Montpellier magic

by Mary.Novakovich

The vibrant university town of Montpellier is one of the most dynamic in France - and by way of a bonus, it’s also just a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean

Montpellier describes itself as the city where the sun never sets, and it’s not far off the mark. Languedoc’s capital is less than 15km from the Mediterranean, giving it the laidback atmosphere you’d expect from a coastal city. But it’s also unusually lively and vibrant, thanks to its enormous student population. In fact, it has France’s oldest still-functioning medical school, and a larger than average proportion of its population is under the age of 25. The city buzzes all year round – except, perhaps, in August, when the world and his wife are at the beach like any sensible people.

The heart of the city is its compact old town, most of which is pedestrianised. It’s an attractive jumble of streets, dotted here and there with intimate little squares when you least expect them. My favourite is the leafy Place de la Canourgue near the edge of the old town, very close to the Jardin des Plantes, which happens to be France’s oldest botanical gardens. Have a drink on the terrace at Le Comptoir de l’Arc, a funky bar/restaurant/art gallery that does great food and creative cocktails. A stone’s throw away is the 16th-century Hotel Le Guilhem, a good choice if you want a friendly and reasonably priced base.

Much of the city’s medieval architecture was destroyed during France’s 17th-century religious wars, but there are still some survivors of the Middle Ages along with handsome 18th- and 19th-century private mansions, or hôtels particuliers. It’s a civilised pleasure just wandering through the streets and enjoying the buzz, stopping at the cafés and brasseries that fill charming squares such Place Pétrarque, Place Carnot or Place Jean-Jaurès.

Things really kick off during the city’s many festivals, which celebrate music, theatre, film, dance and opera. One of the biggest is the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier, in which more than 100 concerts take over the city’s gardens and open spaces for two weeks every July.

The central square is the Place de la Comédie, nicknamed 'L’Oeuf' because of its egg shape. It’s an enormous open space whose cream marble shimmers in the sunshine, with plenty of cafés from which to watch the street life. The imposing 19th-century opera house is at one end while the other opens on to the wonderfully green Esplanade. Wander along the tree-shaded promenade for a few minutes and you come to the Musée Fabre, the city’s flagship museum, which recently underwent a massive refurbishment. Built in 1825, it houses works by Poussin, Courbet, Rubens and Delacroix, among many others.

As befits a university town, there’s a decent amount of affordable accommodation in the city centre, such as the two-star Hotel du Palais near the Jardin des Plantes. But if you want a bit of four-star luxury, try the Holiday Inn Montpellier near the railway station. It has an outdoor swimming pool and cool shady garden, and doubles can be had for as little as €95 if you book in advance. About a couple of kilometres from the city centre is the Jardin des Sens, the boutique hotel and restaurant run by the diminutive identical twin Pourcel brothers. The exquisite food is served up in an enchanting setting, and you can see why the Pourcels were given two Michelin stars for their efforts.

If you want to stray from the city centre, take the efficient new tram out to Odysseus, about 15 minutes east. The complex, which already has a planetarium, ice rink and cinemas, recently became home to Montpellier’s new aquarium, Mare Nostrum. It’s worth buying a Montpellier City Card, as it gives you unlimited travel on trams and buses as well as reduced admissions to the major sights. And if you’re there during the warm months, there’s a bus that takes you to Montpellier’s closest beach in the old fishing village of Palavas-les-Flots. It’s only 12km south of the city, but you might have to fight for space in high summer, as much of the local population spreads out along the 7km of fine sand, trying to catch a glimpse of flamingos in the nearby lagoons.

Because so much French tourism relies on the summer season, it’s rare to find a city so near the coast that doesn’t shut down come the autumn. People are in too much of a rush to reach the Riviera, thereby missing out on Montpellier’s winning combination of culture and cuisine in the Mediterranean warmth.