Southern charm

As France’s fastest growing city and with a bustling student population, Montpellier offers a vibrant choice for a weekend break as Anna McKittrick discovers

With its abundance of pavement caf�s and a lively ambience, it’s easy to see why Montpellier is one of France’s most dynamic cities. Located in the department of H�rault in Languedoc-Roussillon, the city not only benefits from its close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea but also boasts some of the finest weather in France with an average of 300 days of sunshine every year. Over the last 20 years, Montpellier has moved up the ranks from France’s 20th largest city to become eighth thanks to modernisation efforts which have put this southern city on the map. Montpellier is a young city with 40% of residents under 25 and students making up a quarter of the population. But this is not a new phenomenon; the city has been a magnet for scholars for centuries with the University of Montpellier founded by Cardinal Conrad in 1220, one of the oldest in France. The university was divided into three parts in the 1970s with each specialising in different academic areas. One of the lovely aspects of the city is that much of it is car-free and as the pedestrianised centre is not too vast, it is the ideal size for exploring on foot. The main centre focuses around the expansive Place de la Com�die which gets its name from the first theatre that was built in the square in the 1700s and now sites the impressively ornate 19th-century Op�ra Com�die, constructed in the same style as Palais Garnier opera in Paris. Pavement caf�s line the square and are perfect for enjoying a morning caf� cr�me while soaking up the atmosphere and people-watching. Stroll down the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which has a flower market from Monday to Saturday, and head to Mus�e Fabre, which recently benefitted from a four-year renovation. The museum, which is named after the famous local painter Fran�ois Fabre who donated many of his own paintings for exhibition, boasts a vast collection of nearly 800 works combining classic and contemporary pieces including masterpieces by Courbet, Poussin and modern painter Pierre Soulages.The city has its very own Arc de Triomphe, which marks the gateway to the old town. It was built in honour of Louis XIV and was modelled on the Parisian monument. Just beyond the Arc de Triomphe lies Promenade du Peyrou, a vast two-tiered terrace offering stunning views out to the limestone ridge peak, the Pic St-Loup. An equestrian statue of Louis XIV takes centre stage of the Promenade. Montpellier is renowned for its h�tels particuliers (private mansions), which date from the 17th and 18th centuries and were seen as a symbol of wealth. From the outside the mansions don’t look particularly special as characteristically they have austere fa�ades but if you push open the heavy doors you’ll discover magnificent inner courtyards and impressive stone staircases. There are several h�tels particuliers open to the public including H�tel de Varennes and H�tel des Tr�soriers de la Bourse. The boutique hotel we stayed in is housed in a former h�tel particulier dating from 1777, which is nestled in a narrow street in an attractive area of the city known as l’Ecusson. The labyrinth of cobbled streets snake in and out of wide boulevards and are dotted with caf�s and pretty boutiques begging to be explored. When the sun sets you’ll be spoilt for choice with the selection of restaurants and bars on offer and there’s no better time to sample some of the delicious local wines. Chez Boris is a bustling wine bar in the L’Ecusson area which also serves delicious food at moderate prices. Montpellier recently topped a survey of the place where most French people would like to live and after spending only a weekend there it’s clear to see that it justifies its place in poll position. Why not find out for yourself?  Taste...Lanuguedoc winesMontpellier is situated in the middle of the C�teaux du Languedoc which boasts the accolade of the oldest vineyard in France. The Mediterranean climate in Languedoc-Roussillon offers ideal conditions for growing a wide variety of grapes. The vineyard, which was granted AOC status in 1985, is so vast that it is divided into sub-appellations including Gr�s de Montpellier, Picpoul de Pinet, Terrasses de B�ziers and Pic St-Loup. To sample the wines visit the Maison des Vins des C�teaux Languedoc, housed in a 17th-century winemaker’s homestead, located on the outskirts of Montpellier. The maison, which stocks some 400 varieties of wine, is open from Monday to Saturday with professionals on hand. For more on Languedoc-Roussillon wines the beachLike many cities in France, Montpellier benefits from a cycle hire system allowing you to boost your green credentials while soaking up the scenery and discovering the sights. The V�lomagg scheme has 50 bike stations located in the city with 2,000 bicycles for hire enabling you to explore the 150km of cycle paths. It’s worth paying the nearby beaches a visit, which are accessible by bike with roughly an hour of pedalling taking you across the M�jean wildlife reserve. Beaches include Le Petit Travers and Villeneuve-l�s-Maguelone which stretches over 9km and is one of the best-preserved beaches on the Mediterranean. Bicycle hire with the V�lomagg scheme costs €1 (85p) for four hours or €2 (�1.71) for the whole day. www.velomagg.comSee...flora and faunaA stroll around the Jardin des Plantes is a must when visiting Montpellier. France’s oldest botanical gardens were created by order of Henri IV in 1593 and the gardens and arboretum became the blueprint for all other gardens created in France including Paris’ Jardin des Plantes some 40 years later. The gardens were originally used by botanists from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Montpellier, who researched the lives of plants and it was opened to the public in 1841. There are more than 3,000 types of plant species divided into different areas including a tropical greenhouse, regional plants and an English garden. fileFor tourist office information visit www.ot-montpellier.frMontpellier airport is served by easyJet and Ryanair www.ryanair.comWe stayed at Baudon de Mauny, a boutique hotel with rooms from €160 (�137) per night www.mrandmrssmith.comPicture � Office de Tourisme Montpellier: C�line Escolano