City Guide by Greg Taylor
Welcome to Montpellier, Languedoc's
Montpellier really is special.
What's more - very few people outside France have understood just what
a fantastic city this is. Broad boulevards lined with shady plane trees,
a huge car-free central square laid out in the 1700s surrounded by elegant
balustraded buildings, even a vast triumphal arch - you name it, Montpellier's
got it. Oh, and it's just minutes away from the beach, too.
If you're in the market for
chic boutiques, designer wine bars, electronic music and art house films,
then Montpellier is the place for you. Languedoc-Roussillon's capital city
is arguably the chicest spot on France's south coast, and it certainly
pulls in the punters. An extra 18,000 folk make Montpellier their home
every year, and the burgeoning student population (an estimated 70,000)
means that the nightlife, fashions and café culture tend to cater
to Bright Young Things, with a reasonable helping of up-market wine bars,
modern restaurants and smart stores targeting the sizeable community of
lawyers and doctors.
Visitors tend to start their
Montpellier sightseeing on the central expanse of Place de la Comédie,
seduced by its café terraces and imposing, 19th century opera house.
All well and good, but to escape the gawking tourists and Saturday afternoon
out-of-towners, hot foot it up the pedestrian-only sweep of Montpellier's
rue de la Loge into the ancient, most attractive part of town known as
Eat, drink and be merry
|Halfway up on the right,
the street widens out to form a square covered in café chairs and
tables: welcome to Place Jean-Jaurès, home of Montpellier students
and other twenty-somethings (the copious weekend brunch at Pain et Cie
is highly recommended). Head up the street, hang a right just before the
Préfecture (beside the post office) and you'll hit Place Marché
Aux Fleurs; on the other side of Montpellier's Préfecture lies petite
but perfectly formed Place Chabaneau. Both are ideal for people-watching
and a pre-dinner apéro; on the former, Le Café de la Mer
is a friendly, long-established Montpellier gay haunt, while on the latter,
Esprit Vin is the young professionals' bar of choice.
A multitude of wine bars
have recently sprung up in Montpellier, mushroom-like, and they are a great
way to sample the region's many excellent appellations and Vins de Pays.
Among the best are Le Comptoir
(rue du Puits-du-Temple), Mi Barrio (rue du Plan d'Agde) and the Times
Café (rue des Teissiers), all within spitting distance of the church
of Montpellier's patron saint, St. Roch. Well-chosen wine lists, tasty
platters (think fresh baguette paired with olive tapenade, sun-dried aubergines,
paté, garlicky charcuterie and goats cheese) and a buzzy vibe make
for value-for-money good times.
Take some time to wander
around the handsome ancient buildings and elegant hôtels particuliers
(private mansions) of Montpellier's historic centre; don't miss the 14th
century Cathédrale de Saint Pierre, the 16th century botanical gardens
(le Jardin des Plantes) and the imposing Arc de Triomphe lookalike at the
end of rue Foch (see below). The narrow back streets and attractive squares
of Montpellier's 'Ecusson' are packed with bistrots serving southern French
cuisine; Place Candolle and Place de la Chapelle Neuve are perfect for
al fresco dining.
With its two Michelin stars,
contemporary décor and vast dining room, Le Jardin des Sens is the
place to splurge in Montpellier, but there are umpteen more accessibly-priced
gourmet options, like Les Vignes (rue Bonnier d'Alco, just off Place Marché
aux Fleurs), Prouhèze Saveurs (avenue de la Pompignane), La Réserve
Rimbaud and its fabulous riverside terrace (avenue St. Maur), or La Maison
de la Lozère (rue de l'Aiguillerie). On boulevard Louis Blanc, Le
Baloard serves well-priced modern French fare in a funky setting, or for
a more exotic experience, try Nuniki's great value sushi on rue Terral,
or the Laotion cuisine of the humble, keenly priced Bane Lao (rue Rhin
Contemporary culture is available
in spades in Montpellier. Every summer the city hosts dance, music and
theatre festivals showcasing work by leading international artists. Classical
music, ballet and opera are regularly staged at the Corum and Comédie,
but thanks to the tender years of Montpellier's 250,000-odd inhabitants
(43 per cent of the population is under 30), experimental electronica,
leftfield films and challenging choreography are always on the agenda,
Unlike neighbouring Nîmes,
Montpellier does not have a contemporary art museum, but the recently renovated
Musée Fabre has a vast collection of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century
works (including a whole floor devoted to the gorgeous paintings of Pierre
Soulages) and is the perfect place to while away an afternoon. Plans are
afoot to create a new art space within the former Montpellier School of
Pharmacy, on rue de l'Ecole de Pharmacie, but meanwhile La Panacée
hosts temporary exhibitions of contemporary work: be sure to check out
its characterful buildings and courtyard.
Visiting en famille? Montpellier
has two major child-pleasers. A short bus-ride to the north brings you
to the Serre Amazonienne, an Amazonian hot house full of ferns, fig trees
and palms, plus tropical fish, flora and fauna (my kids adored the anteater,
the giant spiders, the bat cave - and the impromptu rain forest storm).
At the other end of Montpellier, Montpellier's brand new aquarium, Mare
Nostrum, is an undersea world of wonder featuring 3,500 exhibits and 300
species of marine life; take tram line number 1 and jump off at Odysseum.
|Splashing the cash, bagging
Shopaholics can indulge their
habit in Montpellier's centre. Many shops in rural France are traditionally
closed on Mondays, but most of Montpellier's stores are open all week bar
Sunday. Well-known names like Galeries Lafayette, Habitat, Zara, Benetton,
FNAC and Gap can be found in the charisma-free zone that is the Polygone
shopping mall (between Place de la Comédie and the Antigone quarter).
For more recherché
labels, head back into the Ecusson and the side streets branching off rue
de la Loge (rue de l'Argenterie and rue de l'Ancien Courrier offer rich
pickings). A pedestrian zone, this shopper's paradise is the place to snap
up stylish menswear, womenswear, footwear, jewellery, leather goods, eyewear,
fragrances and homewares.
Hunting for timeless French
classics? Try the Lacoste store on rue Saint Guilhem; on rue de la Loge,
French chain La Compagnie des Cotonniers stocks hip, understated womenswear,
and for ultra-chic kids' clothes, Petit Bateau is on the same street. The
rue Saint Guilhem boasts a couple of fancy tableware outlets in the shape
of Guy Degrenne and L'Emprin, as well as the excellent Puig fromagerie
and the Maison Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir (a
long name for a fine wine and specialty foods emporium).
At the corner of Montpellier's
rue Saint Guilhem and rue de la Loge stands the covered market of les halles
Castellane, selling mouth-watering fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat,
charcuterie, cheese and bread. Stop to stock up on picnic provisions and
then take a seat outside for a refreshing glass of chilled white wine (un
ballon blanc) or a noisette (espresso coffee with a splash of foamed milk).
And so to bed
When you're ready to drop,
the swishiest beds in Montpellier are at luxury B&B Baudon de Mauny,
an 18th century hôtel particulier in one of the Ecusson's nicest
streets. Owners Nathalie and Alain de Bordas have created five stunningly
stylish rooms, combining carefully preserved original features with contemporary
chic (urbanites travelling with babies should ask for rooms on the second
floor with access to the well-equipped kitchen). Prices start from €160
In the pretty Montpellier
neighbourhood of Place de la Canourgue, surrounded by cafes and antique
shops, three-star Hotel Guilhem (rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau) has 34 rooms
in a 16th century building with a leafy garden; equally charming is the
two-star Hotel du Palais (+ 33 (0)4 67 60 47 38), or for modern comfort
and a view of the Place de la Comédie, there's the New Hotel du
True, Montpellier isn't as
old as nearby Nîmes, but it does have a rich past dating back to
medieval times when it started out as a farm. The settlement soon swelled
with the arrival of merchants importing and selling spices. Business boomed
and the town grew to become second only to Paris by the late 1200s. A university
was founded at this time attracting students from all over Europe.
However, much of Montpellier's
early successes were wiped out by the Reformation and around 1600 the city
had stagnated. Leftist traditions have always been strong in Montpellier
- the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was born in the university
here. Today, though, the city is keen to present its progressive and dynamic
face - the latest Montpellier showpiece is a state of the art supertram
network fit for the 21st Century which will even run out to the beach.
Montpellier's Top 5:
Place de la Comédie.
Montpellier's main square crowned at its southern end by the elegant 19th
century opera house. This is the place to sit and sip a coffee in one of
the main cafés which line the place.
Saint Peter's Cathedral.
Known for its two rocket-shaped pillars which support a stone canopy above
the main door, this bulk of a building dates from the 14th Century. The
interior though is sadly lacking anything of interest.
Rue de la Loge. Montpellier's
Oxford Street, stuffed with shops and boutiques selling everything from
chewing gum to designer clothes. It runs from the Place de la Comédie
to the centre of the old town. Another popular square, particularly for
young people, is the Place Jean-Jaurès is roughly half way down
Antigone district. This is
Montpellier at its most modern. Get here by walking through the Polygone
shopping centre in Place de la Comédie. Using Ancient Greek motifs
and designs as inspiration, this ultra-chic suburb of flats, shops and
restaurants is certainly eye-catching if a little O.T.T.
Musée Fabre This is
the place to come to get your art fix when you're in Montpellier. One of
the best collections anywhere in France of old masters from Flanders, France
and Italy. This truly impressive array of paintings is mainly the work
of a local artist and collector who bequeathed them to the city in 1825.
About the Author: Greg Taylor
moved to the beautiful Languedoc region of southern France in March 2003
and co-founded the worlds leading authority on the region for both property
hunters and holidaymakers alike. Click
here to visit our Languedoc City Guides page