48 hours In: Montpellier
Whether you call in en route to Spain, or make a special trip, this cultured and historic city in southern France delivers a memorable stay.
Why go now?
Montpellier's compact, multi-faceted Old Town distils everything the British adore about southern France: sunlight dappling on terracotta roofs and ancient stones; café culture spilling out over pretty places; chic shops and hotels; and a beautiful beach close at hand. Montpellier in high summer possesses a dreamy luminescence, counterbalanced by a formidable cultural offering.
St-Roch Station, south-east of the Old Town, is about seven hours from London St Pancras with a change of train (and station) in Paris; rates available from Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com). Montpellier's convenient airport, 8km south-east of the city, is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham and Leeds/Bradford; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick; and Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com) from Manchester. A navette (shuttle bus) runs every hour or so to Place de l’Europe, taking 15 minutes for a one-way fare of only €1.50, or €2.40 if you want a connecting tram ride. A taxi to the Place de la Comédie , costs about €30.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Montpellier's civic focus is Place de la Comédie, an odd-shaped but elegant square bisected by a tram line, which has a stop (Comédie) in the middle. Just to the north is the helpful tourist office(00 33 4 67 60 60 60; ot-montpellier.fr); open 9.30am-6pm at weekends, 9am-7.30pm from Monday to Friday. The square is on the eastern edge of the Old Town, whose main thoroughfare is rue de la Loge; this opens up into Place Jean Jaures, the hub of the Old Town, with the restored Halles Castellane (a 19th-century covered food market) diagonally opposite. The Arc de Triomphe marks the western extent of the city centre.
To explore more widely, the city has a two-line tram system. Buy tickets in advance from the machines on the platform, and cancel them on board. Singles cost €1.40 for any length of journey. A day pass costs €3.50, or a carnet of 10 costs €11.50.
The most atmospheric location is the Hotel le Guilhem, at 18 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau (00 33 4 67 52 90 90; leguilhem.com). A pair of 16th-century townhouses has been transformed into a 35-room labyrinth, with comfortable furnishings and free Wi-Fi. A standard double costs €117 or less, with buffet breakfast an extra €12 per person.
For boutique chic in an elegant setting, check into the Newhotel du MIdi, close to the Opera at 22 boulevard Victor Hugo (00 33 4 67 92 69 61; new-hotel.com), where public areas are artistic installations in their own right, and bedrooms are boldly decorated. A summer promotion offers double rooms for €97; breakfast is €10 per person.
At the bottom of the price scale, the Hotel de France at 4 rue de la République (00 33 4 67 92 29 29; hoteldefrance-nn.com) is more appealing than it might look from the scruffy exterior. It has double rooms for €52, with breakfast an extra €6 per person.
TAKE A VIEW
Start the day with the exhilarating view from the 18th-century Chateau d’Eau, an elaborate neo-classical water tower that presides over the place Royale de Peyrou, a formal garden on the western edge of the Old Town. Extending west from here into the hills is St-Clement aqueduct, created in 1754 as an architectural homage to the nearby Pont du Gard.
TAKE A HIKE
From the water tower, walk east through the gardens past the equestrian statue of Louis XIV — the ‘Sun King’, whose achievements are honoured in the handsome Arc de Triomphe. Walk through, and you are in the Old Town, a tangle of narrow streets that occasionally open up to breathe. Bear right along rue Eugène Lisbonne to the former Cathedral of Sainte Anne , now a gallery. The Carré Sainte Anne, of which this is the core, is dotted with workshops where musical instruments are made, and often echoes with recitals. The rue Sainte Anne runs into the rue de l'Ancien Courrier, a typical Montpellier street punctuated by cafés and intriguing shops.
Bear right down rue d'Aragon and squeeze through rue du Cygne to the Opéra Comédie, which gives the main square its name. But walk south, not north, to the most notable fragment of the 14th-century fortifications: the Tour de la Babote. Although it is closed to
visitors, you can climb part way up the staircase to get a new perspective.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Tantalisingly for weekend visitors, the best lunch option is open only from Monday to Friday: the Café des Négociants, opposite the tower at 2 rue République (00 33 4 67 58 10 20) serves a delicious daily special in art nouveau surroundings. At weekends, the Art Mango Cafe in the tower's gardens presents a good alternative.
When will it ever open? That is the local talking point about the long-promised Musée de l'histoire de la France en Algérie, which occupies a fine mansion the Hotel Montcalm. Montpellier was chosen as the location for the tangled story of France's adventures in North Africa from 1830 to 1962 because so many pieds noirs — French expatriates — settled in the city after they left Algeria. It may open by the end of the summer.
Fortunately, the Musée Fabre provides plenty to absorb the visitor. The building has expanded audaciously with 21st-century quasi-industrial chambers, providing plenty of space in which to appreciate a collection that starts with the Dutch Old Masters, and rises through Romanticism, Classicism and Impressionism to Modern works. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays.
On a fine summer's evening, the citizenry infiltrate every space big enough to fit a few tables and chairs. The best perspective on the main square is from the raised platform of the Opéra Comédie. On the other side of town, Place de la Canourgue has a small-town feel.
DINE WITH THE LOCALS
This close to the Med, it helps to enjoy the fruits de mer. At the south-west corner of the Place de la Camourgue, La Coquille (00 33 4 67 60 47 97; restolacoquille.fr) serves seafood with panache.
The most sought-after setting, though, is the former municipal baths. Les Bains de Montpellier at 6 rue Richelieu (00 33 4 67 60 70 87; les-bains-de-montpellier.com) comprises a courtyard with bars and niches occupying the former changing rooms. Prices for elaborate dishes and local wines are ambitious — don't expect much change from €100 for two.
A WALK IN THE PARK
France's oldest botanical gardens, the Jardin des Plantes (00 33 4 67 63 43 22; jardindesplantes-montpellier.com) was created just beyond the walls of the Old Town. The entrance leads into an urban jungle filled with languid lily ponds, soaring bamboos, heroic statues and an orangery. It opens noon-6pm daily except Monday, admission free. On the other side of town, the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle is an avenue stretching north from the tourist office and decorated with sculptures.
TAKE A RIDE
The sea is temptingly accessible. Rent a bike from the tourist office for a couple of euros for half a day, or take a bus from the Port Marianne terminus to the cheerful resort of Palavas which boasts a broad, sandy beach.