Beauty and brains
With an enviable location just a few kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, a beautiful historical centre, a third of the population made up of students and a great public transport system Montpellier has it all, beauty and brains.
I arrived at St. Roch Station in Montpellier just before noon. I had not been radiated or frisked once and felt pretty smug with my large bottle of Nuxe moisturizer. Ah the freedom of train travel, no little plastic bags or liquid restrictions. Apart from the thick layer of dirt on the window obstructing my view I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. The gentle rocking motion and the occasional announcements as we approached Carcassonne and Sète took me in and out of a late morning slumber. I guessed by the sing song in his voice and by the final destination being Saint Charles that the driver himself was from Marseille. I had forgotten how easy it is to travel by train in France.
I managed to arrange some pretty fantastic digs for my stay considering I booked it all at the last minute. After using up some hotel points that I had accumulated in my previous incarnation as a stewardess, I decided to book a flat for my next two nights. The beautifully decorated and comfortable apartment just behind Place de la Comédie was the perfect place to stay. La Comédie de Vanneau (Acte 1) decorated and run by Céline is a sanctuary of comfortable chic at the end of a hard day’s pounding the pavement and visiting galleries. Visit http://www.lacomediedevanneau.com
On the far right side of the Place de la Comédie, as you look north, you will find the Tourism Office, full of information and helpful staff. It is the departure point for the little train (oh yes I did!) and the open top bus tour. The square, named after a theatre that burned down in 1785, is the main place in Montpellier. It took me five minutes to walk here from the station with two heavy bags. The city centre is small and easy to find your way around on foot. The last time I came here was in a car which was more of a hindrance than anything. Unless you know your way around Montpellier or you enjoy the challenge of finding your way around a foreign city with a one way system that could induce a total sense of humour failure in the calmest of people, leave your car behind and set out on foot or by tram to discover Montpellier.
Place de la Comédie
I dropped my bags off and went straight to the Musée Fabre to see the Picasso exhibition. It is located just across the Esplanade de Charles de Gaule, a two minute walk from the Tourism Office. It was quiet at lunchtime and I wouldn’t say I had the place to myself but I was able to move around freely and take it all in without any tour groups crowding the works. After enjoying the exhibition and wandering around the rest of the museum for an entrance fee of 10 euros, I decided to stay for lunch.
On the south side of the Esplanade de Charles de Gaulle is the Pavillion Populaire, a modern photography museum with no entrance fee. There is a always something worth seeing here.
The modern quarter of Montpellier called Antigone was constructed after the city acquired land belonging to the army on the city’s east side in 1978. The neo-classical district designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill is an interesting neighbourhood with a great farmers market Sunday mornings. This area is just behind the shopping mall below the place de la Comédie.
After a good nights’ sleep I set off to explore l’écusson, the historical centre of Montpellier, so named for having roughly the shape of a shield or escutcheon. I started off trying to follow in the footsteps of St Roch, with my leaflet from the tourist office, guiding me through medieval Montpellier. St Roch is the patron saint of Montpellier and pooches and the unjustly accused. Legend has it he was born into a wealthy family in 1295, and orphaned at seventeen. He learned medicine and then travelled to Rome, gave away his fortune and helped the poor and the sick. He was taken ill himself helping plague sufferers and went off into the woods to die. He was aided by a nobleman’s dog that brought him bread and licked his wounds until he was cured. He ventured back to Montpellier from Italy only to be captured and imprisoned by his uncle who didn’t recognize him. He never revealed who he was and it was discovered after his death in 1327 by the birth mark cross on his chest. I soon gave up the walking tour because I kept coming across other places of interest that were not on my itinerary.
The church of Ste Anne was reconverted into a cultural centre in the nineties. The centre hosts exhibitions all year long and favours local artists. It also houses the Conservatory of Music and fine instrument workshops making violins, violas and cellos. During the day whenever I popped back into the flat I could hear someone playing the violin, quietly and beautifully and only during the day.
photos: Sainte Anne, la Cathédrale de Montpellier et les Arceaux
I was disappointed not to be able to visit the Conservatory of Anatomy myself, but if you book ahead with the Tourist Office you can have a guided tour. Located adjacent to St Peter’s Cathedral in a former 14th century monastery that had been devoted to law and theology stands the Faculty of Medicine. In 1181, Lord Guilhem VIII signed an order stating that anyone, regardless of religion or background, could teach medicine in Montpellier. So then, at the end of the 12th century, one of the oldest still operating medical schools in the western world was born.
old water tower
Housed in a ‘hotel particulier’, at the Musée de Vieux Montpellier, you will see a collection of objects linked to the history of Montpellier from the middle ages to the 20th century. You will also gain entry to the pharmacy and the chapel of the Misericord, just around the corner.
Upstairs, in the hotel particulier de Varennes, above where the old museum of Montpellier is housed is the museum Fougau. This little museum is consecrated to showing daily life in old Montpellier, and the Occitan culture. Not to be confused with the new region of Occitanie, which is obviously not unrelated, the culture and language of Occitan was shared by certain people in France, parts of Italy and Spain. Before French became the official language of France in 1539, there were other languages spoken widely, such as Occitan. A lovely man, probably well into his seventies with twinkling blue eyes will happily chat to you all about the Occitan language, culture and identity.
“It was the patois of our grandparents, the language of the winemakers, the fishermen, the shepherds and the miners. It is the language of Troubadours and the language of Frédéric Mistral and needs to be spoken to live on. Occitan is neither a foreign language, nor one that rivals the French language and it does not put the unity of the country in danger. It is not really taught, and not useless either, it can enrich us culturally and help us to voyage in time.”
Modern Montpellier is a culturally vibrant, culturally diverse and welcoming city. Being so close to the sea, I felt a light breeze every afternoon as I crossed the Place de la Comédie to go ‘home’. There was always good live music playing. There are restaurants and bars everywhere for all palates and all means.
I haven’t had nearly enough of Montpellier. I will definitely be back and can’t wait to explore this city some more. I can almost still feel the afternoon breeze, hear the live music and see the Pic St Loup in the distance. I am making a promise to myself to come back soon, with my husband, before the weather turns cold for an ‘apéro en terrasse’.
Enjoy visiting Montpellier! Follow my blog to keep up with me on my travels around beautiful Occitanie………next stop Palavas-les-Flots.