In Montpellier, there are no well-organized Parisian arrondissements as in Paris. While municipal publications divide the city into “cantons”, few of its inhabitants are aware of the boundaries of these administrative regions, preferring to orientate themselves by certain well-known quartiers or landmarks. For an overview, it is best to follow Montpellier’s own growth and development over the centuries, from the medieval walled city out west to the outlying suburb of the Paillade and south-east to the modern projects that stretch towards the Mediterranean.
The Historic Walled City
The vibrant historic centre of the city, referred to as the “Ecusson”, encapsulates the varied aspects of this diverse city. A pedestrian paradise and a car-owners nightmare, the labyrinth of lanes is a rich storehouse of historic architecture, churches and hidden courtyards as well as diverse shops, bars and restaurants. Of the city walls, the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte are the sole survivors of twenty-five towers that once encircled the city. The main streets meet around the Prefecture and the covered market, Halles Castellane, while the nearby bars of Place Jean Jaures remain crowded until late into the night. For a more intimate rendezvous, seek out the tiny Place St Ravy or elegant Place de la Canourgue. Alternatively listen to the musicians behind the church of St Roch, or under the soaring spire of St Anne – for many a symbol of the city. If the southern part of the centre is well stocked with chic boutiques, art galleries and tourists, don’t forget to visit the less frequented streets and alleys of the northern side of the Ecusson. Home to the fortress-like Cathedral St Pierre and once dominated by university faculties, this area is still popular among students. Good bars, restaurants and boutiques here.
Just outside the centre lie a number of Montpellier’s most distinctive landmarks. Most famous of all is the spacious Place de la Comédie. This pedestrianized square and the nearby leafy Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, are home to numerous cafés, markets and street entertainers. As for culture, the Corum conference centre, the historic Opéra the Musée Fabré, and many cinemas are also located here. On the other side of the historic centre, the Promenade du Peyrou, offers superb views of the city. France’s oldest botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes, is also in this area.
The increasingly sought-after districts of Beaux-Arts and Boutonnet are situated just north of the Ecusson, and have maintained individual village-like identities despite their inherent diversity. Beaux Arts, home to Montpellier’s first Mosque and an active Jewish community, is particularly multicultural. Large bourgeois nineteenth-century properties, modern apartment blocks, narrow terraced housing and leafy suburban residences give it aesthetic variety.
In the nearby district of Les Arceaux regular markets and games of pétanque all take place alongside more shady dealings beneath the arches of the St Clément aqueduct, from which the district takes its name. Originally a nineteenth-century working-class district on the outskirts of the city, the network of streets is home to hidden shops and restaurants. The car park at the foot of the Promenade du Peyrou is free during the evenings.
South west of the centre is Figuerolles, a lively quartier arabe where the music, language and aromas evoke the North African roots of many of its residents. Home to one of Montpellier’s cheapest markets and numerous inexpensive shops, restaurants and bars, this area is off the tourist trail.
There are many restaurants and bars around the station and the adjacent Rondelet district. Dominated by busy boulevards, the district lacks any distinct identity, but concerts at the Cargo, the Antirouille and the Saxophone, and the Diagonal Centre cinema, are all popular attractions.
To the north of the central districts lies an agglomeration of hospitals and university faculties, the Hopitaux – Facultés. Further north again are the green spaces of the Bois de Montmaurand, the Zoo de Lunaret and Parc Agropolis. To the West lie the suburban districts of Plan des Quatre Seigneurs and Parc Euromedecine, site of many modern biomedical companies and research institutes. These residential areas are much quieter than the bustling centre of town.
Westwards to the banks of the Mosson
The western suburbs of Les Cevennes and La Chambette are characterised by small clusters of flats and spacious villas. The village of Celleneuve enjoys a cinema, shops and bars as well as one of Montpellier’s oldest churches, Sainte Croix. By the banks of the Mosson lies the park of the eighteenth-century folly, the Domaine de Mosson, and the 1998 World Cup football stadium, Stade de la Mosson, whose large car park hosts a weekly flea market. Recently linked to the city centre by a tramway, La Paillade has a multicultural flavour. Dominated by multicoloured tower blocks, this lively district has several cultural, sporting and administrative centres, but there is no real nightlife.
Montpellier seeks the Sea – agenda for the 21st century
Just beyond the central 60s shopping center of the Polygone, the monumental neo-classical Antigone is the 80s response. By the banks of the Lez the recently developed districts of Les Aubes, Port Marianne and Richter are dominated by modern apartment blocks, student halls of residence and University buildings. Nearby, the enormous new Odysseum leisure complex will soon boast around the clock entertainment. Further east, among new business parks and eighteenth-century country retreats like Flaugergues and the Château de la Mogère, stand Domaine Grammont and the Zenith exhibition center. Towards the beaches, the shopping centers, clubs and cinemas of Lattes and Perols attract a mixed crowd.
History of Montpellier
The history of Monte pestelario is a story of twists and turns that highlights the two essential characteristics of this fascinating city: ambition and intelligence. A former trading post for spices, place of pilgrimage and centre of learning in the fields of medicine and law, Protestant fief then Royal capital of the Languedoc region, Montpellier’s strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean basin has ensured it constant prosperity. Now the prefecture of the Hérault département, it’s a city that never ceases to amaze!
From Modest Beginnings…
Montpellier is very much a young upstart of a city when compared to its venerable roman neighbours of Nîmes and Narbonne. The first settlement dates back to the late 10th century and passed into the hands of the Guilhem family who remained the city’s rulers until the early 13th century. Situated south of the roman road, the via Domitia, and close to well-travelled salt and pilgrim routes, the early settlement grew rapidly in the 11th century as it became a favoured halt for pilgrims. At the end of the 12th century the now flourishing city was enclosed by city walls of which the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte are still visible remnants.
…to a Medieval Metropolis
A prosperous trading centre between Northern Europe, Spain and the Mediterranean, the 13th century saw the city reach something of an apogee as it passed under the tutelage of the King of Aragon, whose kingdom extended across what is now Northern Spain and Catalonia, and subsequently the Kings of Majorca. Reputed as a centre of learning particularly open to Jewish and Islamic thought, the established Schools of Medicine and Law received recognition as a University by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289. Sold to the kingdom of France in 1349, Montpellier was for a while considered the second most important city in the kingdom. However, the latter part of the century was a sombre one, during which successive plagues accounted for the death of over a third of the population. Nevertheless, by the 15th century the city had recovered economically, notably through the flourishing of the nearby port of Lattes and the mercantile genius of the royal treasurer Jacques Coeur, whose name is still honoured by the city.
A Protestant Stronghold during the Wars of Religion…
During the 1530’s, both the astronomer Nostradamus, famous for his prophecies, and the writer, priest and bon vivant Rabelais studied medicine at Montpellier. The faculty later benefited from the establishment of France’s oldest botanical garden Jardin des Plantes during the reign of France’s king Henri IV. In 1553, the city gained a cathedral as the Bishopric was permanently transferred from Maguelone, whose abandoned abbey can still be seen overlooking the Mediterranean less than 10 miles from Montpellier. The Protestant Reformation, however, gained many converts in Montpellier as elsewhere in the south of France. As a major Huguenot (as French Protestants had come to be called) stronghold, Montpellier possessed one of the most beautiful Protestant churches of its time, but the subsequent Wars of Religion destroyed all religious edifices within the city walls except for the fortress-like Cathedral St Pierre. The Edict of Nantes of 1598, which recognized the right of Protestants to worship and granted them other basic freedoms in certain designated towns and cities, resulted in a brief period of relative calm, but conflict once more erupted twenty years later in the last of the religious wars. Finally in 1622 the king of France Louis XIII oversaw the siege of the rebellious Protestant city, which resisted two months of bombardment before a negotiated settlement was reached. Royal rule was once again established and the return of Catholic domination of the city was finally ensured by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
…becomes the Royal Capital of the Languedoc
Many features of the current city centre have their origin in the Wars of Religion and the subsequent 17th and 18th century renovations that transformed the city. Many squares such as the Place Jean Jaures and Place Chabanneau were formed from destroyed churches, while the citadel built following the siege of 1622 was to guarantee the loyalty of the city to the crown rather than to ensure its protection. Montpellier was subject to further expressions glorifying the monarch such as the Arc de Triomphe as it became the royal capital of the Languedoc and the accompanying nobility were responsible for many of the most elaborate hôtels and distinctive architecture of the historic centre. Other landmarks such as the Hôtel St Côme and the Promenade du Peyrou, not to mention the Place de la Comédie all date from this epoch and still shape the life of the city.
A Provincial City built on Wine…
The development of winemaking in the region during the 19th century helped fuel the economy of the city and led to another wave of urban renovation and renewal. While some of the grandiose projects never reached completion, many are still major features of the city, whether it be the distinctive spire of the Carré St Anne, the incomplete St Roch or the Palais de Justice. Boom was followed by bust as the outbreak of the fungal disease Phylloxera, in the 1890’s destroyed over a third of the vines and the expanding vineyards in Algeria rendered the vineyards of Languedoc uneconomical.
…seeks to become a New Metropolis
A unassuming provincial city for most of the 20th century, Montpellier has been transformed into a city of expansive ambitions and a growth rate to match. In the 1960’s the population rose by over a third as ex-patriots and immigrants arrived from Algeria. Over the past twenty years, Montpellier has continued to grow under the uncompromising vision of the socialist mayor, Georges Frêche, and the city once ranked 25th is currently the 8th largest city in France. This rapid growth has been matched by increasingly lavish and distinctive projects, from the entirely new, neo-classical district of Antigone and the developments along the river Lez, to the rejuvenation of the city center and the return of the tramway to the city streets. An administrative center, doted with a major research, university and medical facilities, Montpellier seems determined to once again becoming an intellectual, cultural and technological center of Europe and the Mediterranean.