The Many Charms of Montpellier
October 26, 2011
Having visited the southern city of Montpellier just briefly
this summer, I find myself with an overwhelming urge to go back again very soon
to see more of this marvelous university town, brimming with sophistication and
charm.The capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in fact Montpellier is
one of the most visited cities in the south of France. Its location, less than
four miles from the Mediterranean seacoast, means that it attracts a large
number of both foreign and French tourists in the summer months. During the
rest of the year it’s teeming with some 60,000 students attending its top-notch
university, whose world-famous medical school predates the official founding of
the university in 1289—both Nostradamus and Rabelais were medical students there
in the 16th century. Wandering through the cobbled streets of the Old Town, and
marveling at the plethora of exclusive boutiques and fashionable cafés, I was
reminded of Oxford—in a sunny Mediterranean version.The large student
contingent means that the city’s population of some 260,000 has an average age
of just 25.
As well as being young and vibrant, Montpellier is also one of
France’s fastest growing cities. Over the last few decades it has become a
thriving center for high-tech industries, and international companies such as
IBM and Dell have moved into the suburbs, bolstering the population of greater
Montpellier and providing it with a substantial expatriate community.
The old city center is now pedestrian-only, and a great many
residents do not use cars at all. Along with one of the most modern tramway
systems in France, the city also has an excellent bus network and the
forward-thinking Modul auto municipal rental car system—residents and visitors
alike can rent a car for as little as an hour, with pickup and return points in
neighborhood parking lots all across town.
Without the nuisance of cars, the city center is a labyrinth of
winding streets full of wonderful shops, restaurants and bars extending from
the 18th-century Place de la Comédie to the 17th-century Arc de Triomphe and
the terraces of the Promenade du Peyrou, which was planned in 1688 as a setting
for a monumental equestrian statue of Louis XIV. Not far from the Promenade,
the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest botanical garden in France. It sits beside
the medical school, installed in a former Benedictine monastery, founded in the
14th century and attached to the cathedral of Saint Pierre.
Aligned on either side of the Place de la Comédie, the city’s
very active Opera House and the superb Musée Fabre form a link between the old
quarters of the city to the west and the surprisingly audacious modern
developments to the north and east—the massive commercial complex called the
Corum and the Quartier Antigone, an immense, 100-acre ensemble of neoclassic
buildings designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill.
There are lots of apartments available in the central area,
since Montpellier has such a large university population, says Bosshard,“but
venture farther out, to the outlying villages, and you will find some beautiful
houses in beautiful locations, with mountain and sea views. Many of the
villages in which we have houses for sale are just a 10-to-15-minute drive from
Montpellier,” she adds, “and transport links to the city are excellent.”
Montferrier-sur-Lez is a pretty village just north of the city,
with plenty of amenities including good schools, supermarkets and acres of
In Grabels, five miles northwest of Montpellier, a buyer looking
for easy maintenance can find a three-bedroom flat with use of a communal
swimming pool on the market for €265,000.
Another location to
consider is Lunel, about a 30-minute drive east of the city, says Wendy
Johnson, who runs her business Moving to Montpellier from her home there. A
colorful town of some 25,000 people, Lunel offers much of the charm of
Montpellier without the stiff prices. It’s also just 12 minutes by train to the
center of Montpellier, so it’s a great choice for people who need to commute to
the financial center or to any of the high-tech companies.
The area around Lunel is sometimes called the Little Camargue,
because of its proximity and similarity to the Camargue in the Rhône River
delta, only a short distance to the east.
“My husband works in Montpellier,” says Johnson. “He cycles five
minutes to the train station, then travels by train to city center. There are
special hooks on the trains for the bikes, and a monthly pass including the
tram only costs €68 a month.
“It’s great to be so near to Montpellier. The atmosphere in the
city is buzzing, it has the most amazing tram system, and the weather is
fantastic. We have lots of sun, but we are protected by the Cévennes Mountains
in the north. The beaches are only about four miles away, the nearest skiing is
about an hour and a half away, and Barcelona is just three hours by TGV.”
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of France