Montpellier: a medieval city with a modern twist

My reason for visiting the Languedoc region of France was to take a pilgrimage to the tiny appellation that produces my favourite white wine, Picpoul de Pinet. Montpellier was a convenient place to stay, but turned out to be a real highlight of the trip in its own right.

Montpellier has that ideal city break combination of history, culture, shopping and great restaurants and bars. Its architecture and infrastructure are a blend of old and new, with brightly painted modern trams running through squares and streets lined by Renaissance mansions.

There are also plenty of old and new hotels in the city to choose from. Having arrived from Avignon where we went for a traditional option, we chose the ultra modern Pullman Montpellier Centre. It’s very close to the historic centre, but has the space for a rooftop swimming pool with a bar and restaurant alongside it. We found it ideal, with friendly staff and handy for getting into the city centre.

It was just a short walk from the hotel through the Polygone Shopping Centre to reach the heart of Montpellier, the vast Place de La Comedie. The domed former opera house is at one end of the square and both sides are lined with lively cafes and fast food joints.

If that’s a bit too lively for you then the Esplandade Charles de Gaulle runs off the square at the opposite end to the opera house. Also known as Champ de Mars it’s a park with a tree-lined promenade and some lovely old cafes. We had excellent omelettes at La Kiosque à Malices and drinks and ice creams at L’Esplanade.

Also along here is the Pavillion Populaire which hosts photography exhibitions and Espace Dominique Bagouet where the exhibitions cover local 19th and 20th century artists. On the opposite side of the esplande is Musée Fabre, which has almost a thousand paintings from the Renaissance to present day.

At the end of the Esplanade is the new and very modern opera house, Le Corum. It’s made from concrete and pink granite and as well as a huge opera hall it houses a convention centre. If you walk up the steps and along to the end of the terrace there are some fab views of the city below.

Le CorumMontpellierI really liked that part of Montpellier, but my favourite was the old town which is a maze of medieval streets, beautiful mansions and museums. It was incredibly easy to get off the beaten track and as we wandered around we often found ourselves in quiet streets with hardly anyone around. Heaven!

MontpellierMontpellier Old TownIn one narrow street, Rue de l’Ecole de Pharmacie, we found La Panacée which is a hub of visual arts, writing and digital technology. The building used to be the medical college and dates back to the 12th century. It has been beautifully converted and has a very cool cafe.

La Panacee, MontpellierLa PanaceeWe also popped into Hotel de Varennes – not a hotel you stay in as it’s the French name for a palace. This one is Gothic and has lots of interesting original features and a couple of small museums as well as a gorgeous looking restaurant, La Diligence.

Hotel de Varennes, MontpellierHotel de Varennes, MontpellierAlso tucked away in the old town is Montpellier Cathedral which literally looks like it’s been squeezed in between the narrow streets. As a result it’s not too easy to get photos of the impressive exterior, though the inside is equally worth seeing.

Montpellier CathedralMontpellier CathedralAnother church worth seeking out in the old town is Église Saint-Roch de Montpellier. It’s in the pretty Place Saint-Roch which has a fountain and some nice cafes for afresco eating and drinking. There’s also a three hundred square metre mural on a building opposite which shows the facade of a house with people sitting on the steps. It’s quite hard to spot at first as just looks like it’s an actual house!

Église Saint-Roch de MontpellierThe main road cutting through the middle of the old town is Rue Foch and at the end is Montpellier’s own Arc de Triomphe which dates back to the 17th century. Behind it on the outskirts of the historic centre is Promenade du Peyrou. A wide open space that contrasts hugely with the narrow streets of the old town.

Arc de TriompheThe Peyrou is a nice place for a walk as provides a panoramic view of the city and the ancient arches of a Roman aqueduct, Les Arceaux. Other features include a statue of Louis XIV on horseback and a water tower with a pool at the bottom that’s fed by the aqueduct. The promenade was once the haunt of the Montpellier bourgeoisie who flocked here to stroll in the shade of the sycamore trees. Today it’s more of a favourite with joggers, petanque players and dog walkers.

Aqueduc Saint-Clément, MontpellierChâteau d'eau, MontpellierOne of the nicest aspects of Montpellier is the contrasting areas you come across when meandering around the city. Another part that is very different to the old town is Antigone. It has wide boulevards, plazas, shops and both residential apartment buildings and offices. It all felt very chic and modern by contrast with the old town.

We headed that way to pick up a bus at Place de Europe to Château de Flaugergues which is only 3km from the city centre but feels like a world away. It’s set in lovely gardens, has lots to see inside including a quite unique staircase and as an added bonus they offer tastings of their own wines. As I mentioned earlier, this trip was inspired by my favourite Languedoc wine and this was a great place to try some others.

Needless to say we also tasted local wines in restaurants and bars and there are plenty to choose from in Montpellier. We went to two restaurants that have the same owner, both specialise in fish and are opposite each other on Rue du Palais des Guilhem. On our first night we had a fab meal at Chez Toto and on the second we ate at the slightly more upmarket La Morue, where the food was also delicious.

La Morue, MontpellierThe best place we found for drinks was literally a minute’s walk from there and called Comptoir de l’Arc. It’s on the corner of a small wooded square Place de la Canourgue, so a really nice spot to sit outside on the large terrace and try both their wine and cocktails. Definitely a very good place to raise a glass to an excellent couple of days in Montpellier.

Comptoir de l'Arc, MontpellierClick on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery. You can also read about our visit to the Picpoul vineyards, our stay in Avignon and a trip to some of the Provence vineyards in the France section of my blog.

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