Montpellier is a “young” city in more ways than one

Leslie and I are liking Montpellier, and the south of France, a little more every day. This is a young, energetic city with lots going on. But at the same time, the pace is not hectic. People take time to enjoy life.

We’re learning more about Montpellier, having taken a guided walking tour of the city center and ridden on the little white tourist “train” through a slightly larger part of the historic district. Let me tell you about our current home.

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The tourist “train” is a 40-minute audio tour of the historic center.

But first, Leslie insisted I say something about the French people. We have found them to be warm and helpful. Most people we encounter speak at least some English and many are able to slip seamlessly from French to English if we need assistance. For example, we went to the beach last week in the coastal town of Carnon. Coming home, we took the wrong bus. In trying to fix the problem, the driver realized I didn’t speak French, so he gave us instructions in English. While we were waiting for the right bus, a couple came by and the gentleman said something in French. When our response made it obvious we didn’t understand French, he switched to near-flawless English and explained how we could take a different bus to get home. After discussing the options, we decided to stay with the original plan.

It may be that people are helpful because we’re in a big tourist area, but I think the key for non-French-speakers is to at least try French with the locals. Say bonjour when greeting people, even if you follow that with parlez-vous Anglais? If you try, they will bend over backwards to help. Just about every waiter in local restaurants speaks English well enough to explain the menu and answer questions. One waiter was surprised we knew no French, but he then went through the entire menu (it was fairly short) and explained each dish in English. We both had great meals. The moral of the story is: If somebody tells you the French are rude, they are wrong. Dead wrong. Just wanted you to know that. Now, on with the show.

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Montpellier has excellent public transportation, including four light rail lines like this tram. The cars are similar to those we rode on in San Diego.

Montpellier is called a “young” city. Yes, there are lots of university students here, but there’s also another reason: It’s only been here a little over 1,000 years. There are no Roman ruins here, as there are in nearby Nîmes and Arles, because Montpellier was not a Roman settlement. People didn’t start living here until the late 10th century. The university, including law and medical schools, dates to the 12th century. The medical school is Europe’s oldest, and one of the most prestigious. And Montpellier’s cathedral was built in the 14th century.

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A view of the park where Louis XIV reigns supreme, taken from on top of the Arc de Triomphe.

In the 16th century Montpellier was controlled by French Protestants, known as Huguenots. But the Bourbon kings were Catholic, and King Louis XIII laid siege to the city in 1622. Didn’t take long before the Huguenots gave up. Later, King Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King,” made Montpellier a regional capital. He created the Promenade du Peyrou, a nearby park dominated by a statute of Louis on horseback. He then decreed that nothing could be built higher than this promenade. It’s good to be king! Louis also installed a park in the city center, now known as Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I go for a jog  there almost every morning.

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Jewish residents of Montpellier came here over 700 years ago to be cleansed in a ritual bath.

We were thrilled to visit a Jewish mikvah, or ritual bath, that dates to the 13th century. It’s the only one left in Europe. The synagogue was destroyed when the Jews were driven out of this area hundreds of years ago, but the mikvah was underground. It was re-discovered in 1985 and can now be seen only on the walking tour.

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You can see the Gothic style of building a wall. Some stones are laid vertical, some horizontal so there is little waste.

Marie-Helen, our guide, showed us several buildings with what appeared to be 17th- and 18th-century façades — buildings that look like similar structures in Paris. That was the point of putting a new front on the building — to make the city look like Paris. But walk inside and the ceilings are obviously Gothic, dating to the Middle Ages. In one building, now apartments, Marie-Helen showed us an interior wall that was probably put up in the 13th or 14th century. She explained how builders in that day developed techniques that used all the stone they had, so there was very little waste. Two or three layers vertical, one layer horizontal was one such technique. It’s easy to spot.

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Medallions like this one mark the way for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

Another very cool aspect of this town is that it’s on one of routes for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. (Check the link if you’re not familiar with this amazing spiritual journey.)  In fact, one variation of the Arles Way actually begins right here in Montpellier. There are brass medallions in some of the streets in our neighborhood that show the path. We walk over them every day and think of friends who have made this lengthy hike.

Montpellier also has lots of cultural events. There was a brass band festival a few weeks ago. We encountered brass bands — well, some have clarinets and saxes, too — during the day in two different locations, just playing on a street corner. One evening we walked to the main stage in the Beaux Arts district, where we joined a few thousand locals enjoying a band called Los Teoporos (see video below). There were three more scheduled to appear, each playing for almost an hour. People of all ages were having a great time. And we went to a concert at the Opéra Comédie featuring the local symphony, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier. Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. Loved it! There’s a modern dance festival coming up, too, and a Picasso exhibit just opened at the Musée Fabre. Something for everybody!

But there’s more to the south of France than Montpellier. Next time, I’ll describe a jousting match we watched this week. No horses, though — boats! Stay tuned.

Bonne journée!

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Here we are leaving the Opera Comedie after a symphony concert featuring a sensational young cellist named Edgar Moreau. Stopped on the way home to have some gelato!
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Inside the Opera Comedie as the crowd gathers. The opera house was first built in the 1700s, but that structure burned, as did its replacement. This version opened in 1888.

Bonjour, Montpellier!

 

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The view from our window. The Prefecture is on the left and the post office is straight ahead. Place Martyrs de la Resistance is usually a busy place. The people-watching is great. Students congregate here until the wee hours, and we’ve watched locals let their dogs play in the fountain. Free entertainment!

Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.

Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.

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Our nearly 500-year-old building. You can see Leslie waving if you look carefully at the fourth-floor window above the gray awning.

Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!

So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.

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The stairs outside our apartment. Thank God for handrails!

Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.

Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédiein less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.

Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walking under the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.

First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.

There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.

A bientôt!

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Place de la Comedie. A few days ago Leslie and I sat under one of those umbrellas and enjoyed a glass of wine while watching locals and tourists go about their day.