Sunday, 20 May 2012



Montpellier is a city in southern France. It is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, as well as the Hérault department. Montpellier is the 8th largest city of the country, and is also the fastest growing city in France over the past 25 years.

In the Early Middle Ages, the nearby episcopal town of Maguelone was the major settlement in the area, but raids by pirates encouraged settlement a little further inland. Montpellier, first mentioned in a document of 985, was founded under a local feudal dynasty, the Guilhem, who joined together two hamlets and built a castle and walls around the united settlement. The two surviving towers of the city walls, the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte are later in date, they were built around the year 1200. Montpellier came to prominence in the 12th century as a trading centre, with trading links across the Mediterranean world and a rich Jewish cultural life and traditions of tolerance of its Muslims, Jews and Cathars—and later of its Protestants. 

The city became a possession of the kings of Aragon in 1204 by the marriage of Peter II of Aragon with Marie of Montpellier, who brought the city as her dowry. Montpellier gained a charter in 1204 when Peter and Marie confirmed the city's traditional freedoms and granted the city the right to choose twelve governing consuls annually. Under the Kings of Aragon Montpellier became a very important city, a major economic center and the main place for spice trade in the Kingdom of France. It has been the second or third more important city of France at that time, with some 40 000 inhabitants before the Black Death. 

Montpellier remained a possession of the crown of Aragon until it passed to James III of Majorca, who sold the city to the French king Philip VI in 1349, to raise funds for his ongoing struggle with Peter IV of Aragon. In the 14th century, Pope Urban VIII gave Montpellier a new monastery dedicated to Saint Peter, noteworthy for the very unusual porch of its chapel, supported by two high, somewhat rocket-like towers. With its importance steadily increasing, the city finally gained a bishop, who moved from Maguelone in 1536, and the huge monastery chapel became a cathedral. 

At the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, many of the inhabitants of Montpellier became Protestants (or Huguenots as they were known in France) and the city became a stronghold of Protestant resistance to the Catholic French crown. In 1622, King Louis XIII besieged the city which surrendered after a rude two months siege (Siege of Montpellier), afterwards building the Citadel of Montpellier to secure it. Louis XIV made Montpellier capital of Bas Languedoc, and the town started to embellish itself, by building the Promenade du Peyrou, the Esplanade and a large number of houses in the historic centre. After the French Revolution, the city became the capital of the much smaller Hérault. 

During the 19th century the city developed into an industrial centre. In the 1960s, its population grew dramatically after French settlers in Algeria were resettled in the city following Algeria's independence from France. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city drew attention with a number of major redevelopment projects, such as the Corum and especially the Antigone District. 

Montpellier really is special. What’s more – very few people outside France have understood just what a fantastic city this is. Broad boulevards lined with shady plane trees, a huge car-free central square laid out in the 1700s surrounded by elegant balustraded buildings, even a vast triumphal arch – you name it, Montpellier’s got it.

If you're in the market for chic boutiques, designer wine bars, electronic music and art house films, then Montpellier is the place for you. Languedoc-Roussillon’s capital city is arguably the chicest spot on France’s south coast, and it certainly pulls in the punters. An extra 18,000 folk make Montpellier their home every year, and the burgeoning student population  means that the nightlife, fashions and café culture tend to cater to Bright Young Things, with a reasonable helping of up-market wine bars, modern restaurants and smart stores targeting the sizeable community of lawyers and doctors.

Visitors tend to start their Montpellier sightseeing on the central expanse of Place de la Comédie, seduced by its café terraces and imposing, 19th century opera house. All well and good, but to escape the gawking tourists and Saturday afternoon out-of-towners, hot foot it up the pedestrian-only sweep of Montpellier's rue de la Loge into the ancient, most attractive part of town known as l’Ecusson. Halfway up on the right, the street widens out to form a square covered in café chairs and tables: welcome to Place Jean-Jaurès, home of Montpellier students and other twenty-somethings. 

Head up the street, hang a right just before the Préfecture (beside the post office) and you’ll hit Place Marché Aux Fleurs; on the other side of Montpellier's Préfecture lies petite but perfectly formed Place Chabaneau. A multitude of wine bars have recently sprung up in Montpellier and they are a great way to sample the region’s many excellent appellations and Vins de Pays. Among the best are Le Comptoir (rue du Puits-du-Temple), Mi Barrio (rue du Plan d’Agde) and the Times Café (rue des Teissiers), all within spitting distance of the church of Montpellier’s patron saint, St. Roch. Well-chosen wine lists, tasty platters (think fresh baguette paired with olive tapenade, sun-dried aubergines, paté, garlicky charcuterie and goats cheese) and a buzzy vibe make for value-for-money good times.

Shopaholics can indulge their habit in Montpellier's centre. Many shops in rural France are traditionally closed on Mondays, but most of Montpellier’s stores are open all week bar Sunday. Well-known names like Galeries Lafayette, Habitat, Zara, Benetton, FNAC and Gap can be found in the charisma-free zone that is the Polygone shopping mall (between Place de la Comédie and the Antigone quarter).

For more recherché labels, head back into the Ecusson and the side streets branching off rue de la Loge (rue de l’Argenterie and rue de l’Ancien Courrier offer rich pickings). A pedestrian zone, this shopper’s paradise is the place to snap up stylish menswear, womenswear, footwear, jewellery, leather goods, eyewear, fragrances and homewares.

Hunting for timeless French classics? Try the Lacoste store on rue Saint Guilhem; on rue de la Loge, French chain La Compagnie des Cotonniers stocks hip, understated womenswear, and for ultra-chic kids’ clothes, Petit Bateau is on the same street. The rue Saint Guilhem boasts a couple of fancy tableware outlets in the shape of Guy Degrenne and L’Emprin, as well as the excellent Puig fromagerie and the Maison Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir (a long name for a fine wine and specialty foods emporium).

                                                        Montpellier’s Top 5:
  1. Montpellier Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Montpellier) is a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a national monument of France. It is the seat of the Archbishops, previously Bishops, of Montpellier. Originally a church attached to the monastery of Saint-Benoît (founded in 1364), the building was elevated to the status of cathedral in 1536, when the see of Maguelonne was transferred to Montpellier. It suffered extensive damage during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century, and was subsequently rebuilt in the 17th.
  2. The Musée Fabre The museum was founded by François-Xavier Fabre, a Montpellier painter, in 1825. Beginning in 2003, the museum underwent a 61.2 million euro renovation, which was completed in January 2007. It is one of the main sights of Montpellier and close to the city's main square, the Place de la Comédie. The museum's national importance is recognised by it being classified as a Musée de France by the French Ministry of Culture.  On display are ceramics from Greece and the rest of Europe. Furthermore, the museum has a large collection of paintings from the 17th until the 19th century, with a large representation of the luminophiles movement. There are also sculptures by Antoine Bourdelle, Jean-Antoine Houdon and
    René Iché.
  3. The Porte du Peyrou is a triumphal arch in Montpellier. It is situated at the eastern end of the Jardin de Peyrou, a park near the center of the city. The arch was designed by François Dorbay, after the model of the Porte Saint-Denis in Paris. Its construction was completed in 1693. Its rusticated surface is crowned by a Doric entablature, suitable to a martial monument. Its later panels in bas-relief and inscriptions glorifying King Louis XIV of France were added in 1715.
  4. Tour de la Babote. A large medieval corner tower. In occitan, babota means an insect larvae or a silk worm chrysalis. The name is deemed to have unappealing connotations which some people believe is in keeping with the tower's appearance. Was it considered somehow more impregnable and threatening than the others. In 1739 the Sociate Royale des Sciences constructed an observatory.
  5. The Place de la Comédie is the main focal point of the city of Montpellier. It is located at the south-east point of the city centre where in previous times the fortifications of the city were located. The square is first mentioned in 1755 and is named after the theatre located there, which burned down in 1785 and 1855. The Place became the main focal point of the city when, in the mid-19th century the main railway station was built some 200 metres south of it. At that time, a smaller train going to the nearby beach at Palavas-les-Flots also had its provenance on the Place.

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