- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Visit Montpellier, France
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 l’Ecusson.
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, too.
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.
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.