Voted the second happiest city in France, Montpellier is evidently a city that’s doing things right. Simon Horsford uncovers its rich history, stand-out architecture and dominant museum and arts culture, as well as its winding medieval streets, lush gardens and atmospheric squares
Dotted around the side streets of Montpellier are small posters of President Macron bearing the words ‘Fake Views’. President Trump has a lot to answer for. But then again maybe we should be blaming someone else. The 16th-century apothecary and supposed prophet Nostradamus, who attended medical school here, predicted that when the pine trees on the old city walls died Montpellier would disappear. The pines have gone – they’ve been replaced by cypress trees – but the city itself is on a roll and is one of the most seductive and inviting cities in southern France. Fake news has been around a long time.
Now less than a two-hour hop away from Bristol after the introduction of easyJet flights in June, the capital of the Languedoc Roussillon region has been dubbed ‘the city with everything’, from the arts to sports. Little wonder the town’s progressive and politically independent mayor, Philippe Saurel, told me he thought of it as ‘paradise’.
The seventh largest city in France has a youthful vibe, too – 30 per cent of the population is aged under 30. This is thanks to its thriving universities (Renaissance writer François Rabelais was a student here) and distinctly liberal feel – it hosted the first gay wedding in France in 2013 at the eye-catching, blue-hued, Jean Nouvel designed Hôtel de Ville de Montpellier. Architecturally it’s creating waves, too, while just before my visit, the city had hosted 600,000 people for the annual International Festival of Extreme Sports and during my stay it was staging five matches at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Montpellier is putting down a marker to be noticed on all fronts.
Exploring the city is joy and easily done on foot – car access is limited, although as an alternative there is an excellent tram service (four lines, each distinctively coloured to reflect the elements). Unlike other cities in the south, Montpellier has no Greco-Roman links, emerging, instead, in the Middle Ages. The result is that the historic heart of the old town Écusson (which is shaped like a shield), is a beguiling labyrinth of narrow, high-sided streets lined with tiny shops with everything from vintage clothes to handmade chocolates, artisan jewellery and elaborate bakers, and even a lovely old-fashioned toy shop dating from 1973.
But as a reminder that I’m in the present, the ancient alleyways are occasionally daubed with Banksy-style graffiti, or, as my guide Yulia points out, the signature artworks of Mr BMX, whose style is to embed half a BMX bike or a shopping trolley into the brickwork, the latter designed to be a basket for people to donate clothes or food for the homeless. Elsewhere in the evening in one of the numerous picturesque squares, I find a DJ pumping out sounds to a swaying crowd.
In the daytime these tiny squares make the perfect stop for a morning coffee or, perhaps, a late afternoon pastis; Place de la Canourge and Place de Jean Jaurès are both worth seeking out. The former also leads on to rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau where I stumble upon not only – reputedly – the city’s best boulangerie, but also a couple of terrific restaurants, Des Marées d’Ecume (great for lunch) and Le Petit Jardin.
The medieval centre is bracketed by the city’s own Arc de Triomphe, or Porte du Peyrou as it known here, and the wonderfully grand, wide open space of the Place de la Comédie. The former is dedicated to who else but the Sun King, Louis XIV. If you can get on a tour, you can walk up some tiny steps to the top of the arch – well worth it – otherwise make do with wander down the Peyrou Royal Promenade where you can gaze at the Corinthian Chateau d’Eau and the Romanesque Arceaux aqueduct, constructed in the 18th century, together with a huge equestrian statue of Louis XIV, which was built to mark the end of the city’s flirtation with Protestantism. Try and go on a Sunday when a flea market takes centre stage.
I make my way slowly down to the impressive pedestrian arena that is the Place de la Comédie with the same Haussmanian style buildings you’d see in Paris, the Three Graces statue at its centre and with Opéra Comédie at one end and the Jardin du Champ de Mars at the other. It’s grand and evocative with numerous cafés and restaurants. I grab a citron pressé and people-watch during a brief rain shower. Among many events, the square is home to a wine fair in November and a Christmas market.
Back in the historic heart, I pop into the grandstanding gothic Cathedral St Pierre, parts of which date back to the 14th century. Next door is the Faculty of Medicine – around since the 13th century it’s the oldest continuously operating medical school in the west. It has fiercely high standards with only around 10 per cent of those who apply to study going on to qualify. If you are not too squeamish, take a tour of its Museum of Anatomy and its collection of the weird, wonderful and unmentionable, giving an insight into medical practice over the centuries (book through the tourist office).
If jars containing parts of the human anatomy and wax casts aren’t for you, then try the Musée Fabre, renowned for its 16th – 19th century European art (there’s a striking picture by Delacroix entitled Exercices Militaires des Marocains), but also for its works by Pierre Soulages, dubbed ‘the master of black’. Just opened too is the uber-cool Moco, set in a 19th-century former town house near the station with a lovely garden and snazzy bar/restaurant. It’s a showcase for contemporary art in the city, exhibiting regularly changing works from private collections and solo artists – the opening exhibition features sculptures, photographs and videos owned by Japanese entrepreneur Yasuharu Ishikawa.
After a surfeit of art, I go in search of some greenery and where better than the Jardin des Plantes, the oldest botanical gardens in France. Here I look out for a 400-year-old green olive tree, where over the years people have placed prayers and love letters into the fissures of its trunk. I then peek into Eglise Saint-Roch, dedicated to Saint Roch, who spent much of his life helping plague victims, of whom he is the patron saint. He is also the patron saint of dogs and you will see a lot of them in Montpellier – occasionally being carried in a handbag.
So much for the old and what about the new? I make a circuitous journey through the city, via some colourfully inspired graffiti along rue des Pradiers to Antigone, the fabulous neo-classical inspired district designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill between 1979 and 2000. Loosely inspired by Ancient Greece, the streets have names such as Place de Marathon and Place de Sparte. Here the dramatic Médiathèque Centrale Emile Zola (the library) and the Piscine Olympique Antigone (swimming pool) are set opposite each other – they represent mind and body and resemble the outline of a liner and a cruise ship respectively. With the open spaces, lawns and trees, Antigone is a bold sight in more ways than one – my guide Bruno explains that a part of this development of apartments and offices is devoted to social housing, once again revealing the city’s desire to be forward-thinking and inclusive.
Walking through the Place d’Europe, which looks like a post-modern version of the Royal Crescent in Bath, I spot Sou Fujimoto’s ‘white tree’ apartment building, designed to appear as though it has grown organically out of the ground, where huge balconies extend from the 17 floors. After reaching the River Lez, I double back towards Philippe Starck’s La Nuage (a complex including a swimming pool, gym and medical centre) in Porte Marianne.
It does look a little cloud-like and was supposed to be transparent, but the occupants were unhappy with that idea. Boarding the tram, I move on to Marche de Lez, a little creative hotspot on an old industrial site with a vast antiques shop, hipster barber’s, cafés, a creperie and clothes stalls. Even more is promised, too, as Les Halles du Luz was due to open in June with an array of gastronomic outlets and bars – the kind of places you’d find at Bristol’s Wapping Wharf.
As I head back to the centre, I realised what the mayor meant. This is a city that’s going places, somewhere that has embraced the old and the new. And it’s a city with a smile on its face. Nostradamus would be relieved.
Main image: Place de la Comédie © Ville de Montpellier