Montpellier: Unicorns, spiderweb church, and floating dresses

Montpellier is the third largest city on the Mediterranean coast, which is to say, smaller than Nice (just as nice, though), and certainly smaller than Marsailles (which everyone in Paris will warn you is the crime capital of France).  But what does size matter? It's charming.

Oh, you see balconies? In Montpellier, balconies see you.
I spent an day exploring Montpellier, after my host friend had given me a map with her favorite parts circled. The city has enough going on, yet the center is navigable enough, that it is well suited to a scavenger hunt. I highly recommend it.

Here's the best parts of my scavenger hunt: 

1. A Church Converted to Modern Art!

I like churches as well as the next agnostic traveler with a love of architecture and shiny things. But sometimes I wish there were secular spaces with sweeping vaulted ceilings and an air of transcendence without the baggage of organized religion.

And lo! There are churches that convert. In Britain, some have been turned into bars. In Montpellier, Eglise Sainte Anne has been turned into a modern art gallery, Carré Sainte Anne. When I was there it was an installation called "After the Dream" by Chiharu Shiota.

postmodern ghosts and constructed spiderweb.

It was pretty surreal exhibit to walk through a space so occupied to webs of thin black threads that it was like a fog and eclipsed the stained glass and columns in favor white dresses flooded with light.

A postmodern commentary on the archaic nature of marriage and tradition
expressed as a dream of humanity, with the the supercutaneous flesh that is the air,
filled with fibres and the membranes of dreams. 

2. Creepy Child Riding an Unhappy Lion!

The Promenade du Peyrou is a lovely area where you can look at a guy on a horse and an octagonal building called Chateau d'Eau (eww). There is a nice overlook of the acqueducts. But more importantly, there is a creepy childmonster riding a lion that is not digging it.

Raw feeling in those lion eyes.
And fortunately, all that is right by the:

3. Arch of Miniature Triumphs!

Don't have time to drive around L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris? Save time and visit the miniature one in Montpellier! Note the scale against those shadowy people. It's the cute tiny version. Except this one is called Porte du Peyrou which was completed in 1693, so it's not actually ripping off Paris. Just the Romans.

Not to be arch, but I don't see the point of these structures.

4. Thing that I think is the back of a cathedral!

Wander around the old medieval looking part of the town and everything is completely different and old and medieval looking. This is a thing that looks old and medieval looking.

Monastery? Cathedral? Thing?

5. A Comedie of Errors!

A big focal point of the city is the Place de la Comédie, which is a big square with two things in it:

The Opéra Comédie
Comedically lit up at night.

And the Three Graces.
#nofilter #nomakeup #noshirt

6. Creepy Child Riding Unicorns

Let's be real, here. I saw a lot of Europe. But I didn't see enough unicorns. Unicorns are awesome. So Montpellier gets some major props for Fontaine aux licornes.

but it looks like they're doing it wrong.


Nice is nice

Nice boats.
Let's take a quiz: Why do you want to go to France?
  1. Drink all the wine? 
  2. Take in some culture?
  3. Go swimming in the Mediterranean? 
In Nice, you can do all of those things. Well, not so much the culture part. But you go there anyway! Since 4 million tourists visit each year, statistics indicate that you probably already have. 

Azure Coast? More like the Gris Coast.

On the Auzure Coast, Nice is Cannes' and Monaco's less glamorous neighbor. If you are looking for gorgeous old buildings and quintessential French feel, there are a few things to see in the old town. (It is a very old town--people have been living in Nice since the Lower Palaeolithic age!) But most of your wandering is going to be looking at the ocean of hotels and what appears to be a less than fully vibrant economy off tourist season.

But let's face it. You're not here for the buildings. You're here to drink wine and go swimming.

Or, in the shoulder season, stick to reading on the beach.

In Nice, you'll find a large expanse of beach with many many pebbles. Fortunately for your feet, the sea smooths all stones.

They put Brighton's Fruity Pebbles to shame!

The Mediterranean is warm late into the season when eastern Europe is frigid. I did successfully manage to go swimming in the middle of October, and I do not tolerate cold. But stand warned: the Mediterranean is very, very salty.

If you look back you will turn into a pillar of salt.
I feel sure it would look vibrant on a sunny day. You could admire the boats!

Boats! Located, predicatably, in water.

And you can climb Castle Hill to see some archaeological nonsense, and see some fine views of the port and city.

Admire the complete homogeneity of the government mandated color of rooftops in the city:

Except for that one rebel yellow.

So drop by Nice, it's a fine place to spend a beach day if you are heading east or west. Because pro-tip: it takes a lot longer to get from Florence to Barcelona than you plan for.


Florence & the Non-Machined Statues of Death & Stuff.

In Florence, there is a dome.

Size matters.

So do art skillz.
Florence values art. Some people visit and wax poetic about the ambiance for years to come. And they build it up. A lot. They'll tell you over and over just how much you'll love it.

And you will! Just as soon as you can get people to shut up about how great the city is.

but we'll burn that bridge when we come to it

If you happen to go to Florence, sooner or later you're going to see Michelangelo's  David. But if you don't want to pony up some cash to see the original, there are two fine copies around the city. One of the copies overlooks the city. 

And he has a pretty good view.

The other copy lives in the Piazza della Signoria. The Piazza is so full of statues you'll wonder if Medusa walked around checking out very active guys with sixpack abs. 

But then you'll see her severed head is looking at tourists instead.

Consequently, they stand frozen, taking pictures of statues. Especially the David.

No matter how you feel about David's weak crumbling ankles and souvenir sales of his anatomically correct boxer shorts, the statue says something. And that something is: hey Goliath, who's got five stones and is about to cut off your head? This guy.

But that's just one statue. Every statue in the Piazza tells a story. And pretty much all the stories are about brutal murder or rape. 

And thus is the true joy of Florence revealed: stone statues tell you stories instead of stoned tour guides!

And now we turn to...
The Top Five Violent Stone Statue Stories of Florence as Told by a Drunk Tour Guide!

Because one Xena isn't enough...
Pio Fedi, (1865) Rape of Polyxena, or, PG version, Phyrrus(Neoptolemus) and Polyxena
So there's this chick named Princess Polyxena, daughter of King Priam of Troy. (That Troy? Yeah, Italics, that Troy.) So one day, during this foreverlongwar, she's fetching water with her brother Troilus, when they run into this hot goldenboy Achilles, who is busy being the Great Hero of the army besieging Troy. Whoops. So Achilles promptly KILLS her brother and then starts moping around about the death of his bunk buddy/very close male friend Patroclus, who was also recently killed in battle. Polyxena pats him on the back and says, Oh Achilles, I, too, know what it is to lose people you care about, like, I dunno, maybe five minutes ago when you killed my brother? I get it, it sucks. Admiring her wisdom, and realizing he is down a lover, Achilles decides his best move is to convince Polyxena that he is a sensitive dude, so he tells her the sob story of his one true weakness. So she says oh, you're so deep and sensitive! Let's do next Tuesday. So then she goes home and has a chat with some of her other brothers:

Polyxena: You'll never believe it! A flaw! Achilles' heel--!
Paris & Deiphobus: Duh. He killed our brother and is besieging our city. We know Achilles is a heel.
Polyxena: He's not a--shut up. Achilles' heel is his Achilles' heel! You can KILL him with a poisoned arrow in his heel! 

So they do that.

Needless to say, ghost-Achilles is pissed, so he tells his son Neoptolemus that he is a failure of a son if he doesn't make the funeral a party. And to make it a party, all he has to do is sacrifice Polyxena on top of corpse-Achilles' grave. Neo says 'k, and he steals her away, because the Trojans are too accepting of horses. Since most of Polyxena's family is dead by this point anyway, she's all, fine, if you must. And her chastity is SAVED because, sitting on top of Achilles' tomb, she strategically rearranged her dress to make sure she won't flash the audience when they slit her throat and her corpse falls over.

The moral of this story is: you can bring a horse to water, but you can't prevent a bunch of Greeks from climbing out in the middle of the night and killing everyone.

2. Judith Beheading Holofernes!

Don't worry, Holo-man, you won't feel a thing, you drunk!
Donatello (Ninja Turtle) (1988 copy of 1460 work) 

So this Assyrian General, Holofernes, is roving about the countryside occupying the sea coast and destroying local gods on behalf of Nebuchadnezzar. Now, Holofernes has been warned against attacking the Chosen people that live in a city called Bethulia, so he immediately decides to attack the Chosen people in Bethulia. Holofernes rolls up to the town and says: If you're so chosen, how did I just cut off your water supply? Mwa-ha-ha-ha, motherfuckers! Consequently, the leadership of poor Bethulia gets together and has a council meeting along the lines of oh shit, we're going to run out of water in five days. Friends and neighbors, sorry, we're probably going to have to surrender. Unless we have a hero. The townspeople look awkwardly around for a hero. Judith, a beautiful widow of the city, stands up and clears her throat. The men roll their eyes and keep talking: And that will suck, because we'll have to bow to Nebuchadnezzer, who thinks he's a god. Judith rolls her eyes, and interrupts: come on guys, think outside the box. Or think inside the box. Or just about boxes, if you know what I mean. And we can put this General in a box. Council: What? Judith: Nevermind. Just calm down. I got this.

So Holofernes spends a day checking out the city to decide if it is worth capturing, crushing, or grinding into flour to make bread. But, being a well-rounded individual, the general is not too distracted by crushing to notice this hot chick making eyes at him. So Holofernes looks at Judith and he says hey lady, you should come by the camp later. I can pitch a tent if you know what I mean wink wink. And Judith is like, Oh, yes, Holofernes! But I hope you plan to pregame this thing. I know I will! So she spends a good half an evening putting on makeup and checking her watch to make sure she's arriving good and fashionably late, leaving poor Holofernes pregaming sad and alone in his tent until the moment she walks in, sex appeal up to her eyeballs. She instantly challenges Holofernes into a drinking contest with himself, and he readily agrees. Hours later, Holofernes is wobbling on his feet, and he turns to her and says Hey hottie, is that a sword in your skirt or are you just happy to see me? Then he promptly faceplants onto the bed/floor. So Judith heaves a huge sigh of relief that he was too drunk to get all handsy and compromise her honor. What a gentleman/drunk, she murmurs. Then she takes her sword out of her dress and cuts off his head. She gives it to an old woman servant to carry it to city council in a handbasket. And the city is saved! 

The moral of this story is: there's more than one way to get a head in life. 

3. Perseus Beheading Medusa!

Bad-idea soccer ball.
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa  (1545)
So there's this woman, Danae, who's cast into the sea with her Zeus-spawn son, Perseus, and they wash up on some island. Fast forward to Perseus being big and strong, and Polydectes, King of the island, demanding Danae to be his wife. Danae is all no, you're ugly and you smell. So Polydectes tricks Perseus into promising him the head of the Gorgon Medusa. And Perseus is like fine, whatever, I know you're just trying to get me out of the way, but my pride is too big to do anything about it. Now what is a medusa?

(Good question, Perseus. Basically an ugly chick with hair made of snakes and eyes that turn you to stone. There are some stories that Medusa and the gorgons sprang into being out of hate. Ovid prefers the more problematic version, in which Poseidon rapes the gorgeous Medusa in Athena's temple, which enrages Athena, so she turns Medusa's face stone-ugly and her hair to snakes. One might consider this victim-blaming and a misplaced punishment. However, this negative interpretation disregards how cool it would be to have hairsnakes.)

So Perseus goes out and quests and finds three old women with only one eye between them, and steals it when one is handing it to another. And he's like Listen up witches! Lead me to some nymphs that will give me stuff to defeat Medusa, or it's Ping-Pong. And they're like fine, we'll take you there, but seriously how can we see to walk? Somehow they all manage to get to the nymphs. He lets the old ladies go, and it's Christmas for Perseus. The gods got his memo, and he has to sit around for hours, unwrapping gifts from the gods. From Athena, a mirror-polished shield, Hermes, some cool shoes that fly, Zeus an adamantine sword and Hade's helmet of invisibility. Oh, and a bag to store the gorgon's head. 

So Perseus walks through a field of stone statues of men until he gets to the gorgon lair. He thinks a lot about what pose he would like to be as a statue, then wises up and starts walking backwards, using Athena's mirror. Perseus follows the sounds of snakes snoring to find Medusa sleeping, and decapitates her. Success! Win! And after this great act of heroism,everything continues to work out for male privilege Perseus. 

The moral of the story is: there's more than one way to get a head of snakes.

This was one block of marble.
Giambologna, The Rape of the Sabine Women (1574-82)

So there's this king, Numitor, who has a daughter named Rhea Silvia. Unfortunately for Rhea, her brother, Amulius, is a jerk, and kills all the king's male heirs and forces her to be a vestal virgin. But the god of war doesn't care, and bam! She's knocked up and gives birth to twins named Romulus and Remus. Unfortunately for Rhea, Amulius finds out. So Rhea's like but really, the gods made them you can't kill them. And Amulius is all watch me, I'm throwing them in the river! 

Unfortunately for Amulius, the babies wash downstream where they are picked up and nursed back to health by a lactating she-wolf and a friendly woodpecker. Then some shepards. But you can't keep royalty down, and the brothers decide they need to found a city. 

Romulus: Hey, let's found a city on Palentine Hill. 
Remus: That's stupid. We should found it on Aventine Hill. 
Romulus: It seems like I'll win this argument if you're dead. 
Remus: *dead* Yeah, probably.

So Romulus founds the city and Rome flourishes into being! Male refugees come from all over to join his army and glory in the burgeoning republic! But deep down, Romulus realizes that something is missing. 

Romulus: *sigh* Oh ghost-Remus, something is incomplete in my world. 
Ghost-Remus: Oh, what ever is the matter brother? Do you feel like you're all alone in the world. Like your other half is missing? I wonder why that could--
Romulus: You're right! I need a lady-friend. 
Ghost-Remus: Not really what I was getting at. I think you should admit you were wrong to--
Romulus: Yes, a lady-friend. I need a lady-friend. My citizens all need lady-friends. We'll steal some lady-friends from the Sabine tribe nearby. Thanks for your advice Ghost-Remus!
Ghost-Remus: *sigh*

And so Romulus and his posse of Romans abduct all these women from the Neptune Equester festival and offer them all the chance of honorable marriage. And everyone is happy, except for everyone that didn't really want to be abducted, and everyone that dies in the ensuing war.

The moral of this story is: nutritional deficits in wolf-milk just might leave children with some developmental impairments. 

A great example of "Torso Torsion" which would be a great band name.
Giambologna (1599), Heracles and Nessus
So...as near as I can figure, this fight didn't actually happen as seen above. It would have gone a whole lot better for everyone involved if Hercules had killed Nessus with a blunt object in single combat. Bloodless coup. But that's NOT what happened.

The problem was...so there's this Centaur, Nessus, who's kind of a jerk. One day Hurcules and his second wife Deianira decide to cross a river. Nessus, chillin nearby kindly offers to give them a ride. So he picks up Deianira and takes her across a river. And then tries to take her, across the river, if you know what I mean. Seeing this about to happen from the other bank, Hercules says nope, whole lotta nope, and shoots Nessus with an arrow tipped in poison from the Hydra. 

With his dying breath Nessus turns to his would-be victim and whispers: hey girl, I know I was about to ravage you and all, but you can trust me. As a reward for all of this, you can use my blood to make Hercules love you forever. And Deianira says: well, I guess it can't hurt to just keep some centaur blood around forever just in case. And that's not weird, because Hercules did the same thing with that Hydra poison. 

So they go on with their journey and the centaur's dead and everything's great. Fast-forward years or something. So Hercules is hot stuff, and Deianira knows this. So when she sees him making eyes at some other woman, she thinks, hey, I'd better put some Centaur blood on his shirt when he goes and hangs out with his friends today. And when he puts on the shirt he burns with poison and jumps into a fire and dies. 

The moral to this story is: Don't wear shirts. Shirts will kill you. 

6. The Common Man takes His Last Step!

One small step for mankind...
Chet Abraham (2011) Common Man

Ok, this is on a nearby bridge, not in the Piazza. But a suicide statue seemed to fit the list.

So once upon a time, there is a very common man who is full of angst and vandalizes street signs into clever pictures that make you rethink signs and symbols and space. But one day he decides, in a cubist and abstracted sense, that life isn't worth living, so he cleverly put this statue on a bridge without the permission of authorities, in a cry for help. Fortunately for him, the statue is rescued, because suicide and unwanted statuary are against the law. But everyone loved it, so the statue went right back up about to take that fatal step.

And to this day, the common man has failed to complete his suicide.

It's probably the only thing in Florence not based on myth.

The moral of this story is: contemporary art is too postmodern to convey narrative, which sucks for storytelling. 

So go to Florence. Enjoy the statues. It's an idyllic location to mull over this subtext of brutal history and death while you subsist on a diet of cannoli and gelato. Maybe, maybe, Florence can win you over despite the hype.

Afterall, it does have a river of fire.