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Montpellier – a city of surprises

View of church St Pierre from Place de la Canourgue Montpellier

Montpellier is an elegant, cultured, cosmopolitan and seductive southern French city that is full of surprises…

Living history of Montpellier

It’s been said that Montpellier is one of 15 “must visit” cities of the world but as I flew in on a bumpy EasyJet flight for a one day world wind romance with this southern city, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Cosmopolitan, vibrant and Mediterranean of course but when a city embraces the street art on its medieval walls with such obvious pride and employs an iconic fashion designer such as Christian Lacroix to design their trams, which slip quietly past 18th century monuments, you know you’ve come to a place where style is at its core and the people have an inherent sense of culture and diversity.

And that’s one of the first things that strikes you about this city and indeed the Languedoc Roussillon region as a whole: The people here are welcoming, warm and clearly in love with their sun soaked streets and their past. It’s a place where architecture, history and living art are at the very essence of who they are, which in turns seems to influence the very fabric of everything they do. Whether that takes the shape of their proactive city planning, the loving restoration of their ancient monuments or the subtle vivaciousness of their elegant cuisine and the result is that everywhere you look, there’s a delightful fusion of different cultures and of both the old with the older and the old with the new.

Space, secrets and surprises

Although any visit to Montpellier really has to start at the Place de la Comedie with its shimmering 18th century Parisian style architecture, imposing Opera House and bustling crowds, the impression you gain here is really just a pretext for what the rest of city is hiding in its many narrow and medieval streets.

As you follow in the footsteps of the ancient pilgrims and wonder away from the statue of the Three Graces, steaming colours of the city’s trams and towering palm trees, I’d thoroughly recommend an official guide from the tourist office in the Place de la Comedie.  Montpellier is a city of surprises, hidden secrets and rich symbolism and you simply won’t enjoy the full Montpellier flavour without their extensive knowledge.

My guide Cécile’s passion and interest for the city was both palpable and contagious and as we chased shadows and a cooling breeze in the old quarter, she talked me through many centuries of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Spanish influence, explained the importance of medicine and art to the city’s past and guided me through the bitter savagery and impact of the Wars of Religion.

This is a place where you’ll find bicycles growing out of walls and trompe l’oeil (meaning a trick of the eye and in this case a mural painted with such skill it’s hard to tell if it’s real or not), basking in the shade of the impressive 19th century sandstone walls of the church of St. Roch. And where a stylish Paris inspired façade of one of the city’s many 18th century “hotel particulier” (a grand, private town house for noblemen) tucked away in the back streets opens into a musty medieval courtyard with vaulted ceilings and renaissance walls juxtaposed.

And locked away inside a battered old door way leading off an narrow alleyway, Cécile led me down the cool and echoing steps of a 12th century Mik Ve, haunting in its perfect recollection of the lives of Jewish women all those hundreds of years ago, as they stepped bare foot into the still, clear and cleansing water of this silent, sunken chamber while the heat, noise and jostle of medieval life whirled around and above them.

This is also a city of large, open and dramatic spaces and when you turn on to the central Rue Foch you’ll be forgiven for wondering what city and century you’re in, as the neoclassical court building and the 17th century Arch de Triumph shake hands at the city’s ancient boundaries. The views of the city roof tops and beyond from the top of the Arch de Triumph are beyond breath taking and well worth the climb and a stroll in the shade of the Peyrou with its panoramic views will take you back in time a hundred years to the elegant rustle of long skirts and the gentle twirl of a parasol.

At the other end of the city, the 1970s and 80s saw the development of Antigone or what the locals call the Greek quarter, a 100 acre complex of shimmering, neoclassical buildings designed to bring together all sectors of the community in a place that is cool, spacious and quietly serene, as the city architects try to persuade the city to sprawl its way down the river towards the welcoming arms of the Mediterranean.

The soothing sound and qualities of water are everywhere here and never more so than on the concrete but also arboreal banks of the river Le Lez where fountains and a sea breeze draw you down to the imposing structure which is Montpellier’s new town hall. Love it or hate it, there is no denying it’s a bold and thought provoking statement made of metal, glass and shades of black gathered carefully around a  watery courtyard.

So how can you sum up Montpellier in a few simple words? The answer is you can’t because it’s so many things and a city of opposites. It’s progressive, young and one of France’s fastest growing cities with vibrant 21st century architecture, a dynamic culture but an even more dynamic and dramatic past. It’s home to spacious, tree lined esplanades, sunny cafés and refreshing open spaces at the same time as narrow, cobbled back streets, intriguing doorways and medieval courtyards. I don’t see how anyone can fail to fall in love with this wonderful and diverse city and I for one suspect and hope that my one day romance is going to evolve into something long, lingering and very special.

24 hours in Montpellier for art lovers

The new district of Montpellier

The old district of Montpellier

You can find out more about Montpellier and this fantastic region at www.montpellier-france.com

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