Thursday, May 29, 2008

Beziers, France

Friends: I'd endured the exasperating muddle of Montpeilier's traffic clogged streets in year's past, so I gladly opted for the benign bypass around this Mediterranean metropolis. Even if it meant a few extra miles, it would still be a time and mind saver. After I was about half-way around the city I came to an intersection with only two options--to the city center or to a city in a direction opposite to where I wanted to go.

So I was subjected to another mini-nightmare of urban mayhem trying to navigate my way through a French city of windy streets and less than adequate road signs. But I was pleased to shortly find myself on a bike lane and not long afterward came upon a rack of rental bikes similar to those that were introduced with such resounding success in Paris last summer. They seem to be a hit in Montpelier too. I saw quite a few in use and always by someone with a broad grin, delighted to have the opportunity to be riding a bike and passing the bumper-to-bumper motorists. A brand new tram line was another measure city planners have taken to combat the menace of the automobile, though not to much effect so far. Not even gas at over ten dollars a gallon has inspired the car-bound to give up their addiction.

Though I have no qualms of sharing the highways with the cars, especially here in France where the locals are most accepting of the bicycle on their roads, I am looking forward to a little break from the exhaust and the noise. I will ride along the Canal du Midi starting here for 50 miles or so. The Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I will bypass Narbonne, a Tour de France Ville Etape, about 20 miles south of Beziers, waiting to visit it in July. I swung north a bit yesterday up to Nimes, which will be the arrival city for the stage that departs from Narbonne. Nimes is a moderate-sized city that has hosted the Tour quite a few times in its 100 year history, so it was no big deal to it. There were no banners hanging yet, heralding the Tour's arrival, nor had the Tourist office even hung the Tour's official poster or have any information out yet on the Tour coming to town. Still I was able to scout out the city and at least find the main boulevard where the finish will be held and the next day's stage will start. I also visited the city's famed 24,000 seat Roman amphitheater, built in the first century AD. Gladiators did battle there. Now it stages bull fights, just one of a handful of such places in France. Beziers is another.

I also made a slight detour on my way to the Pyrenees to visit the small town of Baux-de-Provence, about 30 miles before Nimes. It was there that bauxite, which is what aluminum is made from, was discovered in 1821. Bauxite took its name from this town. I was curious to see what memorials there might be to its discoverer. I expected a statue of the man and a plaza at the least in his name. But the only acknowledgement of the town's relation to bauxite was a small, discreet plaque in the tourist office. The small town is much more famous for having a thousand year old fortress complete with huge catapults atop its rocky hilltop. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Provence, totally dominating its bauxite roots. The last bauxite mine closed in 1989 and none are available for tours. Nor is there is a bauxite museum, though there have long been plans to develop one. The French have museums for anything and everything from the mundane to the renowned all over the place. That bauxite, a French discovery, doesn't have a museum is quite an oversight, a virtual national scandal.

As I continue to decompress from twelve days of non-stop cinema and continue to digest the 75 movies I saw, there is only one movie that I am truly sorry I missed. It was the French film "Welcome to the Land of Shtis," which played in the market. It had been in release in France for several months and as the Festival wound up surpassed "Titanic" as the most popular movie in French history, not only in money made but in the number of tickets sold. Over 20 million people, about a third of the country's population, have seen the movie. Its popularity wasn't the cause for my regret, but rather a still from the movie that accompanied the story of the film's success showing two French postal workers astride the yellow clunker postal bikes racing one another. Until then I hadn't realized that the film featured a bicycling postman. The film's description in the program just said it was about a postman who requested a change of location and was most reluctantly sent from the balmy south of the country to its inhospitable northwestern quarter. When the bicycle photo ran, the film no longer had any screenings. Word is that Hollywood is already working on a remake.

Later, George

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