Thursday, November 24, 2011

Under Pressure

It had to be a Queen title for this post. As I announced over lunch (somewhat killing the sunny vibe), this week marked twenty years since the death of legend Freddie Mercury. More pertinently, however, ‘under pressure’ is probably the best way to describe the Erasmus students of Montpellier at the moment.

I haven’t blogged recently as we have presentations, dossiers and exams to prepare for left, right and centre. However, surviving abroad isn’t all about opening bank accounts, picking courses and passing exams. It’s also about embracing all the things there are available to you in the city that will be your home for at least four months. So in this post I will mainly be trying to cheer everyone up by talking about all the excitement Montpellier has on offer.

For all our complaining about the poor administration of the city and the frankly ridiculous exam system of the university, day-to-day Montpellier offers us everything from cultural places to good drinking establishments. For those seeking a bit of culture, or something to show the parents, the Musée Fabre displays works from classical sculpture to modern art, with constantly changing exhibitions and events, and is free to students at Université Montpellier III (Paul-Valèry). Montpellier’s cathedral, whose architecture is spectacular, boasts a stunning interior and, despite having sustained damage in the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, was rebuilt and remains a central part of the historic city. If you’re seeking a quiet corner to soak up the Mediterranean atmosphere, the place to go is the Jardin des Plantes, the oldest botanical garden in France.

For the more energetic people, there is no better way to take in Montpellier’s real beauty than by heading to the viaduct, or alternatively the helipad at the top of the Corum. Both offer stunning panoramic views over the city and towards the mountains. When you feel like there’s nothing you’d like better than to fly home to England, watching a sunset from the Corum with a group of friends and a bottle of wine is the perfect way to remind you of just how lucky you are to be in the south of France.

Montpellier manages to offer not only mountain views, but beaches as well – 15 minutes away on the bus, there is the Grande Motte and Palavas les Flots, both beautiful beaches which are perfect for a Sunday afternoon lounge in the sun or swim in the sea right until the end of October. And if you want a bit of excitement, Palavas has a bull-running event at the end of September which is worth checking out for a bit of local culture! Being in the Med is such a hard life.

If you’re more interested in the natural world, the zoo is the place to be. Free of charge, and spread over a vast space, it houses animals from all over the world in large natural environments – and if you can’t get close to the animals themselves, there’s also wooden sculptures of them which provide an excellent play area for 20-something students to run wild. The Serre Amazonienne costs only €3 for students, and is a tropical paradise to wander round. And the tarantula is hidden round a corner, so you only have to see it if you go looking for it (I didn’t.). On a rainy day, the zoo’s alternative is the aquarium, out at Odysseum. At €12,50 for students, it’s more expensive than the majority of the city’s attractions, but offers everything from penguins to sharks and is well worth checking out.

Odysseum is found at the end of tramline 1, and is frankly an odd place. Absolutely huge, it comprises a shopping centre and numerous activities spread out over two tram stops, here including bowling, go-karting, a cinema, an ice-rink and a planetarium, all of which cost students about €4 - €10. Be warned, there is an arcade by the bowling alley, so we spent considerably more while bowling than we’d intended, due to several vicious air-hockey games. After you’ve worn yourself out indulging in all the activities you haven’t done since the age of 12, you can head to Tommy’s Diner, a neon pink American restaurant, where you listen to classic rock’n’roll, eat proper American burgers and feel like you’re in Back to the Future or Grease.

And so finally I come to what is arguably the most important aspect to all student readers – the nightlife. The place to start would be where we started – Estivales. Running along the Esplanade every Friday night from July – September, Estivales is a soirée which promotes local produce, from wine and food to clothing and jewellery. If you buy a glass for €3, you get three glasses of local wine, and with the Esplanade lit up and live music until midnight, it’s a weekly summer street party. And now it’s November, we’re awaiting the opening of the Christmas market next week, which will run every day from the 3rd December until Christmas itself.

In terms of pubs and clubs, be warned – beer is extremely expensive over here! Wine is much cheaper, but all in all if you’re heading out for the night, you’ll want to find good happy hours, which often still only reduce the prices to what we’re used to in England. The Rebuffy is a great pub to go to as it feels very French, is in a nice little square, offers a wide selection of board games, and has very good wine for very little money!

Of course, the highlight of every week is the pub quiz at the Shakespeare. Every Tuesday we arrive early, grab a table and play overly-competitive card games or Trivial Pursuit until the quiz starts. In fact a few weeks back we threw off the clearly unlucky shackles of team name Quizteama Aguilera and stormed to victory as Quizpy Fried Duck. Unfortunately we haven’t managed to repeat that success yet, but we’re still flying a pretty respectable quiz flag for the UK and savouring our win (shame we didn’t savour the first-place bottle of whiskey).

So while we feel the pressure of the looming exams, the cultural and social benefits here are second to none. And if you’ve really exhausted everything Montpellier has to offer, there’s always brilliant train connections to various French cities for relatively low prices (get the 12 -25 railcard) I’m heading to Paris for the weekend, then coming back just in time for the Christmas market. Sure there’s pressure...but there’s also the fact that you’re living in France. Make the most of it.

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