If there’s a city in France that can offer more in the way of enjoyment, relaxation, places to visit outside the area than Montpelier, then I have yet to find it.
Known as the sunshine capital of France because of its 300 sunny days per year, Montpelier lies just 11 km from the Mediterranean coast and has its own wide sandy beach within an easy tram ride.
Montpelier combines recent history and old-fashioned elegance with a youthful feel, mostly due to its large student population and its university. It had the first medical school in France at which Nostradamus and Rabelais studied and is a delightful mix of old buildings in the centre, and major new-age industries in modern buildings around the edge. Lovely beaches are nearby at Palavas-les-Flots. What more could anyone want?
As easy town to get around, the places listed as ‘must-sees’ are more or less grouped together, the Place de la Comédie, the Peyrou garden, the Charles de Gaulle esplanade, t the Arc de Triomphe,.and the Saint-Roch church, all on the well-trodden tourist route. However, like European capital cities such as London, Madrid, or Paris, the city abounds with special neighbourhoods with individual identities, some specialising in artisan work, some in antiquities and others devoted to food and wine. Their social mix gives them a fascination lacking in other towns in the region.
The centre of the action and the beating heart of the pedestrianised centre is the Place de la Comédie. During the morning there is a market at one side of the Place where the local farmers set up stalls and sell fresh fruit and vegetables: off to one side of this is the flower market, a static garden of jewel-coloured blooms and plants. During the season an old-fashioned carousel is stationed at the other end of the square near the Opera House (a useful place to arrange to meet someone as is the statue of the Three Graces). In the middle of the square street artists demonstrate their talents as magicians, living statues, cycle gymnasts, mime artists and break dancers. Passengers coming from the St. Roch railway station with their wheeled luggage skirt around them as they dodge the colourful trams that glide over the yellow paving while students watch from the nearby cafes, their books open before them.
The large student population makes it a lively spot all year round and gives the city a buzz. The cafés, bars, and bistros in the pedestrianised city square which spill out onto the street are one of the attractions of Montpelier and it can be difficult to find a table at certain times. One of the busiest cafés, the Café Riche, is also the most popular and dominates the square with a grand awning bearing the name and date of its foundation.
Couer de Bouef Tomatoes – a Speciality of the Region
The Montpelier region is known for its local produce, its excellent wine, its fine dining and its farmers’ markets. It has 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in addition to other excellent eating places and bistros. Being right in the heart of the Languedoc, the opportunity to sample the luscious wines of the region as well as those of nearby Roussillon shouldn’t be missed, and tastings at nearby vineyards are easy to arrange.
The old town with its medieval narrow streets is lined with upmarket boutiques and antique shops interspersed with restaurants and typical houses of the area fronted by private courtyards, a world that sits quite comfortably with cutting-edge design and architecture in other parts of the city. Check out the mock-Gothic Pavilion Populaire and compare it with the modern, glass-clad town hall. Even transport gets into the act, with designer trams from the hand of no less than Christian Lacroix!
Wander along Rue Foch, a road carved through medieval Montpellier to the Arc-de-Triomphe, a glorious golden stone arch which could only be in France and which was built to honour Louis XIV. Just beyond this point, you will come upon the king mounted on a horse on the magnificent Peyrou Promenade.
Antigone is Montpelier’s new modern part of the city, is located to the east of the historic centre and is the biggest single development to be built in France. This extraordinary development which extends the city to the banks of the River Lez, has been designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and was completed in the 1980’s.
As it’s name implies, the area is based loosely on the architecture of Ancient Greece and a further link is apparent in the boulevards with names like Rue de L’Acropole and Rue de Thebes that open out and lead you into large squares with names redolent of famous Greek events, like Place de Marathon and Place de Sparte. The neoclassical design of the buildings, the sculptures, and the layout, are dramatically different to the architecture of the old town, and although on a larger than life scale, it is all well proportioned.
At the end of the Antigone district is the Place de Europe, a huge semi-circular area with a crescent of buildings. On the other side is the River Liz adding to the drama of the site and on the opposite bank the ‘Hotel de Region’ also built in the neo-classical style.
The fishing port of Palavas-les-Flots is worth a trip even if it’s only for a bowl of mussels served with chips (French fries to some) or garlic and herb breads in any one of the ways in which they are served here. The port is making great efforts to turn itself into a seaside resort but despite the attempts of the many boat owners to entice you aboard for a sea trip, a fishing trip or a tour around the lagoons, it remains firmly a place to visit for its great food. Bars, bistros, and ice-cream parlours line the central canal and you can walk a few miles along the spit of land to the medieval Maguelone cathedral which stands between sea and lagoon.
Best Guide Book
Montpelier and Beyond Travel Guide is a pocket guide to the best of Montpellier, written by two award-winning travel experts Donna Dailey and Mike Gerard and published by the team behind the successful Beyond London Travel. Available from Amazon as an e-book or a download for Kindle.