Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France and is only 11 km from the Mediterranean Sea. Its university was established in 1220 and it is one of the oldest universities in the world. In fact, this is where Nostradamus, the astronomer who later became known for his prophecies, studied medicine back in 1529. The university continues to exist today and there are nearly 70,000 students living there.
Montpellier has one of the largest pedestrian city centers in all of Europe. It’s full of winding, narrow, medieval streets that will have you lost in no time. You can spend hours simply wandering, popping into a café or shop, or occasionally getting a glimpse (through an open gate) of a magnificent urban estate. But no worries, set aside your phone GPS, relax into it, and just follow your instincts. Allow yourself to be guided by the twists and turns, the incredible beauty, and enjoy a magnificent stroll through these impressive streets.
Occasionally you will emerge from your “backstreet stroll” and find yourself in a large plaza with grand buildings or on an elegant boulevard. And at some point, you’ll most likely find yourself at the main square - the place de la Comédie, which is the heart of Montpellier. It is one of the largest pedestrian areas in all of Europe and it is here where you will find the impressive Opéra Comédie, as well as the “Three Graces”’ fountain that was built in 1773.
But Montpellier is hardly just a “brick-and-mortar” (or more accurately a limestone and marble) city. The Botanical Gardens, founded by Henry IV in 1593, are the oldest in France. They’ve served as the model for all the other botanical gardens in France, including the one in Paris, which was built 40 years later. If you want a bit of an escape from the buzz of this vibrant city, you can stroll through this slice of serenity, which features over 2,600 plant species, including 500 that are native to the Mediterranean region.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Montpellier was the people. A visit to Montpellier might just be the antidote needed to bust the myth about the French and how rude they can be. In our experience, the people seemed laid-back, friendly, and welcoming. They were quick to greet us with a smile or a greeting and seemed genuinely happy to give us directions or help us with our bumbling French. We thoroughly enjoyed our interactions with them.
What Carla and I are discovering as we travel is that we might feel a connection with some places just like we feel with some people. And the connection isn’t about whether we find the place to be beautiful or charming… it’s just a feeling. And I happened to connect quickly and easily with Montpellier. I loved being there and could easily have stayed. For me, Montpellier, France is truly special. If I may use an old 1960’s expression . . . I just liked the vibe. Nearly a quarter of the population are students, and even a greater percentage are under 30 years old. Having come of age and spent my formative years (ages 18-40) in the college town of Chapel Hill, NC, I have a deep appreciation and even reverence for the dynamic and progressive influence that youth can have on a town or city. I was reminded of this in Montpellier and found it both refreshing and inspiring. I hope that one day Montpellier makes it into your travel itinerary, and you can experience its charm and magnificence firsthand. Perhaps it will find its way into your heart as well.