Montpellier is a booming area, often voted one of the places the French would most like to live and the number of residents is growing year on year. To cope with the influx, the town is expanding in an extraordinary architectural experiment.
The city has been growing for a while. At first it went north towards the hills. But, in a calculated decision to control the growth and make it something special, the town is spreading south to the sea. The initiative was hatched in 1977 by then Mayor Georges Frêche. The goal was to create the perfect city. The architectural team started with a blank canvas and turned the outskirts of Montpellier into a real-life laboratory of architecture. It is a total contrast to the old town and yet, it works.
The Antigone neighbourhood, named after the ancient Greek play, was erected principally during the 1970s and 1980s. It has plenty of grand neo-classical style buildings and wide-open boulevards, including the central axis, nicknamed the Champs-Elysées by locals. The most innovative architects in the world have designed buildings here but it’s happened in a very organised way. It’s not a messy hotchpotch of looks, there’s a consistent theme being woven through this new part of Montpellier. Wide open spaces, height restrictions, even the look has to a certain extent been controlled although architects have been given a free hand overall.
Port Marianne Montpellier
The fast-rising Port Marianne district features canals and a small lake which is home to ducks and giant water rats (which I thought were otters, they’re very cute). It’s lined by low height apartments of all different shapes. But, there’s a continuous theme of central penthouses which gives it a feeling of harmony. The light in the area is great with wide open boulevards and lots of green space. The colours add interest – from the deep blue of the Jean Nouvel designed Hotel de Ville to a chocolate-couloured block of flats. Cafés, restaurants and shops are opening on a regular basis.
The tram service (some of them designed by fashion legend Christian Lacroix), reaches all the new residential areas. It’s an architecture fan’s dream city.
The result of all this new building is stunning. The NY Times has included Montpellier in the top “100 architectural cities to see before you die” list.
Where to eat in the new town of Montpellier
With the new expansion of living space comes new shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. The old town of Montpellier, just minutes away by tram, remains a firm favourite with tourists. However, the locals are discovering fabulous new places to meet. New places are opening all the time so check with the tourist office for more but here are a couple that shouldn’t be missed.
Terminal # 1 run by the Pourcel brothers (who at 22 were the youngest Michelin star chefs in France). It’s a great place for a drink, the food is quite fancy, certainly delicious. Though they’re not searching for a star with this one, the quality is there.
Restaurant BG has a terrace with great view. There’s a bistro wine bar and a gastronomic restaurant, the prices (2018) are superb – it’s a classy joint and if you love good food. you’ll love this place.
La Gazette, Montpellier’s weekly magazine of events and news in French, has a cool café in an old garage that’s popular with arty types and serves organic dishes and great coffee (www.gazettecafe.com).
At the seaside of Montpellier
Get out of the city and take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. With an unspoiled coastline, silky sand beaches and just 10km from the centre of town, the beaches of Montpellier make for a fabulous day at the seaside.
Petit Travers and Grand Travers (between the Grande Motte and Carnon), Palavas-les-Flots, Aresquiers in Frontignan, or Espiguette in Le Grau-du-Roi, are ideal for water sports or just lazing about. You can reach them by bus or tram from the city centre (check at the tourist office for services/times), for instance Tram Line 3 will take around 45 minutes to Pérols, a mere 800m from the Mediterranean Sea.
How to get to Montpellier:
Take the train – just 3 hours from Pars (check) 5 hours from Lille (both on the Eurostar route). Its extraordinary that in such a short time you’ll find yourself plunged into the heart of Languedoc Roussillon, Occitainie as the new super region is called (Languedoc Rousillon merged with Midi-Pyrenees).
By air: Montpellier airport is just 10 minutes’ drive from the city
Stay at: ApartHotel Odalys les Occitanes makes for a great base with roomy studios close to the station.