We went to france!

A reconnaissance trip to our future home

In the “before times” we planned a July 2020 visit to Montpellier, France. Our European kids would join us at a lovely, large apartment for a week, where we would celebrate our daughter’s July 4 birthday and explore the city. That didn’t happen, of course, but as soon as France opened to Americans, we rebooked. Our kids couldn’t come, so we revised our plans to explore what we anticipate will be our future home. We had already retained Renestance, a “renesting” consultancy founded by a Californian expat who decided to share her acquired expertise, to help us plan and execute our move. 

We were beyond excited to get there and see the city we’d never visited but through research had decided was right for us. Our plan is to spend the first year there, traveling around France and the rest of Europe, before deciding whether and where to settle down. We had moved into our Seattle Airbnb just in time to “enjoy” the heat wave before boarding our plane.

Air France will not allow you to sleep on the floor!

We arrived Friday afternoon, grabbed an Uber, and quickly encountered our first problem: since our Airbnb was in a pedestrian-only area, the driver didn’t know where to drop us. So he just dropped us off by the highway! There we stood, two puzzled Americans dragging luggage, when a van pulled up. Turned out we were next to the police station, and the van guys work for the mairie’s (mayor’s) office. They spoke virtually no English, and my French is abominable, but somehow we managed to communicate via random words and gestures. These two lovely gentlemen spent the next half hour with us, taking our bags and leading us to a parking garage elevator that opened onto the pedestrian mall, then waiting with us, texting our host, until contact was made. Anyone who thinks the French are unfriendly has not traveled with us! We have only had wonderful experiences with French people–helpful, kind, and gracious every time.

The view from our Montpellier terrace

Our eighth-floor apartment was small, nothing fancy, but we had a lovely little terrace with a view. We quickly unpacked and headed to the nearby Monoprix to grab a few essentials. I needed body lotion so stopped in at the pharmacie, where I managed to misread the label and spend $60 by mistake!

Smells nice, but not worth $60!

We walked to the Place de la Comedie, the main square of Montpellier just around the corner, and stopped at one of the outdoor cafes for a quick dinner before an early bedtime. We had to stave off jetlag because the next morning we were meeting one of the Renestance consultants for a walking tour of the city!

Carousel at the Comedie

A Montpellier pigeon finishes its lunch.

The next morning we met our tour guide, Wim, at the Fountain of the Three Graces and proceeded to an outdoor cafe for coffee and The Perusing of the Maps. Wim gave us the lay of the land, explained the various Montpellier neighborhoods, and recommended some places we could happily live.  Then we proceeded to walk the city, seeing the sights, hearing stories, and learning about our soon-to-be-adopted city.

I love how the streets are decorated!

We saw monuments, fountains, statues, parks, and wonderful street scenes. We walked through an exceptional market where we will definitely be shopping. And we saw so, so much wonderful street art! Wim explained that Montpellier was founded by Protestants who didn’t like to display their wealth, so they installed very few windows in their mansions. Years later, many of these plain buildings were enhanced by trompe l’oeil “facades” that are fascinating, and sometimes disorienting.

On the right side of the building some of Montpellier’s trompe d’oeil art. It looks real, doesn’t it?

Montpellier reminded us of Paris in many respects, especially the Haussmann architecture, the plentiful and beautiful fountains, and the lovely squares. But it’s much smaller and easy to navigate, has lots of sunny days, and is close to both the sea and the mountains. Add the fact that it’s a university town (Nostradamus was expelled from medical school here!) and has lots of culture and frequent festivals, and you can see why we chose it unseen!

Isn’t this door knocker delightful?

An artist known as Monsieur BMX has installed these bikes in buildings all over Montpellier!

The next day we decided to visit the sea. Don’t call the Mediterranean Sea an ocean; that’s a rookie mistake! We took some time to figure out logistics but were successful taking the tram (free on weekends!) and then a bus. We got off the bus too soon so walked the rest of the way. It was hot, so we didn’t spend a ton of time there, but the beach was beautiful and lots of families were enjoying it–crabbing, swimming, and (topless) sunbathing. 

Fun times at the sea!

Part of the justification for this trip was our 40th anniversary. Since we no longer want or need “stuff,” we celebrate with experiences. And of course we needed a fine dining experience in Montpellier! We found that at le Lab, which came highly recommended by Wim. 

First course: I think it was an egg dish. Exceptional!

There is no menu at le Lab. French chef Rayan and his Philipino wife Katrina met in Dubai while working at a five-star restaurant, Wim explained, and now Rayan uses fresh local ingredients to create a multi-course feast, while Katrina hosts and recommends wines. We were seated in a lovely courtyard overlooked by a saint (yep, statue in a church). 

Second course; it had beans and croutons, and was delicious!

After selecting wines and enjoying an amuse bouche, the games began. Each course was spectacular! Rayan came out with each one and explained (in English!) what we were eating. I wish I had a menu, as I’ve forgotten much of it.

This dish was all about tomato–broth, foam, a “tomato”–and I think seaweed ash. My favorite!

Each dish was meticulously prepared, and it was mostly vegetable based. Unlike our experience with tasting menus in the US, we didn’t walk away miserably stuffed!

The only real meat course was veal, with carrots two ways and a delicious broth.

By dessert we’d finished a bottle of wine and ordered champagne for a celebratory dessert. Such an amazing and unforgettable meal! We’ll definitely be back.

Dessert! It was strawberry based but I can’t remember the details. Delicious, though!

The next day we were excited to meet with our Renestance team. Dennelle, Harriet, and Ann-lii were delightful and knowledgeable–and fun! We met at a lovely outdoor restaurant with a wine tasting program where we shared an excellent charcuterie board (cousin Karyl would be proud!) and an assortment of cheeses. It was so reassuring to know that they’ll be holding our hands throughout this transition!

Our Renestance crew! And an empty bottle of wine. . .

The next day we rose early to catch our train to Carcassonne. There we met another Renestance team member, Sarah, for a walking tour of that city. Carcassone is farther from the sea, closer to Spain, and much smaller than Montpellier, so we decided it would be wise to check it out as a possible alternative. 

Masked train travelers

Carcassonne, and Sarah, were wonderful! We enjoyed coffee before heading out on our walking tour. Carcassone is a small city, built around a beautiful central square. It’s best known for its medieval walled city, complete with ramparts, a castle, and tourist attractions. The Tour de France was coming through Carcassonne the next day, and the streets and entrance to the old city were decorated in anticipation.

Decorations for the Tour de France represented each of the jersey colors.

We climbed to the medieval Cite and enjoyed a leisurely walk through the shops. There were restaurants, a hotel, a gorgeous church, and grassy areas where activities for kids and adults were set up. Jousting? Pony rides? Archery? All is available.

The beautiful Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Cels

The tour was wonderful! Carcassonne has everything–beautiful architecture, a lovely central square, a Unesco World Heritage site–and Sarah shared that real estate prices are much lower than in Montpellier! We left thinking that perhaps we should consider spending our first year there.

View from the ramparts at Carcassonne

But the next day we were meeting new acquaintances from my Facebook “Americans in Montpellier” group. I had posted a note explaining our reconnaissance visit to the city and asking for recommendations of things we should see/do, and to my delight a couple of folks offered to meet with us during our trip! On our last day in Montpellier, we had coffee with Gwen and Tom, a retired couple from Arkansas who made the big move in the autumn of 2019. They rent a villa outside the old city center wth their cherished dog, and despite arriving just in time for the lockdown, they love their Montpellier life and haven’t looked back. They shared their experiences and advice, and we came away with plans to get together as soon as Phil and I make the move.

My attempt to capture a sunflower field over someone’s shoulder as our train raced to Carcassonne

Then we were off to lunch with Laurence, an early-retired professor who is French but spent many years living in the US. Laurence was a fountain of useful information, and she was especially helpful as we sorted out whether to spend our first year in Carcassonne or Montpellier. In the end, we decided on Montpellier when Laurence explained that less expensive rentals outside l’Ecusson (the old city) would offer more space and parking, with quick access to everything the larger city offers. 

In France, the ice cream treats wear feathers!

So that was our trip! We came away with more knowledge, new friendships, and more eagerness than ever to make a home in this beautiful city. Now we really must get serious about learning to speak French!

Leave a Reply