Tuesday, July 26, 2005

France, Part One

Besançon isn't France, it's Switzerland. Up until electronics took the fun out of watch-making, it was where France made its watches, and now it's apparently going high-tech. But it's not Germany, either, which was why I drove like a maniac -- to the extent that one can drive a Smart like a maniac -- for eleven hours until we got there.

It being Sunday night, nearly every restaurant in town was closed, but we wandered around for a while and settled on one called Rive Gauche, where the evening's special was some kind of tiny fish, gutted, rolled in flour, and deep-fried whole. K settled for a salad with foie gras and goose confit, not wanting to crunch tiny fish with their eyeballs still in, and who can blame her? They were tasty, though, and went down fine with the Brug white beer they were serving.

The city is basically a knob which is surrounded by the Doubs river, protected by fortifications along the river and a citadel on the hill overlooking the place, and it's made pretty by the native stone, blue and pink limestone, blocks of which alternate in many of the old buildings in the center like the city hall.

Walking around, though, wasn't an option that first night. The hotel had a little sign in the room requesting that you not open the window because of "the environment," which meant the Doubs, and the mosquitoes and gnats that dwell thereon, and they had a point. Also, as we dawdled over a couple of postprandial beers, the heat-lightning stopped being heat-lightning, the wind picked up, we paid the bill, and got treated to a nice light-show on the way back to the hotel. Too bad the storm hit when we were still two blocks away.

I'd been reading that much of western Europe was dry, that French farmers were being asked not to irrigate their crops (but were doing so anyway), and that a crisis loomed (and hit: Spain caught on fire that night), so I figured the storm was a good thing. Maybe so, but it made the next day's drive (after a morning walk through Besançon, photographing and checking it out) a bit perilous, especially as we wound around the grimmer outskirts of Lyon just as the storm hit there and got really hard for about an hour as we continued on. As we turned south, however, the storm stayed behind us, and before long it was hot and dry. Not even climbing into the limestone badlands studded with scrub above Nimes abated the temperature, and naturally we hit Montpellier during Monday's rush hour, with no real idea where we were going. Mappy had served us well so far, but of course it couldn't have anticipated the fact that several streets were blocked off due to construction, and so we threaded our way through a bunch of narrow streets hoping to get to our hotel, which we suddenly found.

Given that the purpose of the trip was as much to explore the surrounding countryside as it was to deal with Montpellier itself, I couldn't have found a better place. The Hotel des Arceaux stands on the Boulevard des Arceaux, the street which runs on both sides of the imitation Roman aqueduct which was built in the 19th century to bring water to Montpellier's many fountains. It's two old houses joined into one, and given the fact that it only cost €57 a night, it was a joy. No air conditioning except downstairs, true, but it was equipped with the traditional heavy wooden shutters without louvers which mark the city's architecture, surprisingly efffective against the daytime heat, and wonderful at night, the occasional mosquito notwithstanding. The back yard has been turned into a near-tropical garden with tables where guests can eat breakfast or get light meals from the kitchen among banana trees and various colorful flowers. (I have to say, too, that the baguette the hotel puts in its breakfast bread-basket was the best one we found in France. That said, we didn't buy one at the place I'd been to in January, nor from a place I hadn't seen before on the rue des Balances which proudly announced that it had won second place in the French competition this year.) There was a municipal parking lot a couple of blocks away, which was inexpensive and often pretty empty, and it was easy to get up the hill to the historic center on foot, while the roads out of town were well-marked and just a block or two away.

But the real gem was the fact that under the arches, on Tuesday and Saturday (and, to a much lesser degree, during the rest of the week) a killer market sets up. This being early summer, it was loaded with amazing things: tomatoes that literally took two hands to lift, strawberries the size of marbles, peaches of every sort, melons from Provence, a guy selling several kinds of Spanish hams, a cheesemonger's trailer which I immediately dubbed the Cheese Museum because of its amazing variety and array of neat plaques giving information on each cheese, bakers with giant loaves of country bread, people selling olives and olive oil, and an almost infinite number of vegetables. Just eyeing this bounty, I imagined living in a place where people cared so much for what they ate, and cared so much about both quality and variety.

Of course, I was going to be living there for most of the week. Trouble was, I didn't have a kitchen. Someone else would have to do the cooking. Not that I had a problem with that.

Next: into the hills in search of wine.

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