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Montpellier: Of southern France vibe and Mediterranean light Montpellier
A Montpellier square buzzing with diners on a weekend. Image by Sujoy Dhar

Montpellier: Of southern France vibe and Mediterranean light

By Sujoy Dhar | @indiablooms | 22 Apr 2024, 09:25 pm

A staircase of 15 ritual steps through a passageway lit by bulbs led us to an eerie underground water table. The steps were like going to a medieval dungeon for prisoners.

Well this is a 13th century Mikveh, the ceremonial Jewish bath, in the old central street of the Jewish quarter in Montpellier. The Jewish bath is like a hidden mystery of this medieval southern France city.

Montpellier is a very easy going French city for its warm-hearted people. Image by Sujoy Dhar.Montpellier is a very easy going French city for its warm-hearted people. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

As I emerged from the underground mikveh - that represents a thousand-year-old  place of spirituality - into the Mediterranean sunlight of Montpellier and walked through the cobbled roads and alleyways of limestone houses and basked in the effervescence of a sprawling city centre or a square with some fountain, I realised that Monpellier is indeed an undervalued destination of France.

A 13th century underground Mikveh, the ceremonial Jewish bath, in the old Jewish quarter of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy DharA 13th century underground Mikveh, the ceremonial Jewish bath, in the old Jewish quarter of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar

Like the mikveh, Montpellier, located in the Occitanie region of France with almost a yearlong good weather and sunshine, is a hidden gem and lesser known component of the French Riviera. Well, I realised that right on arrival when our cab passed through the stunning Arc De Triomphe.

Medieval, gothic Montpellier

Montepllier has its very own Arc De Triomphe like Paris and it is a centerpiece of the iconic city gateway that is Porte du Peyrou. We passed through it into a warren of beautiful buildings on both sides of the street in the old town.

One of the many interesting alleys of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy DharOne of the many interesting alleys of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar

If you get an access to ascend to its top, it offers an incredible view of the city. We climbed to the roof and enjoyed a sweeping view of Montpellier. Well if you are visiting this city, you can ask the tourism office for permission to go to the top of Arc De Triomphe.

A view from the top of Arc De Triomphe. Image by Sujoy DharA view from the top of Arc De Triomphe. Image by Sujoy Dhar

"Graceful and easy-going, Montpellier is a stylish metropolis with elegant buildings, grand hôtels particuliers (private mansions), stately boulevards and shady backstreets, and gorgeous white-sand beaches on its doorstep," I read on Lonely Planet about Montpellier when I looked up for some information before planning a trip. I found it matching this brief description indeed. Of all the words it uses for Montpelier, the one that sums it up is- easy-going. All because of the people who live here.

 The fountain and sculpture of the three Graces, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia, at the comedy square of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar. The fountain and sculpture of the three Graces, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia, at the comedy square of Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

We were staying in this magnificent heritage property- Hotel Richer de Belleval- in Montpellier which overlooks a square that buzzes with music and a happy crowd of diners on weekends, and to my amazement one of the senior ladies of the hotel- a livewire of the property- accompanied us to the beach the next day just like a friend in a non-fancy car ride with the city's tourism department magnate Valerie. Montpellier is easy-going because the people irrespective of their positions or work are easy-going. What they have in abundance is  "joie de vivre".

Montpellier old town has alleyways lined by beautiful stone buildings. Image by Sujoy Dhar.Montpellier old town has alleyways lined by beautiful stone buildings. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

According to Montpellier tourism, their city centre is an open-air museum! The city indeed is a unique blend of the new and old architectural marvels.

So while you wander the old town’s medieval lanes, enjoy the street art, or visit the Musée Fabre (a famous museum), stroll around Place de la Comédie (the square) or visit the famous Faculty of Medicine, Montpellier Cathedral, and Saint-Roch Church, in another part of the city  new modern buildings designed by celebrity architects, including a government office by the iconic (late) Zaha Hadid, await your attention.

Montpellier Cathedral. Image by Sujoy Dhar.Montpellier Cathedral. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

Beginning in the old town, I loved the Gothic style Montpellier Cathedral which is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Peter.  The Saint-Roch Church is at the heart of the Ecusson, in a district made of coffee terraces and restaurants.

Adjacent to St. Peter’s Cathedral, the university of the city is located in a former 14th century monastery  known for law and theology studies. Here in 1220 the “Faculty of Medicine” was officially recognized. It is the oldest medical school in the West that is still functioning. The walls of the hall are decorated with portraits of the most famous teachers in formal dress.

Explore Montpellier by walking. Image by Sujoy DharExplore Montpellier by walking. Image by Sujoy Dhar

The Faculty houses numerous treasures, including a library of 900 manuscript volumes, 300 incunabula, 100,000 volumes printed before 1800, and all the theses produced by the faculties of Montpellier and Paris since the 17th century.

The most sprawling region of Montpellier is the square located near the Ecusson (the City Center), one of the favorite places of Montpellier residents and visitors. It is right opposite the triumphal Arch or Arc De Triomphe . 

In the extension of the triumphal Arch, the Promenade du Peyrou,  opens to all horizons. It hosts the statue of Louis XIV on horseback and the château d'eau (a water tower designed in the 18th century).

The statue of Louis XIV on horseback at the Promenade du Peyrou. Image by Sujoy Dhar. The statue of Louis XIV on horseback at the Promenade du Peyrou. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

The Peyrou esplanade offers a panoramic view of the city, of the ancient arches of a Roman aqueduct, Les Arceaux and of the surrounding area.

It was completed in 1774, the date of Louis XVI's accession to the throne, by Jean Giral, the architect.

A view of the vista from the columns of the Water Tower, a neo-classical structure, in Peyrou Park. Image by Sujoy DharA view of the vista from the columns of the Water Tower, a neo-classical structure, in Peyrou Park. Image by Sujoy Dhar

The triumphal Arch and the water tower and the Arceaux aqueduct, are typical of classical architecture. This area-the Promenade du Peyrou- is the most relaxing, prettiest space of the city. It is magnificent to be there during the golden hours.

Contemporary Montpellier

If you like contemporary architecture, then  a walk along the river Lez and through the Port Marianne district is a must. 

The Antigone district of Montpellier, designed by Ricardo Bofill, is marked by its neoclassical architecture. Place de l’Europe, Place du nombre d’or and Place de Thessalie are the three beautiful squares of the district.  

Place de Thessalie with its fountain of ephebes. Image by Sujoy DharPlace de Thessalie with its fountain of ephebes. Image by Sujoy Dhar

Place de Thessalie with its fountain of ephebes wowed me. Three statues of Ephebes (meaning a young military trainee male in ancient Greece) here are showering under the running water of the fountain and it surely takes you back to ancient Greece. Do not miss an Instagram worthy photo here.

A sculpture in one of the squares of new Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar. A sculpture in one of the squares of new Montpellier. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

Explore the city’s newest district, Port-Marianne, the hub of the young people for its  activities, food joints and entertainment venues.

The district’s contemporary, designer-style architecture, which mixes offices, housing and buildings by top architects, has added a new dimension to Montpellier.

A Montpellier man showcases his prized catch from river Lez. Image by Sujoy Dhar.A Montpellier man showcases his prized catch from river Lez. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

From a “green route” bike path along the river Lez to Palavas-les Flots, this is new Montpellier.

The famous White Tree building of Montpellier in the cityThe famous White Tree building of Montpellier in the city's new district. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

Walking by the riverside you also encounter an all-white tree building with its large suspended balconies. That’s the Arbre Blanc, meaning White Tree.

The city hall is the centrepiece of Port Marianne area. Image credit: Montpellier Tourism website.The city hall is the centrepiece of Port Marianne area. Image credit: Montpellier Tourism website.

However, the centerpiece of Port Marianne is City Hall, a large cube of blue glass and aluminum laid on the edge of the river Lez, imagined by Jean Nouvel and François Fontès and completed in 2011. Two large interior patios and light-dimming blinds are reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sujoy Dhar (@sujoydhar1)

The tramway

When in Montpellier, do not miss the tramway.

The Montpellier tramway is the ideal mode of transport to get around, to visit a number of tourist sites or even reach close to the beach. The trams in this city are works of art and the routes named after four elements: air with the white swallows on a blue background on line 1; earth with the flowers on line 2; water with the underwater decorations on line 3; fire with the trains on line 4 dedicated to the Sun King.

Montpellier is easy to commute by trams. Image by Sujoy Dhar.Montpellier is easy to commute by trams. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

In 2000, with line 1, the designers Garouste and Bonetti announced the renewal of transport in Montpellier with their “swallows” design.

Inaugurated in 2006, line 2 with its multicoloured flowers is a testimony to the summer beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.

In Montpellier, trams are an essential eco-friendly mode of transport. Image by Sujoy Dhar. In Montpellier, trams are an essential eco-friendly mode of transport. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

In 2012, Christian Lacroix designed lines 3 and 4 with a very contemporary design. He is both a great name in fashion and a man from the South, originally from Camargue, who loves the Mediterranean Sea ! Octopuses, fish and starfish decorate line 3, while gold-coloured antique engravings decorate line 4.

When in Montpellier, do not miss the tramway. When in Montpellier, do not miss the tramway.

"Embark on a design and haute couture journey!" says Montpellier Tourism about their trams.

White sand beaches

A view from one of the suites of Hôtel Spa Plage Palace on Palavas-les-Flots beach. Image by Sujoy Dhar. A view from one of the suites of Hôtel Spa Plage Palace on Palavas-les-Flots beach. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

Montpellier is not on the beach, it is 10 km inland. But a few kilometres can be covered easily by public transport. So Montpellier is also a destination with a white sand beach which is unspoilt.

Palavas-les-Flots or Carnon are more touristy beaches while the secluded ones are Petit Travers and Grand Travers.

A view of the Palavas-les-Flots beach. Image by Sujoy Dhar. A view of the Palavas-les-Flots beach. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

You can reach the beaches even without a car. Just take a tram (line 4 or 3 depending on the beach) and then a bus to the beaches. 

So land on one of the beaches for the long walks, for paddling, or some water sports. Or  just laze about with a drink on a private beach.

Hôtel Spa Plage Palace on Palavas-les-Flots beach is a luxury property wooing well-heeled tourists. Image by Sujoy Dhar. Hôtel Spa Plage Palace on Palavas-les-Flots beach is a luxury property wooing well-heeled tourists. Image by Sujoy Dhar.

There are some luxurious beach properties too for the well heeled travellers. I spent an afternoon in the lounge of one of those- Hôtel Spa Plage Palace on Palavas-les-Flots beach. It is a property with two floors of immaculate white cubes and an elaborate open lounge with restaurants and cocktail bar overlooking the Mediterranean sea.

I stepped out of the lounge and walked on the white sands and found a spot for myself on a rock against which the Mediterranean waves were crashing as the golden hours approached.

From the beach, as we returned to the comfort of Hotel Richer de Belleval, which felt like my home for two days thanks to the most hospitable staff lineup, Montpellier appeared to me indeed easy-going, elegant and full of people with warm, loving hearts.

Also Read: Hotel Richer de Belleval: Where luxury meets bistronomy

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sujoy Dhar (@sujoydhar1)

  

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