I wasn’t going to write for a while because it seems like anything I could say would be frivolous during these historic, scary, and sad times. And it is and will be, but I’m writing anyway because there are still and always will be delights, and delights should not be ignored or given short shrift, especially now. The bad doesn’t and cannot erase what is good and it would be wrong not to notice. I’m still going to look at the world with wonder, even if it’s difficult right now. Compassionate misery doesn’t change anything, it just adds to misery.
In uncertain times, I take comfort in history and I’ve realized why: the outcome is known. It feels inevitable because it is what happened, written in stone as it were. That’s the difficulty of now, we are watching things quickly change by chance and by chaos, by competing factors all too multiple to predict or track. I want to flip to the end of this chapter and see how it turns out, but we have to go a page at a time.
We’ve recently came to the end of the Covid confinement chapter in France. During the period in between, when we were accorded some new liberties but not all restrictions were lifted, our friend Debra arranged a private guided tour of the historic center of the city with her friend Sylvie, who is an official tour guide. Not only would Sylvie give us the history of the sites we’ve often walked by, but she knew how to open doors to get behind the facades.
Montpellier is unusual for the region in that it doesn’t have Roman roots. The nearly town of Lattes, which is now a kind of nondescript suburb was a major port, as was Narbonne. Nîmes and Beziers were also major Roman towns. The area that became Montpellier was too far from the sea and too far from the Roman road to be settled. The town of Montpellier began in the 10th century when the Guilhem family was granted land. It has an intact medieval center with very few modern buildings. They’ve all undergone changes over the centuries, but the winding, circular streets, which make for such delightful getting-lost meanderings, remain the same. The pattern of streets aren’t easily changed unless you’re Baron Haussmann (he who overhauled Paris) and willing and able to raze. I’ve heard multiple theories as to why medieval cities were laid out in such a way: it kept the streets cool and shaded in the summer heat, or that it was for defense because armies couldn’t easily move in and maneuver. Both are true, but they’re effects rather than causes. The reality is organic and not a result of early urban planning. The first building was always a tower, castle or church. The streets then grew up surrounding those structures and expanded from there as the population grew. The original centerpieces are often missing, but the streets are now as permanent as anything could be said to be.
As the town grew and prospered, the newly affluent merchants updated the facades of their unfashionable medieval houses. There wasn’t the idea of historic preservation back then, but the constraints of rebuilding stone means we can still see medieval traces.
In the 18th century, this was a private residence that was originally 2 houses. The updated exterior hides a modified medieval interior. It’s funny to think of 18th century as updated and new.
Sylvie explaining the interior changes which included the addition of this grand staircase.
Before the 18th century when an aqueduct was built, fancy houses had private, spring-fed wells.
The 18th century aqueduct
A spring-fed fountain
Behind this nondescript door..
is this excellent staircase leading to a tower
As the town grew, so did its transportation needs. This building’s corner was cut out to accommodate carriages. The scallop shell design reflects Montpellier’s status as a stop on the pilgrimage route. It was in fact a crossroads. Turn right, and you’re on the Spanish Compostelle route, turn left to go to Rome.
Just as all roads don’t lead to Rome, not every update is historic
Hope you are all as well as can be. May you find a delight or two in this world