Thursday, March 22, 2007

Home Sweet Montpellier

Montpellier is sweet. It is sweet in the hip slang sense like your old Corvette is cherry, or your old man is pretty cool. It is so sweet that I tend to be like my sister when she moved from the east coast to the California Napa Valley. “OK, I managed to get here. Now close the gates, shutter all the windows, and don’t tell anyone how great it is. “

Nudging all my little ducklings into place here took some doing and some luck. Mostly luck, but it still means that I have a vested interest in Montpellier holding onto its more endearing traits. Although there is probably no need to worry about “my Montpellier” disappearing, the region does have an astonishing growth rate compared to most areas of France. Still, not that many people are going to feel the same way I do about a smallish city of 250 thousand, a quarter of which are university students. Right? Even if the metropolitan area is close to 500 thousand, it is a far cry from Paris, or Marseille or Lyon, or Bordeaux, or Lille. In fact, it comes limping over the finish at number 8 among cities in France. So I don't really need to worry. Right?

It is not a big deal for some that there are two large opera venues, a world renown modern dance festival, or a strong theater and music scene, not to mention an “important” museum which just went through a 4 year renovation and has reopened to rave reviews. All that is true of plenty of cities, and Montpellier is a good 6 miles away from long sandy Mediterranean beaches having neither the glittering, gold-encrusted glamour of the Côte d’Azur nor the lavender caché of Provence. It does have a smart little airport with plenty of Air France flights to Paris, but if I “just gotta get outa town” I prefer to endure the 3 hours on the train to Gare de Lyon, or go Spain-ish and take the car to make the 3 hour drive to Barcelona. The burdons we have to bear. It doesn't sound that great. Right?

Montpellier is a city that was at it’s zenith during and for a couple hundred years after the middle ages. And coinciding with that history, it has one of the largest pedestrian quarters in Europe. About one square kilometer full of winding streets, charming squares, and architecture that just reeks of history. Scratch that, people flock to charming, Montpellier is NOT THAT charming. Perhaps I’m a little biased. Being a complete freak for historical novels set from the middle ages through the nineteenth century might put me in that category. Arthurian legends, swashbuckling musketeers, rob from the rich give to the poor type guys, their horses and carriages careening down narrow, cobbled streets. They rock my world. And here I am rolling out of bed to sneak out of the apartment, descending three flights of 300 year old stone stairs, and scuttling across the marble paved street to pick up the morning baguette. Looking up as I dash for the center of the street , I almost feel like I need to confirm that there is no risk of someone emptying a bedpan from the big windows above. How close to heaven can you get? ... Maybe a little biased.

And that doesn't even take into account that I spent half my youth watching my feet for signs of hair and waiting for Aragorn to come and rescue me. I was sure I was a hobbit. If you check Montpellier's history you learn that at the beginning of the 13th century the city was the dowry of Marie of Montpellier for her marriage to Peter II of Aragon. I walk past her house all the time, really, it is still there. But I just can't figure out why Tolkien didn't catch the misspelling of the name Aragon. Maybe it was the accent that threw him off.

I could go on, and probably will, but rather than regurgitate much of the basic information that can be found in any encyclopedia I’ll try to present a more personal perspective of this somewhat unruly little town. And of course, take some more photos.


wcs said...

You make Montpellier sound terrific. And, as I've never stopped there, another place to add to the to-do list. Thanks !

Reb said...

You didn't mention the Roman aqueduct.

You'd probably appreciate the patch of medieval stones in the middle of the main square in Lille. They left original stones from the old market place there when they redid the square many years ago.

Ken Broadhurst said...

OK, Montpellier is a town I need to see and walk around in. According to ViaMichelin, it's about 600 km, less than 400 miles, and about 5½ hours from Saint-Aignan. Got to start planning a trip...

Gem said...

Hmm... there is no /Roman/ aqueduct, although it does look pretty cool. I lived near les arceaux for a year, and I think I fell in love with Montpellier. It actually physically hurts when I think about the city. I can't wait to go back!

Papadesdeux said...

True... only Roman aqueduct in the neighborhood is the Pont du Gard close to Nimes and Uzes. The aqueduct in Montpellier is impressive but it was constructed in the 18th. century.

Lesley said...

I like most of Montpellier but I feel uncomfortable in the parts designed by Ricardo Bofill : too imposing.

Loulou said...

Great Montpellier post. I always try to convince our visitors to check it out. They're ususally more interested in the walled city in Carcassonne.
We've considered selling our little house in the country and moving to Montpellier. You make it sound so fabulous! Is there room for a couple more American expats?

Prashanth said...

You do have a way with your words- but when you write about Montpellier - it does make it easier doesnt it?
I was on a business trip for just two days - but fell in love with the place. The joie de vivre of the people competes with the wonderful weather and of course with about 240,000 people - its not very crowded at all.
Loved the way you describe it. Here's to a town that is hard to forget.