Montpellier opened itself to us a few years ago, when largely by trial and error we discovered the equivalent of The Knowledge for London taxi drivers, i.e. our way about. In particular this involves a fast and unhindered access to the heart of the city, the Place de la Comédie, and the vast underground car parks nearby.
A few weeks ago we bought a new car, one that combines the properties of saloon car, people carrier and capacious van, because it's an unusual genetic trait in our family that we're never happier than when carting furniture about. In consequence it stands a good bit higher off the ground than most cars and, if you really want to know, it isn't a gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive but merely a Peugeot Partner in vert acarien, Acarian Green. Very smart.
But dire warnings issued from a neighbour, a man perhaps ultra-sensitive to navigation about Montpellier: driving a vehicle too high for admission to the city's underground car-parks, he'd once been obliged to park on the street a long way away from his destination. Accordingly he set his hand-held Satnav or Tomtom to pedestrian mode and found his way on foot. Once back in his car, he followed its directions for getting out of Montpellier only to find himself taken on a route involving footbridges, metre-wide alleys and gravelled walks through ornamental parks. He'd forgotten to take it out of pedestrian mode. I'm not certain that he's been back to Montpellier since. How high was our Partner, he asked. We measured it: it came to 1.83 metres. You'll never get it into the underground car-parks, he said. The limit's 1.80 metres. It's standard. They hang a height-limit board from the roof. You won't get under it. No chance. Believe me, I should know.
It's also an unusual genetic trait in our family to take idiotic risks. It seemed to me that no French car manufacturer would produce a popular model too high to fit into the nation's underground car-parks. It also seemed unlikely that the car-park operators wouldn't allow for a small margin of tolerance.
Have you ever seen a film called Sliding Doors? It has twin plots, one the outcome of the heroine (Gwyneth Paltrow) catching a London underground train by the skin of her teeth, the other the consequences of her letting the sliding doors close and waiting for the next tube. There are certain parallels . . .
. . . off we drove to Montpellier, over the hills to Pézenas and down on to the A9, the autoroute called La Languedocienne, which runs inland of the Mediterranean coast. We cruised into Montpellier, down the Avenue Pierre Mendès France, over the river by the Pont R. Chauliac, up the Avenue Jean Mermoz, into the network of junctions and tunnels that The Knowledge has opened for us, into the yawning mouth of the car-park. 1.80 metres maximum height, a prominent sign said. There hung the red and white height-limit board. I inched forward ultra-gingerly. Josephine got out to guide me. I heard a slight scrape, then a click: the radio aerial snapped back into place. A line of cars built up behind us. Some hooted impatiently. If we had to reverse out, everyone else would have to back up, an object lesson in how to make Brits universally loved. Conscious that the Partner is higher at the back than at the front, I expected the worst with every forward millimetre. Get-out-of-trouble solutions teemed. We could recruit the hooters behind: nobody is going anywhere, Monsieur, unless you give us a hand to lift this board a bit. Josephine is very good at this sort of coercion, but what further here-comes-a-chopper-to-chop-off-your-head traps might await us inside? Or we could deflate the tyres a little, just enough to reduce our height.
Then suddenly there was Josephine calling out Go on, you're through. She jumped back in. It was OK, she said. You had three or four centimetres to spare.
Yes, a big relief, and no, I agree: it wouldn't have made much of a film. Not even with Gwyneth Paltrow playing Josephine.
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IF WE hadn't got through we probably wouldn't have found our way to one of those little restaurants it's such a joy to discover and then keep a dark secret. So, if you promise not to tell anyone else . . .
. . . the old quarter of Montpellier is a genial rabbit warren of narrow streets, mostly pedestrianised, punctuated with squares great and small, courtyards and little gardens with fountains playing. You can while away pleasant hours just ambling about, and it was during one such aimless saunter that we found ourselves in the Place Candolle, just along from the Conservatoire (i.e. school of music), so that our time there was further sweetened by snatches of woodwind ensemble or scraps of piano music fluttering like the tail of a kite.
A restaurant had set four or five tables - this was in mid-November - in the shade of an enormous tree. The business card described the restaurant as à l'ombre d'un micocoulier centenaire et au coin du "Paradis Perdu", in the shade of a 100-year-old nettle tree and in the corner of Paradise Lost. Un micocoulier is a nettle tree, an evergreen new to us. Apparently nettle trees favour dry, infertile limestone soils around the Mediterranean basin, they grow to 20 metres very slowly and live for 500 years. They don't sting, as far as I know. I'm not too certain about Paradise Lost, though: we do intend to go back.)
So having selected a dish from the menu chalked on a nearby board we made our way, while a warm late autumn sunshine filtered its way through the micocoulier leaves, into seared squid, cuttlefish and gambas (giant prawns) served with spiced green peppers braised in olive oil. Délicieux. Exquis.
The restaurant is called L'Edredon. To save you the trouble of scurrying for the dictionary I don't mind telling you that this word is borrowed from English. It seems to have undergone some corruption in crossing the Channel, though: it means 'eiderdown'. How very curious. One day we'll discover why. I'll keep you posted.