ontpellier, capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, used to be France’s twenty-fifth biggest city; today it is its eighth. And while its currency as a place of popular resort is comparatively recent, its heritage dates from 985, when the city was founded at an advantageous position at the crossroads of the Roman ‘Via Domitia’, the salt road a little to the south, and the ‘Cami Roumieu’ taken by the pilgrims bound for Compostela.
Today, Montpellier is envied throughout France as a centre of intellectual excellence, and, while it may be an excess of Corbières that colours my judgement, the students of Montpellier do seem to have a more focused, studied air than those of, say, Toulouse. Montpellier was less than 200 years old when Guilhem VIII declared that anyone regardless of religion or origin had the right to teach medicine in Montpellier: Enter the Faculty of Medicine at the end of the 13th century, and still the oldest active medical school in the western world. It was at the Faculty that Rabelais, writer, doctor and Renaissance humanist, is said to have found inspiration for the scenes of drunkenness that fill the lives of students in his Pantagruel. As Rabelais was a student here himself in 1530, it might be supposed that his descriptions are based more on fact than fiction.
The cosmopolitan end-product, if what you seek is a vibrant, energetic multi-cultural city, is a delightful mélange of ethnicity and traditions made all the more effervescent by the seasonal influx of students. Inevitably, cultures far and wide have contributed to the city’s growth. There were Arabs here, and a significant Jewish quarter, although there is little evidence of this today except for a few street names, a Jewish bath-house found when building work was being undertaken for a new shop, and the former Jesuit building that now houses part of the Fabre Museum – see interior image (right).
The Three Graces are at the centre of the Egg
It ought to be self-evident, but by all accounts isn't, that living in a city is noticeably different from living in the surrounding countryside – even though said countryside is never far away, nor the sea for that matter. To live at ease here it is vital to get to know the place, to feel at one with it, and the key place from which to launch an appraisal of Montpellier is the Egg, or, more correctly, the Place de la Comédie. Twenty years ago, with traffic tearing around it, the Place de la Comédie was oval shaped, a roundabout at the centre of which was the statue of the Three Graces, and known as the Place de l’Oeuf. Today, the oval is still there, but only as a pattern of embedded marble amid a huge plateau flanked by elegant, Parisian influenced, 19th-century buildings and the sleek blue trams that criss-cross the city. Bistros, brasséries and cafés spill onto the square, which is theoretically pedestrianised these days and at night becomes the stage for impromptu student exhibitionism, of the acceptable variety. During the day lone musicians plough their furrows of melodic spontaneity, and, because they are ‘out there’ in the face of hundreds of passers-by, are really quite accomplished. More professional displays take place in the nearby 19th-century opera house; museums and art galleries abound.
'...lone musicians plough furrows of melodic spontaneity.'
There is a great intimacy about this welcoming city, even if the almost total pedestrianisation of the old town is one concept beyond comprehension for velo riders and motor cyclists. Yet the centre remains an inviting warren of narrow streets imbued with a vibrant, buzzing friendliness, relaxing street cafés, and a captivating atmosphere fanned by the warm breezes of the Mediterranean. You just have to dodge the two-wheeled psychos.
Raise your eyes above Galeries Lafayette level, and you suddenly become aware of the stunning architecture. In the Place de la Comédie it is plainly evident, but you need to study the side streets to appreciate the full force of masonic craft, reason alone for spending many years patrolling Montpellier’s streets. In the Grand Rue Jean Moulin is the Hotel Perier, a hotel particulière or mansion house, and the birthplace of Frédéric Bazille, an impressionist painter of some acclaim. Bazille, or at least his head, appears in many places across Montpellier; not least because it was used by his friend Auguste Baussan to feature on a number of statues of other distinguished people. Make of that what you will.
Private mansions of this type are dotted about the centre, but are not so evident, lying as they do behind ornate doorways (the clue), beyond which intimate courtyards give into opulent houses funded by evident wealth. That wealth is today most clearly seen in the city’s most celebrated bequest, the stylish Musée Fabre, founded by the Montpellier artist Francois-Xavier Fabre in 1825. It lies not far from the eastern end of the Place de la Comédie, and reopened in 2007 to great acclaim following four years of detailed renovation. The museum illustrates the story of Europe's artistic evolution from the Renaissance period to modern times, and hosts an outstanding series of works – more than 800 – that are a delight, including masterpieces by Courbet and Poussin, not to mention the exceptional gift of works by contemporary painter Pierre Soulages, over 90 years of age and still painting….mostly in black.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Montpellier is not only energetic but avant-garde and open-minded, and welcomes everyone with open arms ranking among its virtues the fact that it is France’s second largest gay city. That aside, there is an appealing proactive approach to the agenda of Montpellier, something that shows itself, for example, in its twenty language schools for those who want to learn French as a second language, attended every year by no less than 10,000 students, most of whom stay for two weeks or more.
Tourism-speak aside, it is hard to put the finger on the pulse of Montpellier. It may resonate to the charms of its architecture, its unrivalled sea-influenced cuisine, its student idiosyncrasies, or its all-round appeal, but the search for its uniqueness, its character and its charisma should be taken neither lightly nor in the expectation of disappointment.
Montpellier is 465 miles south of Paris by car, but is also served by the TGV rail service, and by numerous flights to Montpellier airport, including direct flights from the UK by Ryanair.
Tourist office: 30, allée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, 34000 Montpellier, France. Tel: +33 (0)4 67 60 60 60; www.ot-montpellier.fr.
An annual publication NOW! contains details of events and activities in Montpellier throughout each year. This is widely available and also from the tourist office at the eastern end of the Place de la Comédie.
The City Card Montpellier available for 24, 48 and 72 hours (13€, 21€, 27€) is available from the tourist office and gives free entry and discounts for a wide range of activities.
In July and August, don't miss the 'Summer Special' guided tours: visit of the historical Montpellier centre and wine tasting session.