I’ve spent seven weeks of this period abroad exploring SW France, and in September will go back for another two. Now spending a two-month interval in Denmark, Türkiye and England, I can step back and reflect on the places I began checking out. I’ve ordered them here from likeliest to least likely, although my ranking is hardly strict yet.

Montpellier

It’s a real city, no doubt about it; people do call it “the Paris of the south.” With its university and well-known hospital (first French medical school), it has good resources. The opera, on arrival night, was very satisfying. There are museums, some galleries, and it seems a fair amount of events and cultural activities.
Transport is pretty good, but the city is very torn up from construction, whether of roads or transport lines I’m not sure.
Good beaches are said to be an easy journey.
Even in the short time spent here, I’ve ended up with two (completely separate) friends who are eager to help orient me, even to help me find a place to live, through friend networks and word of mouth rather than agencies; one who already introduced me to a wonderful couple of artists in a nearby village, and the other who promises a dinner with friends upon my return.
So, I see Montpellier as a place offering cultural and social life, with proximity to beaches and to river kayaking. I’m told to consider villages around the city for better real estate value, and when I return in September I’ll have a chance to see how it feels to stay a bus ride away from the center.
On the minus side:
Whereas the typical European town pattern is for the best neighborhoods and most valued residences to be in the very heart of town, Montpellier is a bit rough at the center. The very downtown is largely undesirable for residences. Some of the recommended neighborhoods just away from the heart of town are depressing concrete jungles (to my eyes). And why when designing modern highrises do people omit balconies and terraces that would make the buildings more livable? There are some interesting urban neighborhoods but the property hunt will be challenging; and I think investment value, future outlook, probably hard to predict.
The Halles aren’t much to speak of. Apparently there are two, and we just saw the central Halles Catalanes. Very small, limited vendors and hours, hardly a foodie paradise. There are butchers and chocolate shops but I think the Halles would be the only place for fresh fish, and I didn’t note a lot of produce shops of any distinction around town.
Restaurants were plentiful in the heart of town, and busy; menu prices were about like Avignon: the occasional menu at 18 euros but just as likely 22, and both meat and fish daily specialties could run 24. Obviously both towns have many more expensive restaurants, some beautiful settings and exclusive hotels – I’m just reporting what we were looking for and trying, wanting to keep expenses down while still eating well.

Narbonne

Oh, what a happy find. I had such a good and strong reaction to this city. This is the place! I thought. I liked the canal through the center of town, the mixed architecture of historic and simple, the hopping sidewalk cafe scene, the beautiful historic buildings (great archbishop’s palace complex). A very walkable city with a pleasant atmosphere.
And the Halles! Best ever! Several vendors have restaurants inside (so, no smoking! yay!): the butcher counter offers beef, lamb, duck, the fishmarket will cook whatever you choose, and any of them sell you a glass of local wine for 2-3 euros. There are two specialist wine bars as well, so you have plenty of choice. Menus ran roughly 14 to 24 euros. The market is lively and noisy and friendly. I could see that this was a place where I might sit to eat or have a glass of wine, and get into conversation. And so it was that I enjoyed the company of a couple recently relocated from Paris (hah, just like my taxi driver from the train station!) who gave me their number, and another day, two women from Sete who insisted on treating me to my wine and later to coffee at what immediately had become my spot for cafe au lait. I didn’t go to the beaches but they are close. I just felt happy in this place; I got the feeling I was hoping for.
But.
Yes, “but”: cultural life? No sign of any but pop music events. Bit of children’s theatre and some student productions. Museums worth visiting, for sure, but little else. I started looking online for cultural associtions, meet ups, FB city pages, and really struck out. I can’t see much of a life here for me. Still keeping my eyes open to it.

Nîmes

It’s an elegant city, with Haussmanien buildings, the center city keeping usually to 6-story buildings at most, and a broad promenade leading from the train station to a fountain plaza where the Roman arena comes into full view. Just a reasonable walk further out, there’s a canal (quite dirty) as you near a beautiful plaza and park, with terraced levels and the chance to ascend for a view.
The pedestrian zone is fairly upscale and gives the impression of a prosperous city. The Halles have good variety and pretty good prices, and after it closes in the early afternoon, you can still find excellent produce at a number of fruit and vegetable shops. The transportation network is excellent and easy to use. It feels safe. Ir’s impressively clean. Restaurant scene a bit limited but there were places I’d still like to try, and one to revisit gladly. Menu prices very reasonable (plat du jour 12 euros, for example).
Outstanding tourist interest:
The museum of Roman life and history is outstanding: worth a day’s detour.
And the minuses:
How to meet people and make connections, with the apparent dearth of cultural life. I arrived during a great food festival weekend, and returned during another festival, so I could see there are some lively and well-organized regional events. But I found no notice of church concerts or any classical music events. Didn’t come across art galleries.
It’s a quiet town aside from festival weekends. It seems restaurants and bars close by 10 if not before, with very few exceptions.
Aside from the little canal district (dirty canals), there’s no water attraction, no river through town, and beaches are not close enough for, say, an easy afternoon.
While there doesn’t seem to be much going on most of the time, it does have a prosperous air, and thus, is not a cheap market for real estate.

Avignon

The Pope’s palace and the city walls have an enormous, inescapable appeal. And the Rhone! It is wide and beautiful here, separated for a while into two channels because of two islands. There are river cruises and it also just looks endlessly tempting for kayaking or canoeing. (I wonder why you don’t see a crowd of sailboats.) The look of the town makes me react with, “oh, yes, this is where I want to live!” because the magic, the majesty, the history is overwhelming. We had an excellent guided tour that convinced me to give more of them a try.
There’s opera, ballet, orchestral performances at Avignon’s Grand Opera. There are organ recitals and other concerts in churches. There are a number of museums worth visiting; didn’t see many art galleries.
Bus and train connections are pretty good.
On the minus side:
It is of course overrun with tourists. The city is pretty dirty. The Halles are rather small and very pricey, and grocery shopping elsewhere is limited. We found a pricey organic grocery with good products; otherwise, you’ve got small Utile markets, Carrefour City and Monoprix. Hardly inspiring.
The opera was very disappointing. Part of the disappointment was the poor design with balcony rails blocking one’s line of sight! Could so easily be fixed.
Restaurants: none to return to eagerly.
Avignon is still so popular than you definitely get less for your money than elsewhere. Balconies, terraces, gardens are hard to spot – though of course public gardens are delightful. Inside the city walls, most apartments will be walk-ups and may need window and other upgrades. Outside the city walls, the suburban appearance is, to me, completely offputting.
I spent enough time in town for the glow to wear off, and to let Avignon slide further down my list. I admit, if I came across an unexpected bargain, I might jump at it, because it is so lovely to be near the Rhone, and therefore close to Chateauneuf du Pape, all the Rhone wine villages, the other charming towns in Bouches du Rhone and the Vaucluse.

On the back burner:

Pézenas

A lively market, a few church concerts, some exhibits, a pleasant town. A friendly store clerk told me about the bargains to be had in nearby villages and wrote down the names of a few he recommends as economical and appealing. But I didn’t hear Bali Hai beckoning me back.

Béziers

Was recently told it’s got a good orchestra, so perhaps I need to take a second look. Most of the town is quite sad. And while the iconic view of Béziers is historic buildings atop a hill beside a river, you really get no feel of that river from the town. The city side has a new shopping-cinema-office complex blocking any view, it’s just highway and no view. The far side is bare or ratty or industrial. People were kayaking and were jogging on an old bridge (I couldn’t figure out how to get to it, though), so there is some recreational activity, but all in all, a very quiet place. Decent Halles, and the neighborhood it is in is the nicer part of town. There are a couple of attractive parks in the center of town, and market days on a central alle.
Also, Béziers is the commercial capital of Hérault wine production, and Hérault wine is worth knowing!

Seen and dismissed:

Beaucaire and Tarascon

These towns opposite each other along the Rhone south of Avignon, each with an historic chateau, gave rise to hopes: before I visited. Tarascon seemed terribly rundown and sad. Beaucaire has a nice stretch of boat moorings on a canal-like inlet, but nothing else of interest that we could find.

Bédarieux

Some people find the countryside a bit outside town to be desirable, but I’m not looking for countryside, nor to be in the hills. The town itself was sad; even with its bit of river and a few art galleries and exhibition spaces, there was no convincing sign of life.

Uzès

An attractive town and apparently prosperous, yet with reasonable real estate. No river, I moan. It seems a pleasant place to just do your own thing, a place where lots of older folks hang out in sidewalk cafes and restaurants are hopping at lunchtime. But I felt no allure.

Too expensive for me, visited for tourist pleasure:

Arles

Bigger than I remembered it. Gorgeous stretch of the Rhone. Fun to visit, plenty to see, and concerts I wished I could have gotten to.

St Rémy de Provence

Tourist-shopping heaven, nothing else to me.

1 Comment

  1. avatar
    Karen Kingsley says:

    Love your travelogue will continue to follow your journey.
    Sounds great to be free of encumbrances and travel experiencing life in all its diversity!

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