Ever since spending my 70th birthday in Barcelona I have developed a taste for a city break to celebrate subsequent milestones. It used to be that we went away to do raquette walking for Lou’s birthday in February but last year we decided the time had come to hang up our raquettes as we were no longer coping with the effort required. We have given it fifteen years and visited some lovely place in the Pyrenees, Jura and Auvergne whilst staying in some quaint hotels but now time for something more restful. And a city break means shopping and March is warmer than February if we disregard last spring’s beast from the east.
We have driven south several times on the A75 when visiting places further on and have often said as we bypass Montpellier that we ought to visit it one day. That day had come. Comme d’hab it was only to be a two night break as that is the length of time we feel the cats can cope without us and a babysitter! I found and booked an ibis near the centre with parking and a restaurant to make life as simple as possible. Then changed the dates as on Monday, the birthday, most places were shut.
The drive down was pretty gloomy especially as we crossed the Millau viaduct with piled up storm clouds creating very atmospheric photo opportunities.
By the time we reached the hotel the sun was back out and it was appreciably warmer.
Our room was a shock and the reason for the lower price than other hotels close by revealed. The bathroom was behind a curtain. This included the toilet so an unexpected level of intimacy. Reading reviews I noticed it was often mentioned. but the full import had clearly escaped me!
With time before dinner we went off to explore the nearby shopping mall and found lots of places in which to lose ourselves for an hour or so. I had hunted for restaurants in walking distance but neither of us found the menus particularly inspiring. A nearby brasserie seemed to rely on a ‘frites with everything’ approach. We decided on a drink in the hotel bar and studied their menu while chatting to the helpful barman. So my birthday dinner was in the hotel restaurant. We kicked off with oysters (Lou) and foie gras (me) and a good local white wine. Happy birthday to me
Tuesday 19th March
Breakfast in the buffet with sunshine streaming through the windows and an open door to the terrace outside. We could see the trees moving so knew there was a wind. Hopefully not as cold as last year’s in Amsterdam. As the researcher in chief when we visit anywhere (just curious, I say; nosey, he says) I had rejected the idea of the musee Fabre however celebrated it is. For another time I decided. Meanwhile there was the old town to explore which was just a few minutes walk away on the other side of the Place de la Comedie, a huge concourse busy with market stalls, students and shoppers, and colourful trams coming and going along one side (Lou was to become very impressed with the frequency with which they came and went). We stopped by the nearby tourist office to ask for a town plan. I love a tourist office! Once in the old town the roads narrowed and started to climb. We came to a pretty place filled with trees, Place Jean Jaures, of course!
From there we followed our noses and the map to find the Musee de Vieux Montpellier, a bit tricky but we got there.
The musee is on the first floor of an incredibly ancient and beautiful building, the Hotel de Varennes.
The musee itself is only four rooms and a corridor! I had hoped to gain some idea of the city and its origins and thankfully there were some old drawings and plans that showed the old town surrounded by its walls once upon a time. We crept around switching lights on and off with due reverence. It really is an odd little place but the young woman in charge left us alone to explore such as we could. From there we nosed our way back to the main road climbing through the old town passing the huge prefecture on the way. When Midi-Pyrennes was combined with Languedoc-Rousillon Montpellier was up against Toulouse as the city to be home to the new regional prefecture. Toulouse won that one.
We continued uphill towards the Arc de Triomphe sparkling in the sunshine.
Beyond it lay the Place Royale de Peyrou. at the far end is the Chateau d’Eau, a fancy watertower. We were very surprised at how high this point of Montpellier is with its extensive views and is probably why the town was founded on this impressive promontory. It was pretty windy and we decided against battling across to take in the chateau d’eau. Instead we turned downhill to find an alleyway towards the cathedrale Saint Pierre. Turning a corner I was gobsmacked by the enormity of the portico of the cathedral despite it being still several metres away.
Up close it was a real statement with its two conical spires dwarfing the doors. The open entrance was around the corner as they so often are. Inside the space was light and airy with lots of beautiful stained glass windows and, my particular favourite, two stunning rose windows. I bought a leaflet in English from two gossiping elderly ladies in a kiosk and discovered the windows were of the Apostles on the east side and the Prophets on the west side.
Across the street on the wall of an alleyway I spotted a graffiti leopard. No idea of its significance if any but it ended up on my Instafeed, bien sur! We were ready for a coffee by now so it was back to the Halle we had passed earlier near place Jean Jaures to sit and watch the world on its lunchbreak pass by. Walking there i spotted big bunches of mimosa for sale, a glorious splash of yellow glowing in the sunshine.
Back at Place de la Comedie we debated where to go for lunch. Somewhere selling a choice of salads was what we were after but such places seemed thin on the ground. Then we remembered there were a couple of places in the shopping mall so back we went to try there. A mock terrace surrounded by passersby where we chose ceaser salad which came with four huge chips on top, the weirdest and largest ceasar salad we have ever had! After that and the wine we enjoyed with it. It was time for Lou to rest his eyelids and I wasn’t averse to a little nap either.
When researching things to do in Montpellier I was pleased to find a photographic exhibition held in the Pavillon Populaire which is a building in the gardens, Jardins de Champs de Mars, next to the Place de la Comedie. We were really enjoying the closeness of things to the centre! The exhibition was of photos taken by Andy Summers of the rock group, The Police. Due to the possibility of trouble due to a march by the CGT, the place was full of CRS and, oh joy, two police cars parked in front of the Pavillon underneath the banner announcing Andy Summers’ exhibition!
The exhibition was much better than I has expected with some beautiful images mixed up with small off the cuff shots and a video film documenting the slow disintegration of the group and their mutual antagonism. However, the show was positive and fascinating and we spent a long time in there. Afterwards it was time for an apero in the place once we could find some empty seats. The place was full of families, joggers, people hurrying home from work, skateboarders, cyclists and a clown setting up his balloon modelling stall! I asked the waiter if it was always this busy on a Tuesday in March. Everyone has come out in the sunshine he told me.
As we sat enjoying the ambience and while Lou did a bit of tram watching, I told him about the reading I had done while he was resting his eyelids. The tourist office map had lots of incidental information about the town including the quirky trompe d’oeil on the place in front of the church of Saint Roch. So off we went to find it. On the way there were some examples of street art plus some unintended, I love the collages of old and new events posters.
The trompe d’oeil was brilliant, encompassing the whole façade of a large house front. Pictures were taken, the church was visited and then we wandered up around the back of the church past its tiny garden busy with mums and children and into more alleyways full of one off shops. Montpellier is GREAT for shops! Still full from the lunchtime salads, we decided we only wanted a small dinner and had done enough walking for one day. So back to the hotel restaurant (I knew it was a good idea when choosing hotels) where we had an entrée and a pudding which was just right!
On our way out of Montpellier in the morning we drove via the river, Le Lez, which was advertised as an interesting place to walk. I wasn’t very impressed as the river had concrete banks which I always think is sad despite the grass above and the many trees. But it didn’t spoil Montpellier for us. A city with a lovely ambience and one we would like to return to one day…and next time I’ll visit the musee Fabre as I have since discovered it has a collection of Coret’s, a favourite painter.