Forward into the past, back into the future

Montpellier, on the river Lez, is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and the eighth- largest city in France. Thanks largely to its universities, it has been the fastest-growing city over the last 25 years as well, especially among the young. There is a real buzz in the air, a tangible sense of growth and innovation, with striking modern urban areas complementing the quaintness of the medieval old quarters with their narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways, small village-type squares with splashing fountains, and elegant 17th to 19th century town mansions with their massive gates and cool interior courtyards. With its pleasant Mediterranean climate, less than 10 km from the coast and sandy beaches, Montpellier has a wonderful array of parks, gardens, and sports centres on offer, as well as the region’s best (if occasionally slightly scruffy) night-life, with outdoor restaurants and cafés open late.

The city was founded around 985 by the Counts of Toulouse who unified two existing hamlets. Of the 14th century fortifications two towers remain: the Tour de la Babote and the Tour des Pins. Montpellier has a long tradition of diversity and religious tolerance, and was home to a thriving Jewish cultural life; visit the 13th century Mikvé, the Jewish ritual baths.  It soon became a centre of learning and culture: its university is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1160, and counts Petrarch among its alumni. The School of Medicine, founded in 1181, is today the oldest operating medical school in the western world, and Rabelais and Nostradamus studied here. It was also the first School of Medicine to receive ecclesiastical authorization to perform post-mortem forensic dissection. In this spirit, the Conservatory of Anatomy, founded in 1857, has on show around 5,600 exhibitions, many of them decidedly not for the squeamish.

Montpellier happily unites old and new within its old town boundaries. The 14th century southern Gothic St-Pierre Cathedral boasts an imposing portico braced by two 100-foot towers, giving it a fortress-like appearance. The Place de la Comédie is one of the largest pedestrian areas in Europe, and is overlooked by the Comédie Opera (one of two internationally-known opera houses in the city). It plays host in May to the annual Comédie du Livre, the second most-prominent book fair in France; each year the new literature of a different nation is featured (2011 was dedicated to  German-language authors). Nearby, the Musée Fabre, created in 1828,  is considered one of the most important fine arts museums in France, and has an excellent collection of Impressionists, Flemish and Dutch masters, and a large room of works by Pierre Soulages. Nestling among the narrow alleys of the Quartier St-Roch, named after the patron of the city born here in the late 13th century, are the workshops and studios of the Ateliers St-Roch, an association of craftspeople of all kinds: jewellers, glassmakers, and more.

In the Quartier Ste-Anne, however, some modern practictioners of a centuries-old artistic tradition have really put Montpellier on the map: it has become in the past decades a world centre for lutherie, the making of fine stringed musical instruments. There are eleven such highly-skilled artisans creating the finest violins, violas, violoncellos, and guitars, mostly modelled after the masterpieces of the Cremona school made by Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri, and others. The instruments produced are unique and entirely hand-made, primarily using tools and methods employed by the great masters, and occasionally unlocking some centuries-old tricks of the trade.

© Dominique's Villas

© Dominique’s Villas

Yann Poulain, who established his atelier in 2005, has published a fascinating anyalsis of the evolution of the luthier’s art since the late 17th century, and about one mysterious secret of the early makers in particular. For the technically-inclined, this can be found in The Strad, July 2008 issue. This year four of these craftsmen based in the Quartier Ste-Anne, including Mr Poulain,  instigated a Festival of Lutherie, the first of hopefully many biannual celebrations of their fine art. During the last week of April, Montpellier resounded with the gorgeous tones of their modern instruments, in the hands of top world soloists. There were exhibitions of instruments, guided tours of the lutheries, conferences on different aspects of instrument making, and a market for specialist suppliers of Balkan maple, Indian ebony, and other fine materials of the craft. There was even a grillade fired by offcuts from instruments in progress!  Finally, a “blindfold” competition: a modern instrument by Montpellier luthier Frédéric Chaudière versus a genuine Strad: the audience voted for the local fiddle!

Just outside old Montpellier is the more recent development of Antigone, built on land acquired from the military in 1978. On the commission of Montpellier’s dynamic and far-sighted mayor Georges Frêche, noted Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill created a neo-classical delight, with its futuristic sandstone housing and office buildings, a vast plaza with an all-glass Arc de Triomphe and a winged Victoire de Samothrace, and for the hot weather, an Olympic-size swimming pool. The modern district of Millénaire sprang up amid the rolling vineyards to the east of Montpellier, and offers all kinds of earthly and heavenly delights. The Odysseum is a virtually American-style commercial and educational (not so American perhaps) centre with something for everyone: a multiplex cinema, a climbing wall, bowling alleys, and of course hundreds of shops. Nearby is the excellent Galileo Planetarium, the modern Aquarium Mare Nostrum, and then there is the Patinoire: a 1800sqm ice-skating rink, complete with lighting, slideshows, and other special effects.

Tucked away in this modern paradise is another venerable Montpellier institution, the Château de Flaugergues, established in 1696 by a local aristocrat, Etienne de Flaugergues, and his descendents still inhabit the elegant mansion he built. The oldest “folly” (so-called because of its location in what was once countryside among the leaves – feuilles), Flaugergues has marvellous formal French gardens and a botanical park. The château also produces an award-winning AOC Côteaux de Languedoc, and is open for guided tours during the summer months.

All this progress must come with a price, and Montpellier today has some pressing issues to address, not least of which is a major problem with traffic congestion. The A9 autoroute, the Languedocienne, passes beneath the city, and daily sees between 60,000 and 150,000 vehicles barging each other around. Driving inside the city is no easier; the current construction of a third tramline has given rise to brain-damaging queues; you can easily find yourself stuck in a bus lane with no escape. Don’t worry, the camera has seen you; the PCN is in the post. The housing market is also jammed; the drastic increase in the city’s population in the 1960s brought about by the large influx of repatriated French settlers after the Algerian war of independence, and the arrival of IBM, has not let up to this day. Add 60,000-odd students in a city as attractive as Montpellier and the crunch is on. Unfortunately, this often leads to increases in crime figures, and currently the forces of law and order are finding their budgets and personnel under attack. Many experienced police veterans feel the battle is being lost, and are joining private security firms, and security CCTV installations are considered essential to sell any property.

The Montpellier Tourist Office offers several different City Cards giving free entry or discounts on a wide range of museums, shows, and public transport, and offers guided tours as well. The 120km of cycling paths in and around Montpellier can be enjoyed on a hire bike which are readily available.

Montpellier Office de Tourisme

Lutherie in Montpellier


Getting there

By air (Montpellier, Marseille, Avignon, Nîmes)
Airlines and flights >>
By car
Cross-Channel ferries >>
Motoring tips >>
Driving through France >>
By rail
Eurostar/TGV >>