Saturday, September 21, 2013

Excursion à Aigues-Mortes et Gard-du-Roi

Samedi, 21 septembre.

Although there are several things I don't miss about the orientation pre-stage (including the oppressive heat and the sincerely ugly Triolet dorms), I do miss our weekly excursions -- a little bit of history, a little bit of sun, and enough walking to make you want to sleep on the way home. But because the end of our first month in France called for a celebratory adventure -- and because Molly and I have seen just about all there is to see in Montpellier at the moment, we decided to take our own little excursion this weekend! On the agenda: the village of Gard-du-Roi and the city of Aigues-Mortes.

Because a direct bus to Aigues-Mortes wouldn't get us to the town till noon, we decided to leave Montpellier early and stop for an hour or two in one of the smaller seaside towns on the way ... and thus our trip to Grau-du-Roi was born! Grau-du-Roi, which means something along the lines of "king's bayou" in Occitan, is a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast that doesn't have a whole lot of remarkable attributes. (Although Hemingway did describe its "long beach and fine fishing port" in one of his novels.)  But, naturally, since it's a small fishing village on the Mediterranean, it doesn't need to be remarkable because it's inheritantly incredible. 

We only had a few hours in the town before catching the next bus to Aigues-Mortes, but it was the perfect amount of time to meander around town, take photos, and buy some souvenirs! The town was hopping, even in September, so I can't imagine how crowded it must be in peak tourist season.

Before hopping back on the bus, we took a quick snack break at one of the most overwhelming patisseries I've been to yet! There were dozens of pastries and cakes, not to mention all the viennoiseries (a more bread-like pastry than includes croissants, pains-au-chocolat, and brioches). I eventually settled on an itty-bitty mini chocolate gateau -- only 1€ and all kinds of yummy. The perfect treat for someone who may or may not have overslept and not had time for a real breakfast!

Grai-du-Roi was fun, but by the time we got back on the bus, we were all ready for the main attraction -- Aigues-Mortes. The town, which is famous for the massive stone walls that encircle it, was actually believed to have been first founded in 100BC! It wasn't until the 13th century that the stone walls were built, however: King Louis IX of France (the future Saint Louis) bought the land from the Abbaye de Psalmodie so he could have direct access to the Mediterranean. Aigues-Mortes became the official port of entry to the Kingdom of France and it was Louis IX's departure point for the 7th and 7th Crusades.

Aigues-Mortes isn't as well-known as other walled cities, including its much larger neighbor, Carcassonne (located to the southwest of Montpellier). But Aigues-Mortes is unique because, unlike Carcassonne, its ramparts are still in their original, unrestored condition! And boy, are they breathtaking. If you're not already sitting down (which you probably are, since you're bored on the computer and reading this blog), you might want to, because you're about to get hit with a whole lot of awesome!

I'd read that the best view of walled cities is always (somewhat inconveniently) from the outside. So after getting off the bus, our first order of business was to walk along the ramparts to just outside the city so we could get a picture of the whole thing! If you want to really get the gist of it, you should check out the pictures on the official website.

After our impromptu photoshoot outside the city walls, we moved to the inside of the city, which was -- if possible -- even better. We walked along the ramparts and took photo after photo of the beautiful town. My favorite part? All of the tiny (me-sized!) doorways. Of course I had to take a picture!

Although we would have all been content to wander around the town, shopping and eating ice cream, the coolest part of Aigues-Mortes is that you can actually climb up and walk around on the ramparts! Although it usually costs a couple of Euros to enter and take a tour, our student IDs got us in for free. (In fact, I'm pretty sure I can get into just about any national monument for free with this sucker ... Europe loves their students!)

Our first stop was the Tour de Constance, built by Louis IX to replace the ancient Tour Matafère (which had been built by Charlemagne in the 8th century). The tower was originally used as a guardtower, but it later became a prison -- first for Templar Knights in the 14th century and later for Huguenots (French Protestants) in the 17th century.

Although this hole in the ground was originally used for food storage, it quickly became a dungeon. There was no way out except through the ceiling, which could only be accessed by a ladder. Too creepy not to share!

In fact, a lot of the tower's little features could be described as pretty creepy -- from the narrow passageway around the second floor to the metal grate that covered what I'm pretty certain used to be a medieval toilet!

It was definitely a relief to get to the top of the tour and be surrounded by bright daylight again ... haha and the panoramic view of town wasn't half bad! I did, however, run into a little problem when I walked over to the edge to take a photo...

See the problem? No? Maybe we'd better zoom out a little bit...

The wall was as tall as my head! After laughing -- and taking a photo to document my absolute failure at being a normal-sized person -- I was able to find a better view. And thank goodness I did, because look how absolutely incredible it all was. From the top of la Tour de Constance, it's possible to see the outline of the whole walled city ... and you can even see Pic Saint-Loup, the mountain just outside of Montpellier!

After climbing the tower, we kept exploring along the ramparts. The walls that surround the city are just over 1500 meters long, but there were different towers with exciting exhibits each couple hundred meters! We all loved being able to peek over the ramparts and see down in to the streets we'd been walking through all afternoon -- everything looked so much more peaceful from 20 feet aboveground! (Maybe that's why tall people always seem so relaxed about life.)

At the end of the day, we hopped back on the bus, waved goodbye to Aigues-Mortes, and headed home to Montpellier. And, just like our orientation trips, I napped the entire way home. (Sorry, gorgeous countryside, but you can't compete with the inside of my eyelids.)

And do you want to know the absolute best part of the whole thing? The entire trip (three buses) only cost 4€80! That's right -- under five euros for a whole day of adventuring! And naturally, we put all the money we saved on transportation towards sandwiches and ice cream. When in France, right...?


  1. Awesome photos! What an adventure! Proud of you American girls!
    Love, Mommy

  2. So beautiful! Jealous of your amazing adventures! :) Love you!