Saturday, May 3, 2014


The historic center of Montpellier.
Of course, the Box has not driven to France, and like the Renault in the USA, it seems to be impossible to buy a Scion xB in France. Something about the gas mileage, diesel engines, and exhaust standards. Someone online suggested buying one in England and then driving it through the chunnel.

But watching an HGTV segment today on a couple and their children seeking a house to rent in Montpellier, France, I was carried by nostalgia to my college days when I went to Montpellier in 1966-67 to spend a school year with West Chester State College's Junior Year Abroad program. We sailed from New York on the SS United States, then traveled by bus from Le Havre to Montpellier.

I guess they were happy to see us leave New York.
Whenever I see references to France on one of those "House Hunters International" shows, I sit up and take notice, and to see Montpellier is like hitting the jackpot.

It's a lovely Mediterranean city, founded around the year 1000, making it one of the few large cities in France without a Roman heritage, and one of the few in southern France without Greek influence. So, it's a relatively new town!

Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France, and the fastest growing during the past 25 years. No wonder when I returned there in 1996, I was unable to recognize anything but the unchanged and unchanging historic center. (Susanne and I went to France -- the transportation being an anniversary gift from my fabulous sister -- to visit our daughter Sarah, who was doing her Junior Year Abroad farther east, at Nice, on the famous Riviera.)

As a student, I was a resident of the Cité Universitaire du Triolet, a group of dormitory buildings and associated dining hall about a fifteen-minute walk from the Faculté des Lettres, where our classes were held. It was more like a half-hour walk into the town center. My, we did a lot of walking in that year. Sometimes we took the bus but often didn't have the fare, so tight were our budgets. Other times we would splurge and take the bus to the end of the line, out in some surrounding village, and walk back, just to enjoy the scenery and each other's company.

The dorms were set in a three-acre park. (Internet)

The rooms look much the same today. (Internet)

Here are three of the four guys in our group outside the Cité du Triolet in 1966.

I believe this was taken on a long walk or on a bus trip. Poor John. RIP.
In the center of town is the Place de la Comédie, named for the opera house built there in 1888. We had the privilege of hearing the Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia play there [video]. I also attended a performance of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" there. Much of that humor and sarcasm were lost on me.

The Place de la Comédie is surrounded by old buildings now housing stores and restaurants and the like at street level. There is a fountain with a statue of the Three Graces in the center. The Place is sometimes called Place de l'œuf (Egg) because of the ovoid shape of the plaza surrounding the statue.

Do you see the egg shape around the statue? (Click on picture to enlarge.)

The original statue was placed in 1796. Today there is a replica, with the original now safely indoors.
Up one of the narrow streets off the Place, several of us spent many hours with French students who lived in an apartment there. One of the places in the HGTV program reminded me of this apartment building, with its big doors on the street, then a courtyard, and then the entrance to the apartments. The place was rather small and not very pretty, just functional. I learned a lot of French there from the boys and girls who gathered there, much more than I would have sitting in a lecture hall hearing a professor drone on about Molière or Rimbaud.

There are many narrow streets like this in Montpellier.
Every time we took the bus downtown we passed under the 17th century Arch of Triumph, built in honor of Louis XIV on the site of one of the city's old gates.
The photo is taken from inside the Peyrou's iron gates.
Across the street is the Peyrou garden with its rows of sycamore trees, and the Palace of Justice, the courthouse, is just beyond the arch. When we visited Sarah in 1996, we drove there with her and a friend and parked in an underground garage opposite the courthouse and walked a block to a lovely little hotel called the Hôtel du Palais.

Hôtel du Palais

We had pleasant rooms and a delightful breakfast of fresh buttery croissants with jam and café au lait in the morning.

The breakfast room in the hotel was charming.

Of course, when we were students we had breakfast in the university restaurant -- hot café au lait in a bowl and last night's leftover bread. Actually, it may have been hard as a rock, but it was great for dunking! I think the cost was about 12 cents (60 centimes) at that time. You can't even park in Harrisburg for a minute for that amount.

Near the hotel is the Cathédrale St-Pierre [video], where I heard famous blind French organist Jean Langlais play. A week later he was in Harrisburg, playing at Pine Street Church. If I had known that, I would have given him some letters to family in order to save a few francs!

Cathédrale St-Pierre, built at the end of the 14th century.
The new organ is in the rear gallery.
A lot of time was also spent at a spot called Le Ranch, a bar/bistro near the university. There we spent many hours listening to the juke box, drinking a glass of Kronenbourg beer, and playing pinball, something my mother told me never to do, as it led to even greater evils.

Le Ranch (at least I think it's the right place). (Internet)
Some evenings we boys would walk down to the dorms where the girls lived (on a street called la Voie Domitienne) and spend time with friends in the snack bar that was in the administration building, for lack of a better term. It was here that the girls checked in and out. There were tables and chairs in the lobby. We spent a lot of time hashing over the day's experiences and swapping stories. Being gross college boys, we chortled when someone suggested we go "down to the VD" to see the girls.

I am pretty sure this is the right building on the VD. It seems so much smaller now.
It would be fun to go back to Montpellier sometime and spend a while getting to know the place again.  Maybe I could even find the old dorms after nearly 50 years!

I swear I am going to scan the hundreds of slides I took in 1966-67. When I do, I will share some with you here.