I decided to visit the town of Pezenas because I had read that it boasted fantastic 17th and 18th century architecture with former grand mansions hidden behind its doors and streets that were frequently used as film sets. Unfortunately, those doors remained firmly closed and the town had an unpleasant atmosphere that had me heading for the hills after only an hour.
Unlike Pezenas, I had read very little about Montpellier, but after the recommendation of a local vineyard owner, I thought I would give it a shot. I base myself at Palavas-les-Flots, a coastal town and bright beach resort centred on the exit of the river Lez into the sea. That same river will lead me all the way to the centre of Montpellier. In 1872 a little pleasure train was built between Palavas and Montpellier but it disappeared in 1968, and so today I must take the local bus to Perols and then a modern tram into the heart of the city.
I begin my tour at the Place de le Comedie where the Tourist Information office is based, and where a helpful young lady gives me a hardback English language book filled with photos and information about the city. I cautiously enquired, ‘How much?’ and was told it was free because it was out of date (2006). This is the first of many pleasant surprises.
The Place de la Comedie cannot fail to impress with its 19th century facades of the theatre and surrounding buildings, despite one being adorned with the golden arches of MacDonald’s. It is a blustery day and locals rush past the statue of the Three Graces desperately clinging to their umbrellas in a scene reminiscent of Claude Theberge painting.
I seek shelter in the narrow cobbled streets of the old town lined with cafes and bohemian restaurants. It is here that I also find some doors flung open on several beautiful 17th century mansion courtyards with elegant external stairways curving up to the second storey. In the St Anne quarter I hear the soft tones of a clarinet and a trumpet coming from the Conservatoire of Music and finally I emerge from the maze to be greeted by a long wide avenue leading to a glorious Arc du Triomphe. When I can finally tear myself away from this majestic site, I cross the elm-lined Place Royal du Peyrou to see the Aquaduct Saint-Clement. This 880m long line of stone archways was built in 1754 to supply drinking water to the city from springs in the town of St Clement. But no water runs along its channel now as 20th century pipelines have been placed beneath the streets.
I return back to the old town and the ‘Tower of Pines’ which overlooks the lush green botanical gardens. The famous prophet Nostradamus said that when the trees disappeared from the Tower of Pines, the city would be destroyed. So, when the pine trees started damaging the stonework and had to be removed, superstitious councillors replaced them with cypress trees. Nostradamus registered to study medicine at Montpellier but was expelled for being an apothecary, a practice which was forbidden at the faculty, now situated behind the Tower of Pines. In fact this north western corner of the old town is the university district and the streets are busy with some of the 70,000 students who come here to study each year.
After lunch I head east to see Antigone, former army land which was redeveloped in 1978 in a neo-classical style by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. The size of the buildings is overwhelming but not surprising as they house 10,000 people. There are also the modern glass buildings of the Olympic swimming pool and the library, and finally the semi-circular, Stalinist mansions of the Place de Europe which overlook the river Lez. It would be nice to sail back down the river to Palavas but unfortunately there are no river taxis in Montpellier. Instead I take one of the colourful trams with graffiti like designs, perhaps to prevent the real graffiti artists from decorating them.