A Sort of Homecoming

It is Tuesday, 3-Oct-2006. I am back in the Bay Area. I will write more this evening from home. I am back at work for the first time in almost 2 weeks. Nice to be back, but I am exhausted.

Thursday in Montpellier was the beginning of the end, weather-wise. Earlier in the week we experienced a couple days of spectacular weather: crisp and cool with pleasant breezes. Today the weather changed to humid and warm (not hot), with associated miserable sleeping conditions.

We visited the Pont du Gard (http://www.pontdugard.fr/), the famous aqueduct that was built by the Romans to carry water from Uzès to Nîmes, across was is now the Gard River. Amazingly, over the 50 km length of the aqueduct, the level the water drops from Uzès to Nîmes was only about 13 m!

The architecture and engineering of this structure, in the context of the whole aqueduct (surveying and construction) and the water distribution system in the houses and businesses of Nîmes was very impressive. At least as impressive (and easy to overlook) was the financing, logistics, (sub-) contracting, and other project management aspects that made it all happen, as well as the operational aspects of keeping a water system running, including collecting payments and/or taxes to fund the ongoing operations. I think that the Romans knew as much about plumbing as we do today (except that they didn’t know that lead was poisonous).

The drive to the vicinity of Remoulins was uneventful. The toll was € 3 as we expected. It was fun driving in a 130 km/hr zone (that’s about 81 mph!). The road is basically a straight shot from Montpellier through Nîmes and on to Remoulins. Walking to the Pont du Gard, put us on the East side of the Gard River, which is in Provence by some definitions. (Technically, I think that Provence officially begins on the East side of the Rhône River, which is a few miles further East of the Pont du Gard.)

After we got to the parking lot, we walked around the park and made our way up to the Pont du Gard itself, after which we walked across it and then continued toward the visitor’s center. It was very hot on that walk across the river and up to the visitor’s center. We were enjoying ourselves so much in the museum that we forgot the time and it ended up being about 18:30 CEST by the time we got to the car. I had to be up early the next day, and we didn’t want to have dinner too late, so we got on the road and got back to the hotel in under 45 minutes. While I was waiting for Deb to use the ladies’ room, I took the opportunity to call Philippe in Albuquerque.

The next day I got up and drove North to do my business in Sumène. Essentially the directions boil down to “follow the directional signs North toward Ganges and then to Sumène. The return was fun — basically follow the directional signs South toward Montpellier, then toward the Montpellier airport. It turns out that it is easy to lose your way, and we ended up on the wrong street.

BTW, I should mention that Deb was kind enough to get up early and drive up with me to be my co-pilot (these directional signs require as many eyes as you can muster to make sure you don’t take a wrong exit on a traffic circle!). She ended up driving the rental car down to Ganges and happened upon the Friday market day, then she drove a little further to Laroque for lunch (mussels).

Back to losing our way in Montpellier: Deb’s sense of direction helped get us close, and we found a magic tunnel that popped us out precisely at our hotel’s parking entrance, but I made a wrong turn and had to go around the block. I used this tunnel the next day, too (no wrong turn this time!), and the tunnel was — and is — something I don’t even want to question.

After being in Montpellier for a week, my simple recommendation is to take the trams and don’t drive. It’s simply too confusing. The biggest issue is that there are no street signs the way we think of them. They just don’t navigate turn-by-turn the way we do. There are directional signs at every intersection that list many possible destinations reachable if you take a given turn. So you can follow these signs to your destination if it is listed (!) and if you can read quickly enough. In a traffic circle, the key is to not take an exit unless you are sure — it’s better to go around again than to take the wrong exit.

That night (Friday) we had dinner at l’Entrecôte (http://www.entrecote.fr/), which is just off the Place de la Comédie, near the carousel. We were basically first in line, and it was a good thing…it was packed. Luckily we got a seat in the non-smoking section. The funny thing about this restaurant is that they only sell one thing, a sliced sirloin of beef in a delicious (and famous) mustard/olive oil/herb “sauce” and they pair it with French fries (the French don’t call them French fries). I had profiteroles with ice cream for dessert. We got a Faugère wine that was excellent. Another regional Languedoc wine.
There were some spectacular thunderstorms overnight early on Saturday morning. On Saturday I went to Sumène again, and it was bucketing down rain when I left Montpellier. On the way back, I found that the rental car’s roof leaked. Oh joy. Eventually I drove far enough (and fast enough) that the water was no longer pooling on the roof, which prevented further leakage on me. Luckily the weather broke and we were able to walk out into the old city to find dinner. ______

Sunday we had the day to ourselves and decided that rather than spending it in Nîmes we would just check out more of Montpellier while we were still in town. We had a nice dinner and then came back to the room to pack. It was kind of depressing. By the time we were done, we only had time for about 4 hours of sleep (really more like an extended nap) and it was really humid. Yuck. I was happy to leave that behind. We had a wake-up call at 4:15 a.m. CEST and got ourselves out of the hotel just after 6:00 a.m.

It’s only a 10 minute drive to the airport, but where is the rental car return? We had pathetic directions on the contract, and we needed gas, so we ended up taking WAY too long to get to the airport. We got sort-of lost and nearly missed our flight. And we couldn’t get gas for the car. No stations were open. I am sure we’ll pay a penalty for that. I was really frustrated by the lack of signage for rental car return. It turns out that you have to act like you are parking and after you make several turns there is a sign for rental car return. The lack of signage almost caused us to miss our flight, since we explored virtually all of the roads on the airport property until we found the right place to park the car. I have *never* seen an airport that had such poor signage, and I did not have any trouble with the fact that all the signs were in French. I can read well enough to know that there were no signs for rental car return.

At that hour of the morning there is no staff on hand at the car rental desk (not much different than when we picked it up, for that matter!), so we just dropped the keys and went to the check-in area. That’s where they said we were possibly too late for our flight. There was no other way to get to Paris CDG in time to catch our connection back to Philadelphia, so we begged to be allowed to check in for this flight. Luckily they allowed us on the plane. As we were flying to Paris, the sun rose through windows out the right side of the plane.

We arrived in Paris CDG in Terminal 2D, just as we had left from there. The baggage made it, and we first went to the same cafe where we ate before our flight to Montpellier on the 23rd. Just got a bit of breakfast (once we got attention from a waitress…) and then went to the pick-up point for the bus to Terminal 1. We had to wait for the second bus, and then we went to get in line to check in our bags for the flight to Philadelphia. Then we sat around and waited until about an hour before our departure time.

Notes to self:

Flying to Paris CDG
Getting around at CDG
Boarding flight to PHL
Flying to PHL
Immigration line(s) at PHL
Customs line(s) at PHL
Re-checking bags to SFO at PHL
Checking in to Terminal C at PHL (long walk!)
C27 is the last possible (furthest) gate in Terminal C 😦
Flying to SFO

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