Montpellier: Frances Best Short Break?

Take the time to look carefully at Montpellier, and you’ll find a vibrant city with a fascinating core, as David Whitley discovers

Montpellier is unquestionably one of the most exciting places in France to visit; everyone in the city seems so young. This is no real surprise when you learn that half of the city’s residents are under 35, and 60,000 students call it home. But unless you’re prepared to go with the vibe, then prepare to feel rather grey and wrinkly.

A youthful population makes for a similar spirit – there’s a real can-do mentality that permeates almost every aspect of the 1,000-year-old city, even when it comes to unearthing old attractions. Remains of historically important sites have recently been discovered in the buildings around the old Jewish baths in the city. Restoring them is a mammoth task, but the city is about to add it to the enormous list of projects that it has taken on in the last 25 years or so.

And boy, are those projects impressive. The most obvious one is the tram system that scoots across the city. The trams look overwhelmingly sleek, they run regularly and on time, and a third line is on the way. This one will go all the way to the beach, 11 kilometres away.

The city’s heart, Place de la Com�die, has also had a makeover. Locals used to call it The Egg’, as it was an oval patch of concrete ringed by snarling traffic. The vehicles have been kicked out, and the public space expanded massively, breaking into the spectacular tree-lined Esplanade.

There is also the penchant for creating entirely new suburbs from nothing – something that is necessary given Montpellier’s population boom – but it is done in style. The current project is Port Marianne – the latest phase in transforming the city’s riverside from a long-neglected wilderness into a thriving area where people can both live and play. It was only in the 1980s that the city was really connected to the River Lez, with the construction of Antigone. This kilometrelong suburb was designed as a showpiece, rather than springing up in a higgledypiggledly fashion, and thus the whole thing was left in the hands of Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. The result was a visually dizzying ensemble of grand neoclassical buildings, all designed with public space and lines of sight in mind. Consequently, it manages to look like a version of ancient Rome remade for the big screen with computer wizardry and special effects.

The spanking new feel is replicated across the city, whether it’s at the Amazonian Greenhouse that opened last June in the north, or the genuinely excellent Aquarium Mare Nostrum at the Odysseum – yet another purpose-built entertainment hub.

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In spite of such ambitious moneyflinging, Montpellier’s real charm and character is to be found in and around the old city. Much is hidden to the untrained eye, but a bit of background works wonders. Take the walls near the war memorial and Esplanade. Today they are surrounded by parkland and greenery, but have a look at which way the arrow slits are pointing. They’re not defending the city, but poised to attack it.

This dates back to the religious wars of the 17th century, when Louis XIII laid siege to protestant Montpellier, and then built a citadel to secure it. Many newer parts of the city, therefore, are built on former military ground – it took an awfully long time for the powers that be to trust the locals not to cause any trouble.

The old town is a delightful place to stroll around, and takes the form of a shield-shaped mess of narrow streets and alleys. Little staircases run up past preserved buildings with medieval stone vaults, then miraculously break into squares surrounded by bars and caf�s.

But some of the most impressive sites aren’t immediately obvious from the street. The city contains many private mansions that were the homes of the great and good back in the 18th century. Only a few of these – with their grand staircases, flamboyant gardens and pretty courtyards – can be accessed by the public. It’s very easy to simply walk past and miss them.

The same applies to the mikve, or Jewish baths. Tucked away down a dark passageway, this is only accessible by guided tour at the moment. But once they’ve finished digging out the rest of the Jewish quarter, who knows? In Montpellier, you get the distinct impression that anything’s possible.

City guide

LOCATION Montpellier is the capital of Languedoc- Roussillon, and is approximately half way between Marseille and Perpignan. It’s 11km inland from the Mediterranean Sea and prides itself on being less than three hours away from both Spain and Italy, having easy access to both mountains and sea. It enjoys more than 300 sunny days a year.

GETTING THERE By air: Air France, easyJet and Ryanair fly to Montpellier. By train: Montpellier has a direct TGV connection to Paris Gare de Lyon (3h15). A return from London St Pancras (including the Eurostar from London to Paris) costs from �109 per person through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk). By ferry/car: If you don’t fancy the long drive from north to south, take Brittany Ferries’ service to Santander in northern Spain then drive the 770km to Montpellier.

GETTING AROUND The old centre is eminently walkable, while the modern, efficient tram system is the best way to get further afield to places like Antigone and the Odysseum. There’s a major stop outside Place de la Com�die. For taxis, try Taxi Bleu (tel: (Fr) 4 67 03 20 00).

POPULATION Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France, with a population of just under 250,000 (530,000 if the surrounding area is included). Of that population, around a quarter are students – it’s one of the youngest and fastest-growing cities in the country.

WHERE TO SHOP The ugly 1960s Polygone Centre, just south-east of Place de la Com�die, is the main shopping centre in town, but more interesting spots can be found elsewhere. The streets around Rue de l’Ancien Courrier have lots of boutique stores and galleries in medieval buildings. Meanwhile, for local delicacies, try the Maison R�gionale des Vins on Rue Saint- Guilhem. It has breads, jams and biscuits as well as wines.

PLACES TO STAY The best four star option in Montpellier is Le Jardin des Sens (11 Avenue Saint-Lazare tel: (Fr) 4 99 58 38 38, www.jardindessens.com – from €160 a night), but a more charming high-end option is a B&B in an old private mansion. Le Baudon de Mauny (1 Rue de la Carbonnerie, tel: (Fr) 4 67 02 21 77, www.baudondemauny.com – from €150 a night) has a boutique feel, with just five rooms, all given an individual touch. For a three-star, try L’H�tel de Guilhem (18 Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, tel: (Fr) 4 67 52 90 90 – from €83 per night). Some rooms come with medieval arches, and others have great views of the cathedral and city roof tops. L’H�tel de Palais (3 Rue du Palais, tel: (Fr) 4 67 60 47 38, www.hoteldupalais-montpellier.fr) is a charming little two star joint in a great, central location. Rooms cost from €67 per night.Alternatively, Camping Le Camarguais (Route de Palavas, tel: (Fr) 4 67 15 10 07, www.campinglecamarguais.com) is in a fabulous spot, 5km from both the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Expect to pay from €17 a night.

PLACES TO EAT For something cheap, head to the Halles Castellane on rue de la Loge. This covered market is great for self-catering but there are also mini-pizzas and salads available as snacks. Le Comptoir de l’Arc (Place de la Canourge, tel: (Fr) 4 67 60 30 79) is an excellent mid-range choice. Overlooking a pretty square, it’s all wooden beams and comfy seats upstairs. The food’s good too – mains are between €14.50 and €17. At the top end, there is Tamarillos (2 Place du March� aux Fleurs, tel: (Fr) 4 67 60 06 00). It’s run by Philippe Chapon, who has worked with Gordon Ramsay and Guy Savoy, and the cuisine is based heavily on fruit and flowers. Three courses start at €38, with a d�gustation menu costing €90.

AFTER HOURS Place de la Com�die is where you’ll be told that everyone goes for a drink, but this is often not the case. Certainly, with the younger crowd, place Jean-Jaur�s is more popular. Caf� Joseph is big on the cocktails, while Pain & Cie is a little more upmarket. All have outside terraces though, and merge into one come summer.

WHEN TO GO Montpellier is undoubtedly a summer city, and highlights include the Printemps des Com�diens Theatre Festival in June, Montpellier Dance Festival (June/July) and Les Estivales (July/ August). The latter sees everything from wine-tasting to book readings taking place on the Esplanade. For those arriving in winter, the Christmas market fills Place de la Com�die in December.

TOURIST INFORMATION The city’s tourist office (Esplanade/ Place de la Com�die, tel: (Fr) 4 67 60 60 60, www.ot-montpellier.fr) is very helpful, and arranges a number of guided tours which are worth taking. In Montpellier there are many sites that can only be accessed with guides. These include a few typical 17th and 18th century mansions, as well as the old Jewish baths. There are 32 themed tours available at various prices. For more on the region and day trip programmes, visit www.sunfrance.com. Visit www.languedoc.com for more about the H�rault d�partement.