A city the French adore

 

A car-free historic core, great public parks and all very well kept, Christina Rebuffet- Broadus was impressed with Montpellier

THE FRENCH seem to have a love-hate affair with their native country. If a Frenchman isn’t cursing the cars in front of him at the €18 Autoroute du Soleil toll booth he’s gushing about all the greatness to be found within his own borders. And then belly- aching about how bad it’s gotten since the Socialists lost power.

But after hearing a random assortment of Frenchmen rave over Montpellier, my French- cities-to-visit list grew. A place even the French make a fuss about? Let’s just say I soon found myself bulleting through the sun-dried fields lining the Valence-Toulon TGV.

Arriving in Montpellier by train, the breezy atmosphere sweeps you up on your first step from the drab station. Strolling along the roomy pavement up the Rue Maguelone, palm fronds swish in the coastal breeze. These luscious trees soldier all the way up to Place de la Comédie, the rendezvous for Montpellier’s 60,000 students and anyone else who’s meeting friends for an evening out.

In silent velocity, a sapphire tram whips round the bend, dotted with hundreds of white swallows. The appliquéd birds dart by, a proud part of the city’s growing public transport network and yet another example of the French flair for marrying functional and aesthetic. The second tram, covered in colourful flowers, brightens normally boring commutes. The third line, set for 2012, will be designed by Monsieur Christian Lacroix. I tried to remember the last time I had taken haute couture public transport, but it looked like 2012 would be the first.

Aside from the pretty trams and the tropical feel, the place was clean. Dare I say it, almost Disney World clean. Most tourists who visit Paris come back a little disappointed. Their comments run along the lines of “the monuments were pretty, but the city was rather dirty”. Ask anyone who’s been to Marseille and they’ll tell you it’s plain grimy. And what do people say after a stay in Montpellier? It’s surprisingly clean.

At the end of the expansive Place de la Comédie the plane trees dotting the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle shaded tables and tents. Great! An unexpected festival! A woman was baking bread in an impromptu stone oven. A few people enjoyed bouncing a ball around on a stretched parachute. One man was having his glasses “squeegeed”. Yes, squeegeed. Adding to the madness, an odd couple decked out in pumpkin coloured protection gear, bumbled about in a three-wheeled rubbish collection truck. Now either Montpellier was obsessed over the cleaning thing or I had tripped into some Mediterranean It’s a Small World.

As it turned out, nothing was wrong with Montpellier. In fact, something was optimistically right. The “festival” turned out to be La Semaine de l’Environnement (environmental awareness week ), organised by a group of students. The pumpkin patrol belonged to the campaign. So did the parachute ballers and the (organic) baker.

Marie, a member of the organising association Ouvre Tête, explained: “This is our third edition and each year more people participate. Thanks to financial help from the city and regional councils, we can put together an event that reaches a great number of people, not just students.”

As I discovered more of Montpellier, it felt like much of the city had already heeded their message.

The Place de la Comédie and wide open Esplanade Charles de Gaulle frame Montpellier’s historic centre. In the Ecusson, the historic core area, the city winds itself into a labyrinth of narrow streets. Narrow car-free streets to be exact.

Without honking horns and suffocating exhaust fumes, your senses really perk up to a place. A man stops you in the middle of the street to discuss the importance of recycling. The aroma of grilled fish dances down from a window overhead. You finally feel like the city was made for you. Like it didn’t ask you to adapt to it. Then a man comes walking his rental bike up one of the hilly streets. Well, maybe you’ll have to do some adapting after all.

Beyond the limits of the Ecusson, the city culminates at Peyrou park where a bronze Louis XIV watches over the 7.5-acre promenade. He probably hardly even misses Versailles, with the park’s geometric layout and golden gates.

I half-expected to see a few water nymphs prancing around the neoclassical Château d’Eau just over Louis’s shoulder. No nymphs in sight, but a few vagabond musicians jammed on a patch of grass nearby. Not a bad way to refresh the spirit in this urban oasis, soaking up the laid-back ambiance and the peaceful environs.

At 52 metres, the vantage point hardly rivals Mont Blanc, but it does offer a panoramic view of the Cévennes mountains that even Robert Louis Stevenson would have appreciated.

Nearby, I could make out the sprawling greenery of the Jardin des Plantes, which has been taking root ever since Henri IV created it in 1593. Today, it mostly serves locals as a big park with exotic plants, a pleasant place to relax in the shade of a ginkgo or listen to the swaying stalks of the bamboo forest.

Peyrou park and the botanical gardens make up 18 of the city’s 1,830 acres of green spaces. To see even more of Montpellier’s green side, one of the Peyrouvian musicians suggested getting out of the Ecusson for some real nature. With Montpellier’s far flung bus and tram network, it was easy to reach the northern outskirts where the city hides the Montpellier zoological park and surprisingly, a nature reserve.

Montpellier started going green way back in the 1960s and 1970s, buying up estates, private châteaux, even forests to create public parks. The biggest park goes all the way back to 1910, when Henri de Lunaret willed over 800 acres of old vineyards and assorted land to the city, provided they use it for some charitable work. Today, research labs and an agricultural school occupy most of the land. In keeping with Monsieur Lunaret’s wishes, the city created a zoological park in 1964 and the Lez nature reserve in 2000. And the charitable part? No entrance fee.

I stress that this place merits the name zoological park, and not zoo. Zoo conjures up images of animals cooped in concrete cages and little kids with ice-cream smeared across their gawking faces. Since many of the animals here live in recreated habitats, they don’t lounge around on display. It took a good bit of patience before I even stole a glimpse of the takin, a sort of buffalo/goat and a rare species.

Being on the far end of the seven-mile path, at least this zone offered a tranquil wait for the endangered animal. Montpellieraines adore their zoological park, families, joggers, even a small tourist train often kick up quite a lot of dust on the footpaths. To appreciate the relaxing atmosphere, it’s better to go early in the morning and never on Sunday.

If you go to Montpellier, a weekend suffices to feel the dynamism radiating from this young city. But it’s hardly enough time to discover all it has to offer. I guess that’s what made this city stand out – its abundance of natural beauty. If I had to make a complaint, it would be my weekend stay was too short.

Go there

Air France (www.airfrance. com) and KLM Royal Dutch (www.klm.com) operate indirect flights to Montpellier from Dublin and Cork. Air France also flies from Shannon.

Where to stay, eat and what to do in Montpellier

5 places to stay

L’Hôtel d’Aragon. 10 Rue Baudin, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-107000, www.hotel-aragon.fr. This three-star hotel, just steps away from the historic Ecusson centre, recently received the Green Key eco-rating for its environmentally friendly policies. Each room bears the name of a famous writer who stayed in Montpellier. Double rooms from €89.

Les 4 Étoiles. 3 Rue Delmas, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-024769, www.les4etoiles.com. This four-bed guesthouse, also labelled Green Key, combines the charm of a 1930s heirloom family home with contemporary design. Double rooms from €94.

Baudon de Mauny. 1 rue de la Carbonnerie, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-022177, www.baudondemauny.com. An 18th century BB sprinkled with 21st century design. Not far from the city’s botanical gardens, the Baudon de Mauny rewards you with pin-drop peacefulness in the heart of the old city. Double rooms start at €160.

Hôtel Neptune. Port de Plaisance, 34280 Carnon, 00-33-467-508800. www.hotel-neptune.fr. Overlooking Carnon’s little port, this hotel exudes maritime freshness and also has the Green Key label. Hôtel Neptune is 10 minutes from Montpellier and a short walk from the Carnon beach. Doubles start at €68.

Le Royal Hôtel. 8 rue Maguelone, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-921336. www.royalhotelmontpellier.com. Between the train station and Place de la Comédie, this hotel offers spacious rooms, tasteful furnishings and helpful staff. Le Royal Hôtel makes a perfect jumping off point from which to explore the Ecusson as it is just steps from the historic city centre.

5 places to eat

Tripti Kulai Bio. 20 rue Jacques Coeur, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-663051, www.triptikulai.com. The owners define the Tripti Kulai attitude as harmonious, luminous, peaceful, and dedicated to your well-being. With a menu of organic and vegetarian fare, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve done something good for yourself and for the environment.

Le Captiva. 2 rue Saint Paul, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-913121, www.lecaptiva.com. When the weather warms up, Le Captiva’s terrace spreads out under the parasol pines to give you the feeling of a relaxed meal in a soulful seaside village. The young and friendly chef crafts local and exotic specialties using fresh, seasonal ingredients for an explosion of taste. Try the foie gras burger.

La Tulipe. 15 rue Henri René, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-220013, www.restaurantlatulipe.com. A relaxing restaurant with an inventive menu – a pleasure for both the eyes and the tastebuds. You can dine outdoors on a terrace that feels like a tropical deck.

Les Bains de Montpellier. 6 rue Richelieu, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-607087, www.les-bains-de-montpellier.com. Founded in 1770, the baths have been transformed into a seasonal seafood restaurant where, in the shadow of centenary palms, you can escape to a haven of peace and sensuous pleasure. The restaurant also organises jazz and other musical evenings.

Le Symposia. 11 rue de Ratte, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-499-610486. This organic restaurant offers simple French cuisine with a touch of modern refinement. All of the meat comes from the surrounding départements and the chef enjoys taking the time to chat with his guests.

5 places to go

Nature walk along the Lez river. Contact the Montpellier tourism office: 30 allée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-606060, www.ot-montpellier.fr. Part of the vast space that encompasses the Lez nature reserve, the Montpellier zoological park, and the Amazonian greenhouse, this three-hour walk along the Lez takes you into the heart of Montpellier’s natural side. With the river as your guide, the diverse landscapes and sites, like Valette nautical base and the Agropolis Museum, are refreshing on a sunny Mediterranean afternoon.

Parc Zoologique de Montpellier. 50 avenue Agropolis, 34090 Montpellier, 00-33-467-544523, www.zoo-montpellier.fr. Spreading out over 200 acres, the zoological park is the city’s most vast green space and a favourite promenade for locals. With over 90 animal species, the zoo invites you to discover animals from around the world, including several endangered species.

Place de la Comédie, 34000 Montpellier. The centre of the Ecusson, it is Montpellier’s most spacious and famous square. Here, you can take a break in the cafés around the square, watch the fashionistas strut by, and just bask in the architectural glory around you. It feels more like Paris than the Mediterranean, with its slate roofs, Garnier- inspired opera hall, and marble slab pavement. But the Mediterranean soul of the city surrounds the place, in the narrow streets that spiral out from the square.

La Promenade Royale du Peyrou. Place Royale du Peyrou, 34000 Montpellier. It took 100 years to create this airy promenade. Just outside the Ecusson, the arch of triumph, Louis XIV statue and water tower create a linear perspective leading to the park. A favorite place for locals to relax, you can listen to musicians, see street performers, or just watch families as they stroll by.

Le Jardin des Plantes. 1 Boulevard Henri IV, 34000 Montpellier, 00-33-467-634322, www.univ-montp1.fr. The property of the University of Montpellier, the botanical garden is still used for research. A perfect place to admire over 2,000 plant species, it offers refreshment and tranquility – an urban oasis for all the senses.

Where to shop

Au Panier Paysan. 9 rue Boussairolles, 38400 Montpellier, 00-33-499-068728. A little indirect eco-responsible shopping is what this small shop offers. If you’re planning on picnicking at one of Montpellier’s many parks or just want to bring back a taste of southern France, stop at Au Panier Paysan for some local cheeses or organic wine. Producers from around the region drop off their products – anything from onions to preserved cherries to fresh honey – making it easy for shoppers to fill their basket with local products. If you want to try out your French – and the locals will indulge your linguistic fancy – stop by on a Saturday, when a participating farmer mans the shop. He or she will be happy to share their passion for good products that are good for the environment.

Hot spot

Apollo Jazz Café. 129 avenue de Palavas, 34070 Montpellier, 00-33-467-646466, www.apollojazzcafe.com. It’s a little out of the way, but the number 16 bus or a taxi will take you straight to 1920s New York without all those nasty carbon emissions. Check their website for the programme.