(Photo by Peter)
The Place de la Comie is one of Europe’s most beautiful squares.
The Beauty of Montpellier and Beyond
Move over, Marseille and Nice: Montpellier may be the third-largest French city on the Mediterranean Sea behind you, but it is also the fastest-growing city in the entire country. Montpellier is a charming medieval city that, oddly enough, doesn’t have its roots tied to the ancient Greeks or Romans. This French gem dates back to 985 when settlers moved inland to escape pirates… yargh! With average annual temperatures ranging from 45 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, there really isn’t a bad time of the year to enjoy the beauty of Montpellier and beyond.
The wonderful Mediterranean climate isn’t the only reason Montpellier sees plenty of visitors each year. The city is filled with beautiful and historic sites sure to enrapture your inner medieval geek. There is something for everyone in Montpellier, and the main sites of interest are:
- Place de la Comie: The main plaza in Montpellier is also the city’s main focal point. I’m not certain when the Place de la Comie was actually built, but I do know it dates back as far as 1755. Located in or near the city’s main square are the Gare de Montpellier Saint-Roch, the city’s main railway station; sculptor ienne d’Antoine’s majestic fountain Three Graces; and the Opa Comie, home to the National Opera Company, established in 1755.
- Mus Fabre: Get your art on at Montpellier’s Mus Fabre. Founded by local painter Franis-Xavier Fabre in 1825, this museum has received the French Ministry of Culture’s blessing and was declared a Mus de France establishment. No doubt the nearly $82 million renovation of the facility from 2003 to 2007 helped. The Mus Fabre is a quick skip from the Place de la Comie, and you’ll enjoy painting and sculpture from some of Europe’s finest artists.
- Cathrale Saint-Pierre de Montpellier: That’s a mouthful, so why don’t we just call it the Montpellier Cathedral; that’s what most everyone else calls it! The Montpellier Cathedral is the Roman Catholic seat of Montpellier’s archbishops. It is also a national monument of France. The historic church dates back to 1364 and is originally a part of the Saint-Beno monastery. In 1536, the church was granted cathedral status, and it was rebuilt in the 17th century after serious damage during the Wars of Religion.
- Porte du Peyrou: The Porte de Peyrou is Montpellier’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, and, in fact, many call it that. You’ll find the Porte du Peyrou standing proudly in the Jardin de Peyrou, a central park of Montpellier. Designed by Franis Dorbay and completed in 1693, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe honors King Louis XIV with inscribed panels and embedded sculpture displaying many key historical events. After visiting Porte du Peyrou, take a load off in the surrounding parkland and enjoy a glorious Montpellier afternoon.
Beautiful Things to Do
There are plenty of things to do in Montpellier and throughout its outskirts. What’s even better? Many of these activities are adult and kid-friendly. When visiting Montpellier, you’ll notice even the wee ones are out until the wee hours of the night; there isn’t a curfew here. Some enjoyable activities are:
- La Serre Amazonienne: A tropical rainforest in France? Well, sort of. Part of Montpellier Zoo, a fun must-do activity for the kiddies, La Serre Amazonienne is a gigantic greenhouse with the Amazon inside, including native plants, animals, and rainstorms. I love it… until I hit the anaconda exhibit.
- Velag Stations: One of the main things to do in and around Montpellier, and one of the main forms of transportation, is bicycling. Visit any one of the Montpellier’s Velag stations, rent bikes for a half or full day, and enjoy the 93 miles of beautiful bike paths in and around Montpellier.
- Maguelone: Dubbed “magical,” Maguelone is a tiny island south of Montpellier. You can either drive to Maguelone or take the train. The 11th century Maguelone Cathedral is on the island, as is l’Etang de l’Arnel, a saltwater lake, and a beautiful and crowd-free sandy beach.
- Mas de Daumas Gassac: If you’ve had enough of the kids, leave them behind… okay, you can’t really do that, but the Mas de Daumas Gassac is the Montpellier region’s most famous vineyard, so it isn’t exactly kid-friendly. It does, however, serve fantastic, organic wine well worth the quick trek out of town.
Beautiful food? Well, yeah! It’s amazing how the French can make a plate of anything a work of art. As you’ve discovered thus far, there is a lot to see and do in Montpellier, so you’re going to work up quite an appetite throughout your day. The best places to satiate it are:
- La Compagnie des Comptoirs: A restaurant for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, La Compagnie des Comptoirs is a Mediterranean bistro serving tarts, squid, roast duck, and the eclectic (yet insanely yummy) chocolate soup dessert with cinnamon bread.
- Le Jardin des Sens: Renowned French chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel opened this highly acclaimed Michelin-starred eatery to serve modern cuisine made with only the finest of local ingredients. Lobster, duck, and, yes, homemade ice cream are on the menu.
- La Maison Derriere L’Eglise: If hip is more your thing over elegant, check out La Maison Derriere L’Eglise. You can enjoy some of the best steaks in the region at this cool eatery, and you can eat them inside or on the courtyard patio.
- Les Bains: This restaurant is not only one of Montpellier’s best teahouses, but it is also one of its most unique eateries. Les Bains serves its wonderful food in an 18th-century public bathhouse. Aside from seafood that is to die for, the restaurant also offers an extensive wine list.
You might be tempted to put Nice on the top of your list of places to visit in the south of France, but I encourage you to make Montpellier your number one destination instead. The city and its surrounding areas offer visitors the unparalleled beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and the French countryside. There is plenty to see, do, and eat, and the Montpellier natives are friendly and enthusiastic about your stay. Even if you only take a day trip to this charming city, make sure you enjoy the beauty of Montpellier and beyond.