When you think of the south of France, you probably think of spectacular coastlines and fields of lavender, cities like Nice and Cannes – Provence and the French Riviera. But that’s only half the story. Between the Riviera and the Spanish border lies another region entirely: Occitanie.
Montpellier, where I spent a month studying French, is one of the main cities of Occitanie. Though perhaps not as well-known as its counterparts farther up the coast, Montpellier is a great city with much to offer – from natural scenery to history to cultural activities.
Montpellier is located on a coastal plain a near the Mediterranean Sea. Two large lagoons separate the city from a stretch of long sandy beaches. Behind the city, the landscape rises toward the Cévennes mountains in the distance.
With a metropolitan population of about half a million, Montpellier is not huge. But, it’s a student city, so it’s lively and there’s always something going on. Montpellier is home to the University of Montpellier and one of the world’s oldest medical schools (and with that, one of the oldest botanic gardens as well). Given its sunny weather and reasonable cost of living, Montpellier also hosts numerous schools of French language.
The Place de la Comédie anchors the city around a nineteenth century opera house and the Fontaine des Trois Grâces. The three Greek goddesses depicted in the statue serve as the symbol of Montpellier.
The Historic City Center
To one side of the square, you enter the labyrinthine cobbled streets of the medieval city center. The old town is a compact and walkable area where some of the street names still reflect their traditional trade. Creative street art is around every corner in the city center. Where the tight layout restricts the architectural symmetry of certain buildings, the missing details are painted on with a mind-bending trompe l’œil (optical illusion) effect.
Many churches can be found in the historic area as well. The towering Église Sainte-Anne is decommissioned and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. All of the other churches are still active and operate as a single parish. Interestingly, because Montpellier’s medieval school of medicine was originally chartered by the pope, it has a long history of association with the Church. As a result, the imposing gothic cathedral of the archdiocese is physically attached to the medical school and its museum of anatomy – a unique combination for sure!
Once surrounded by a city wall, Montpellier has long since escaped its original boundaries. Now, a brilliantly painted golden tram makes a loop around the city center, separating the medieval from the modern. To the west, an eighteenth-century aqueduct stretches into the distance from the base of a triumphal arch. To the east, a promenade passes between the grand facades of the Antigone district as it leads down to the slow-moving river Lez. Modern suburbs straddle the tram lines stretching outward in every other direction.
I was in Montpellier during the month of July, so the student culture of the city was perhaps not as vibrant as at other times of the year. The French like to take long vacations in July and August, so many businesses were even closed for the duration of my stay. However, the summer schedule was in full swing, so there was no lack of things to do around town!
The Musée Fabre is one of Montpellier’s primary museums, and houses a large collection of art. I stopped by after class one day to check out the summer exhibition, called “Picasso.Donner à voir”. The exhibition presented the artistic career of Pablo Picasso in fourteen stages. Even something like myself, who knows nothing about art, was able to see the progression of styles and influences. Still, I have trouble understanding his more unusual paintings!
France’s national holiday, Bastille Day, falls on the fourteenth of July. In Paris, the day is marked by a huge military parade and flyovers on the Champs-Élysées. In Montpellier, the celebration has a little less pomp, but still features a public concert and a great fireworks display in bleu, blanc, et rouge (blue, white, and red). This year, the national holiday also happened to fall on the same weekend that France won the FIFA World Cup, so the city was filled with patriotic noise-making all weekend! 🇫🇷
Les Esti-vales de Montpellier is a festival that takes place weekly along the main esplanade throughout the summer. The name is a play on words, with “esti-” referring to the summer season. There is live music and always a large attendance. Gourmet food stalls are set up selling everything from crêpes to paella and regional specialties such as onion beignets. Regional artisans sell their products as well. The biggest attraction is the wine list. Dozens of wineries from the surrounding region set up booths, and for a small price, you can get a souvenir wine glass and a couple of tickets for some generously poured dégustations (tastings).
A Liveable City
Most of the Montpelliérains that I met are proud of their city. Many had left Montpellier for work or school, but returned for the Mediterranean climate and the quality of life, one of the highest in France. I can’t say the sweltering July heatwave was my favorite part, though – especially without air conditioning!
But, I enjoyed the city. It has the history and beauty you would expect from a French city. At the same time, it is modern and easy to get around with a great public transportation system. Though it’s not a huge city, it has a good range of amenities, and is well connected to the rest of France as well as to neighboring Catalonia in Spain. It’s certainly worth a visit if you’re in the region!