Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A buffalo in Montpellier

Trip to Aude, Hérault: Day 12
Evening of Day 11, we ended up in Montpellier. Last leg. Next day, it was to be back home in Lyon. Despite having a history of some sort, and a few assorted monuments in the city center, Montpellier is for the most part a dreary, featureless modern industrial city. So why were we visiting it? Ah-ha! That shows you haven’t read my novels. Because, if you had, dear friends, you would have known that Montpellier plays a major role in many of my novels. Of course I wanted to see it!
Montpellier first turned up in Perl and the Exploding Buffalo (Read the synopsis here). In Exploding Buffalo, I have a mad Indo-French cook called Faltoo Tamatar, an illegal immigrant, who inadvertently poisons a food critic and is on the run from the French police. He smuggles himself back to India in the hold of  a cargo ship, but the French police, in the shape of Inspector Depuis and Lieutenant Quand, come hotfooting after him. Montpellier makes a reprise in Perl and the Psychotic Mutant Space Cattle (read synopsis here), because this time, for reasons too complicated to explain, Faltoo attempts to smuggle himself back into France, to his old restaurant in Rue Du Mauvais Poisson.
When I was still fleshing out the plot of Exploding Buffalo, I wanted a French location. Any French location. So I took a map of France and plonked down my finger on it. It landed on Montpellier. As the novel took shape, and I turned Faltoo into an illegal immigrant, one who habitually smuggles himself aboard cargo ships and lives in a grungy, seedy cityscape, Montpellier started to look a less than optimal choice. Marseilles would have fitted the story better. But by then, it was too late. As Omar Khayyam once said: The plonking finger plonks, and having plonked, stays plonked. Nor all thy Piety nor Wit shall lure it back to unplonk. Nor all thy Tears make it budge an inch. But still, it wasn’t terribly bad as a choice. Montpellier has a lot of Algerian immigrants, some allegedly illegal, who live largely in the seedy immigrant banlieue of Mosson, and it is close to the harbor town of Sète.
Our first move was to the center of it all, the Place de la Comédie at the heart of Montpellier.

We had put up in an Ibis budget hotel in the outskirts of Montpellier. We hadn’t even tried looking for a quaint B&B in this town. We trundled over to Comédie in one of those wonderful multi-colored trams they have in Montpellier. You can see a bit of one in this pic.
Place de la Comédie does not play a big role in Exploding Buffalo, but there are several scenes here in Space Cattle. Here is the Montpellier bureau of Thomas Cook, at one end of Comédie, where the hapless Julian Cuthbert Farrington-Farrington is a British expat manager.
Perl becomes convinced that Julian Cuthbert is somehow mixed up in the musical cow business. She sets Depuis and Quand on them. D&Q start trailing Julian. This is about where D&Q would have parked their police car when they were casing the Thomas Cook office.
You might have noticed that Place de la Comédie is a pedestrian zone. BUT, I did see police cars moving about freely in the Place. Also, that location above is a kind of side street joining into Comédie, so D&Q would have had no problem stationing their police car here.
Place de la Comédie, or rather, one of its side streets, is also the location of Fleur de Lis Florists. When Faltoo smuggles himself back into France, he does so in a crate of roses, which lands up at this florist. I looked around for a florist. I found a whole series of them at the northern end of the Place.
But these were more like small kiosks. A much better candidate is down a side street from Comédie. You find this one if you walk down Boulevard Victor Hugo towards the Observatoire tram stop:
A trickier problem was Faltoo’s old restaurant, where he sells masala dosas in the guise of Crêpes de l’Inde. I describe it as situated in a seedy lane called Rue du Mauvais Poisson, which is lined with food kiosks run by Algerian immigrants to one side, and a blank brick wall on the other with drain pipes letting out onto the street. I state that this street is in the ‘immigrant quartier’. Now, Montpellier does have an immigrant quarter, as I noted above. It is called Moson, and is the western extreme of Montpellier. Blandine and I took a long tram ride to Moson. It turned out to be a rather dreary neighborhood with rows upon rows of featureless high rise apartments. There was a weekly open air flea market on that day in Moson:
There were one or two small, seedy restaurants, but nothing like a lane lined with food kiosks. I went into a largish enclosed market hall, which seems to be the main shopping center in Moson, but it was not appropriate either:
I stopped a gent with North African features, and asked him if he knew of a street lined with restaurants in Moson. He said I would find places like that only in the city center. Disheartened, I dragged Blandine back to the city center. Blandine, by the way, was acting like patience on a monument. She had no idea why I was so obsessed with finding the locations of my novels. We took a tram back. Since the tram winds through the city center, I kept my eyes peeled. And bingo, just before the tram arrived at Observatoire, I thought I caught a glimpse of something that looked interesting. I hopped out at Observatoire, pulling Blandine by the arm. I deposited her in a restaurant as it was way past lunchtime, and raced back the way the tram had come. I found not one, but several side lanes that more or less fit the description of Rue Du Mauvais Poisson. Here is the best candidate:
There you have it: narrow lane, food kiosks on one side, brick wall with drain pipes on the other. Only problem is that it is in the city center, and not the immigrant quarter. But, as with most small bistros I saw here, I don’t doubt that many of the people working in them are immigrants, as are, likely as not, their proprietors. I’m sure I could have found an even better candidate had I spent a couple of days exploring the inner city, but neither was that practicable, nor was I that crazy.
One last location in Montpellier, the Hôtel de Police, or municipal police headquarters. It isn’t far from Observatoire, and we had taken a tram there earlier in the day (on the way to Moson). It is a location for many, many scenes in both Exploding Buffalo and Space Cattle. It is home ground for police officers Depuis and Quand. It is where they have all the fraught conferences with their boss, Commissaire Napoleon de la Croix; where they interrogate suspects; and where they brood on the unfairness of life. It wasn’t difficult to find, it is marked in large letters on the tourist map, and there’s a tram stop nearby (the same tram line that goes to Moson). Here are a couple of pics of the place, which I took VERRRRY discreetly. I did not want some suspicious gendarme asking me what I was doing photographing the police headquarters.

Oh, and by the way, on the way in, we had also brushed past the harbor town of Sète. Faltoo uses this harbor to smuggle himself out of France in Exploding Buffalo. It is a short drive from Montpellier, virtually an extended suburb. Visitors are not allowed in the cargo terminal, and neither is one allowed to loiter outside. I took these photographs of the cargo terminal at Sète as Blandine drove past, as slowly as traffic would allow.

Well, that was the end of our trip to Aude and Midi. Right after lunch, we took a tram back to the hotel, where we had left the car, and Blandine floored the accelerator to get us back to Lyon in time for dinner.

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