To See

Old city

The city

Montpellier's city centre – the old town – is small, compact, architecturally homogeneous, full of charm and teeming with life, except in July and August when the students are on holiday and everyone else is at the beach. And the place is almost entirely pedestrianized, so you can walk the narrow streets without looking anxiously over your shoulder.

At the hub of the city's life, joining the old part to its newer accretions, is place de la Comédie, or "L'Oeuf" to the initiated. This colossal, oblong square, paved with cream-coloured marble, has a fountain at its centre and cafés either side. One end is closed by the Opéra, an ornate nineteenth-century theatre; the other opens onto the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined promenade which ends in the Corum concert hall, dug into the hillside and topped off in pink granite, with splendid views from the roof. The city's most trumpeted museum, the Musée Fabre has a large and historically important collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and English paintings, including works by Delacroix, Raphael, Jan van Steen and Veronese.

From the north side of L'Oeuf, rue de la Loge and rue Foch, opened in the 1880s in Montpellier's own Haussmann-izing spree, slice through the heart of the old city. Either side of them, a maze of narrow lanes slopes away to the encircling modern boulevards. Few buildings survive from before the 1622 siege, but the city's busy bourgeoisie quickly made up for the loss, proclaiming their financial power in lots of austere seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mansions. Known as "Lou Clapas" (rubble), the area is rapidly being restored and gentrified. It's a pleasure to wander through and come upon the secretive little squares like place St-Roch, place St-Ravy and place de la Canourgue.

First left off rue de la Loge is Grande-Rue Jean-Moulin, where Moulin, hero of the Resistance, lived at no. 21. To the left, at no. 32, the present-day Chamber of Commerce is located in one of the finest eighteenth-century hôtels, the Hôtel St-Côme, originally built as a demonstration operating theatre for medical students. On the opposite corner, rue de l'Argenterie forks up to place Jean-Jaurès. This square is a nodal point in the city's student life: on fine evenings between 6pm and 7pm you get the impression that the half of the population not in place de la Comédie is sitting here and in the adjacent place du Marché-aux-Fleurs. Through the Gothic doorway of no. 10 of place Jean-Jaurès, is the so-called palace of the kings of Aragon, who ruled Montpellier for a stretch in the thirteenth century. Close by is the Halles Castellane, a graceful, iron-framed market hall that retains a small ground floor market area but is now a Virgin store.

A short walk from place Jean-Jaurès, the Hôtel de Varenne, on place Pétrarque, houses two local history museums of somewhat specialized interest, the Musée de Vieux Montpellier (Tues–Sat 9.30am–noon & 1.30–5pm; free), concentrating on the city's history, and the more interesting, private Musée Fougau on the top floor (Wed & Thurs 3–6.30pm; free), dealing with the folk history of Languedoc and things Occitan. Off to the right, the lively little rue des Trésoriers-de-France has one of the best seventeenth-century houses in the city, the Hôtel Lunaret, at no. 5, while round the block on rue Jacques Coeur you'll find the Musée Languedocien (July–Sept Mon–Sat 2–6pm; Oct–June Mon–Sat 2–5pm; €5), which houses a very mixed collection of Greek, Egyptian and other antiquities.

On the hill at the end of rue Foch, from which the royal artillery bombarded the Protestants in 1622, the formal gardens of the Promenade du Peyrou look out across the city and away to the Pic St-Loup, which dominates the hinterland behind Montpellier, with the distant smudge of the Cévennes beyond. At the farther end a swagged and pillared water tower marks the end of an eighteenth-century aqueduct modelled on the Pont du Gard. At the city end of the promenade, a vainglorious triumphal arch shows Louis XIV-Hercules stomping on the Austrian eagle and the English lion, tactlessly reminding the locals of his victory over their Protestant "heresy".

Lower down the hill, on boulevard Henri-IV, the lovely but slightly run-down Jardin des Plantes (July & Aug Mon–Sat 8.30am–noon & 2–6pm; rest of year Mon–Sat 10am–5pm; free), with avenues of exotic trees, was founded in 1593 and is France's oldest botanical garden. Across the road is the long-suffering cathedral, with its massive porch, sporting a patchwork of styles from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Inside is a memorial to the bishop of Montpellier who sided with the half-million destitute vine-growers who came to demonstrate against their plight in 1907 and were fired on by government troops for their pains. Above the cathedral, in the university's prestigious medical school on rue de l'école-de-Médecine, the Musée Atger (Mon, Wed & Thurs 1.30–5.45pm; free) has a distinguished academic collection of French and Italian drawings, while the macabre Musée d'Anatomie (daily 2.30–5pm; free) displays all sorts of revolting things in bottles. Close by is the pretty little place de la Canourgue, and, beyond, down rue d'Aigrefeuille, the old university quarter, with some good bookshops on rue de l'Université.

South of place de la Comédie stretches the controversial quarter of Antigone, a chain of postmodern squares and open spaces designed to provide a mix of fair-rent housing and offices, aligned along a monumental axis from the place du Nombre-d'Or, through place du Millénaire, to the glassed-in arch of the Hôtel de la Région. It's more interesting in scale and design than most attempts at urban renewal, but it has failed to attract the crowds away from the place de la Comédie and is often deserted. The enclosed spaces in particular work well, with their theatrical references to classical architecture, like oversized cornices and columns supporting only sky. The more open spaces are, however, disturbing, with something totalitarian and inhuman about their scale and blandness.

History

The history of Monte pestelario is a story of twists and turns that highlights the two essential characteristics of this fascinating city: ambition and intelligence. A former trading post for spices, place of pilgrimage and center of learning in the fields of medicine and law, Protestant fief then Royal capital of the Languedoc region, Montpellier's strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean basin has ensured it constant prosperity. Now the prefecture of the Herault departement, it's a city that never ceases to amaze!

From Modest Beginnings... Montpellier is very much a young upstart of a city when compared to its venerable roman neighbors of Nîmes and Narbonne. The first settlement dates back to the late 10th century and passed into the hands of the Guilhem family who remained the city's rulers until the early 13th century. Situated south of the roman road, the via Domitia, and close to well-traveled salt and pilgrim routes, the early settlement grew rapidly in the 11th century as it became a favoured halt for pilgrims. At the end of the 12th century the now flourishing city was enclosed by city walls of which the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte are still visible remnants.

...to a Medieval Metropolis A prosperous trading center between Northern Europe, Spain and the Mediterranean, the 13th century saw the city reach something of an apogee as it passed under the tutelage of the King of Aragon, whose kingdom extended across what is now Northern Spain and Catalonia, and subsequently the Kings of Majorca. Reputed as a center of learning particularly open to Jewish and Islamic thought, the established Schools of Medicine and Law received recognition as a University by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289. Sold to the kingdom of France in 1349, Montpellier was for a while considered the second most important city in the kingdom. However, the latter part of the century was a sombre one, during which successive plagues accounted for the death of over a third of the population. Nevertheless, by the 15th century the city had recovered economically, notably through the flourishing of the nearby port of Lattes and the mercantile genius of the royal treasurer Jacques Coeur, whose name is still honored by the city.

A Protestant Stronghold during the Wars of Religion... During the 1530's, both the astronomer Nostradamus, famous for his prophecies, and the writer, priest and bon vivant Rabelais studied medicine at Montpellier. The faculty later benefited from the establishment of France's oldest botanical garden Jardin des Plantes during the reign of France's king Henri IV. In 1553, the city gained a cathedral as the Bishopric was permanently transferred from Maguelone, whose abandoned abbey can still be seen overlooking the Mediterranean less than 10 miles from Montpellier. The Protestant Reformation, however, gained many converts in Montpellier as elsewhere in the south of France. As a major Huguenot (as French Protestants had come to be called) stronghold, Montpellier possessed one of the most beautiful Protestant churches of its time, but the subsequent Wars of Religion destroyed all religious edifices within the city walls except for the fortress-like Cathedral St Pierre. The Edict of Nantes of 1598, which recognized the right of Protestants to worship and granted them other basic freedoms in certain designated towns and cities, resulted in a brief period of relative calm, but conflict once more erupted twenty years later in the last of the religious wars. Finally in 1622 the king of France Louis XIII oversaw the siege of the rebellious Protestant city, which resisted two months of bombardment before a negotiated settlement was reached. Royal rule was once again established and the return of Catholic domination of the city was finally ensured by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

...becomes the Royal Capital of the Languedoc Many features of the current city center have their origin in the Wars of Religion and the subsequent 17th and 18th century renovations that transformed the city. Many squares such as the Place Jean Jaures and Place Chabanneau were formed from destroyed churches, while the citadel built following the siege of 1622 was to guarantee the loyalty of the city to the crown rather than to ensure its protection. Montpellier was subject to further expressions glorifying the monarch such as the Arc de Triomphe as it became the royal capital of the Languedoc and the accompanying nobility were responsible for many of the most elaborate hôtels and distinctive architecture of the historic center. Other landmarks such as the Hôtel St Côme and the Promenade du Peyrou, not to mention the Place de la Comedie all date from this epoch and still shape the life of the city.

A Provincial City built on Wine... The development of wine making in the region during the 19th century helped fuel the economy of the city and led to another wave of urban renovation and renewal. While some of the grandiose projects never reached completion, many are still major features of the city, whether it be the distinctive spire of the Carre St Anne, the incomplete St Roch or the Palais de Justice. Boom was followed by bust as the outbreak of the fungal disease Phylloxera, in the 1890's destroyed over a third of the vines and the expanding vineyards in Algeria rendered the vineyards of Languedoc uneconomical.

...seeks to become a New Metropolis A unassuming provincial city for most of the 20th century, Montpellier has been transformed into a city of expansive ambitions and a growth rate to match. In the 1960's the population rose by over a third as ex-patriots and immigrants arrived from Algeria. Over the past twenty years, Montpellier has continued to grow under the uncompromising vision of the socialist mayor, Georges Frêche, and the city once ranked 25th is currently the 8th largest city in France. This rapid growth has been matched by increasingly lavish and distinctive projects, from the entirely new, neo-classical district of Antigone and the developments along the river Lez, to the rejuvenation of the city center and the return of the tramway to the city streets. An administrative center, doted with a major research, university and medical facilities, Montpellier seems determined to once again becoming an intellectual, cultural and technological center of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Useful link

  Last Modified: 15 March 2010