The Montpellier Danse festival pulled us to Montpellier once again, especially since last year’s performances had been, understandably, cancelled.

We had bought train tickets to and from Montpellier. But, a few days before departure, our friend Jef said that he was going to drive to Montpellier that morning, and wouldn’t we prefer riding with him?

It’s about a 90-minute drive. He was going to pick up his daughter, Anastasia, who lives in Montpellier with her mother; they were going to attend an orientation meeting at Anastasia’s new bi-lingual high school. We couldn’t say no!

Montpellier can be very hot this time of year, but we were lucky to find a beautiful temperate summer day. The four of us arrived mid-morning in the center of historic Montpellier — with some time to sit at a café and enjoy a fresh beverage. The pleasure was simple: A little time with Jef and Anastasia (who is a charming, intelligent 14-year-old, with a great sense of humor — in three languages!) out at a café in a nice French city. Just watching people go by kept us happy.

Our plan was for Jef and Anastasia to go to their meeting; we’d use the time to drop our bag at the hotel around the corner, Le Metropole… 

Then we’d rendezvous at one of our favorite comfort-food restaurants for lunch: L’Entrecôte.  I have probably described this place before. It is simple: just a little green salad to start; then generous portions of frites and thinly sliced beef, swimming in the restaurant’s secret sauce. Your only decisions are how you want the entrecôte cooked, what to drink (some red wine is a nice choice), and, if by any chance you have room after the steak and frites, which dessert from their extensive menu (we consider the frites dessert, thank you very much). When we mentioned L’Entrecôte to Jef and Anastasia, Anastasia lit up with an enthusiastic, “Oui! Je l’adore!” 

L’Entrecôte doesn’t take reservations, so part of the experience is waiting in line in front of the restaurant before it opens. Standing in the growing line, we chatted easily on this nice day. Suddenly Jef excused himself to check on something at the front of the line. When he returned, he explained. The current Covid rules require restaurants to collect the names and contact information of all the customers. If anyone at the restaurant turns out to have a case of Covid, the restaurant notifies everyone there at that time. While this wouldn’t be a good development for anyone, for Mike and me, it is not difficult to get tested and isolate at home if needed. But for Jef, the situation is much more challenging. He and his partner Valérie were scheduled to open their newly relocated business in Le Puy en Velay (blog post soon!) during the following week. Since they work with the public, in the case of a Covid infection, the government requires them to shutter their business for 21 days. This would be a disastrous start to this phase of their professional lives.

So, Anastasia, Mike and I took a deep breath. We all thought, “It’s just a restaurant. It’s much more important to spend time together at some outdoor café. We can go to L’Entrecôte any time.” Which was all true. Even if the steak and frites kept calling. Fortunately, we found a tiny outdoor Vietnamese restaurant instead. Three Vietnamese grandmothers took our order — the special noodle dish of the day –, prepared the bowls, and served us. A pivot from steak and frites, but good, yes?

Jef had grown up in Montpellier, and had worked in the city for many years. Before heading back to Carcassonne, he wanted to show us around his old neighborhood, the historic center known as the Écusson (from a word for a heraldic shield, because of the shape of the plan of the district). The history of Montpellier as a town goes back to the 10th century. While many medieval and renaissance buildings still exist in the Écusson, 19th-century Hausmannian buildings give a feeling of a sunny Paris here in the south of France.

Ancien Amphithéatre Saint Come, which was built in 1757 for surgery students. The rotunda holds a hall for anatomy and dissection instruction. However, the reason we stopped here was for Fitz-Patrick’s Irish bar — a place that Jef enthusiastically frequented.
Église Saint-Roch de Montpellier. Unfinished 19th-century church containing bone fragments of St Roch. St. Roch is the patron saint of Montpellier, of plague victims in the 14th century, and pilgrims.

We weren’t in Montpellier just for the history and culture. Well, commercial culture. After months of covid confinement, we obsessed about going shopping — in person, not online! We have to admit that one of our favorite shopping stops is the Uniqlo store. Global capitalism, we know; but we often find fun basics here, like T-shirts, shorts and jackets. The store fills the upper floors of the renovated central market, the former Halles Castelane. Market stands for local produce, cheese and meat products still occupy the street-level of the building.

The dance performance on our first night was Transverse Orientation by D. Papaioannou  The performance hall, Opéra Berlioz at Le Corum, is vast and coldly corporate, from the 1980s. However, the sight lines are excellent, even from our seats far back in the hall. Because of covid, every other seat was left empty. If a couple tried to sit next to each other, an usher would rush over and insist that they stay separated by an empty seat.

While the performance was part of the dance festival, it turned out to be more a piece of performance art. Slowly and deliberately, figures and props and performers would compose tableaux of cryptic significance. One of the best parts was a huge mechanical bull that, at first, seemed like the real thing; how could the performers keep it under control? Also notable was the habit of the performers to take all their clothes off, dance and pose and contort, and then put at least some of the clothes back on. By the end, the novelty had worn off, and we were more than happy to escape into the warm summer night…

…and back to L’Entrecôte. We had both noticed earlier in the day that the last service in the restaurant was at 10:30 pm. We hadn’t eaten dinner because French dining hours exactly overlap with French performance hours. Hungry, and still obsessed with our favorite steak and frites, we hustled through the esplanade and the Place de la Comédie to the restaurant. Even at 10:15, there was a short line waiting for tables. With evil eyes, we tried to evict the diners who insisted on lingering over their cups of coffee. At 10:27, the hostess showed us to our table. Even this late in the evening, we giddily savored every slice of entrecôte and every hot frite. Admittedly, we both had the weirdest dreams that night.

The next day, we wandered around the city, checking out boutiques along the winding historic streets. But our main objective was, as always, our next meal. We again were returning to a favorite: Umami, La Cinquième Saveur (the Fifth Taste), a tiny Korean-French fusion restaurant. The chef, Amélie Young Min, creates beautiful flavorful food from a minuscule kitchen.

To survive the shutdowns of the pandemic, Chef Min developed a take-out service. Take-out evolved into a new boutique next to the restaurant, where we found her prepared dishes in refrigerated cases, as well as products from Korea. As we were looking around and talking with the salesperson, Chef Min popped in. We were all eager to chat — we to complement her on her restaurant, she to sell us her products! She energetically and somehow elegantly provided us tastes of aged Korean soy sauces, Korean honey and yuzu “tea” (like liquidy orange marmelade), and gochiujang pastes (chili pastes). We left with a heavy shopping bag.

In early evening, we stopped at an outdoor café for a fresh drink before the evening’s performance. It was another lovely summer evening with a relaxed breeze. The drinks weren’t anything special. The pleasure came from doing nothing outside, under the trees, watched over by the elegant buildings.

The stately Opéra de la Comédie was tonight’s venue for The Brutal Journey of the Heart by S. Eyal/G. Behar, Isaeli choreographers and dancers. We love going to this theater just for the grand atmosphere. 

By the time we had bought the tickets, there were only a few seats left (thanks in part to the 50% capacity requirement). Our only option was one of the upper boxes on the side of the hall.

Sounds grand, our own box, but in reality it was a partial-view location. A few minutes before the start of the performance, a couple arrived in the box immediately to our right, between us and the stage. The man of the couple sat right next to our box and leaned his whole chest on the rail; his big head blocked half the stage for the entire performance. He probably tail-gates when he drives, doesn’t use his turn signal, and doesn’t pick up his dog’s poop. At least that’s what I kept thinking. I watched the entire performance standing up behind Mike, looking over this monsieur’s head. Which, honestly, wasn’t that bad, because this night, the dance performance was really dance. Beautiful, creative, energetic, and whimsical — exactly what we came here for.

au revoir de Montpellier!

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