MONTPELLIER BREAK

Try a short but lively break in this thor­oughly mod­ern south­ern city.

France - - Bienvenue -

Iam stand­ing in front of an Arc de Tri­om­phe – but it is 750 kilo­me­tres from the Champs-élysées in Paris. The build­ing I am gaz­ing at is a mod­ern equiv­a­lent made pre­dom­i­nantly from gleam­ing glass, and home to the Con­seil Ré­gional in Montpellier.

It is an ex­am­ple of the strik­ing ar­chi­tec­ture in one of France’s fastest­grow­ing cities. I am here for a week­end ex­plor­ing what res­i­dents will tell you is ‘ une ville qui bouge’ (a dy­namic city).

Ly­ing close to the Mediter­ranean, Montpellier en­joys an av­er­age 300 days of sun­shine a year, but was once over­shad­owed by its glitzy Provençal cousins such as Nice, Saint-tropez and Aix-en-provence. How­ever, that all changed in 1977 with the elec­tion as mayor of Ge­orges Frêche, who came up with a grand vi­sion for Montpellier. His plans in­cluded trans­form­ing the city from a pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal to a lead­ing player on the in­ter­na­tional stage, with the cre­ation of spa­cious and af­ford­able busi­ness premises on the out­skirts and a new, ar­chi­tec­turally strik­ing quar­ter that would make other cities stop and take no­tice.

Frêche, who served as mayor for 27 years, was a con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter, but cer­tainly lived up to his prom­ises, as I can see in the Antigone district, where my tour be­gins. Built on for­mer army bar­racks in the east­ern out­skirts be­tween the his­toric cen­tre and the River Lez, this 36-hectare district has a col­lec­tion of

grand neo-clas­si­cal struc­tures. My lo­cal guide Xavier tells me that Frêche com­mis­sioned a Cata­lan de­signer, Ri­cardo Bofill, to come up with the mas­ter plans. “Bofill was a great ad­mirer of Greco-ro­man ar­chi­tec­ture and wanted his work in Montpellier to be a nod to them,” Xavier says.

We walk on a lit­tle un­til we reach Place du Nom­bre d’or, where I take in these tow­er­ing feats of neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, per­fectly ar­ranged around the huge, open square. Xavier tells me that the square and the neigh­bour­ing Place de la Thés­salie are the best ex­am­ples of how ev­ery­thing is pro­por­tion­ally and the­mat­i­cally re­lated. “Are these grand struc­tures re­served for high so­ci­ety?” I ask. “No, not at all,” he replies. “Frêche stip­u­lated that the district had to be ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one, and many of the build­ings are res­i­den­tial, with banks, cafés and small su­per­mar­kets on the ground floor.”

Fur­ther on, we pass by the foun­da­tions of L’ar­bre Blanc, an ea­gerly awaited ad­di­tion to the district. Re­sem­bling a tree, the 17-storey build­ing is the work of Ja­panese ar­chi­tects and will fea­ture hous­ing, a restau­rant, art gallery, of­fices and a bar com­plete with panoramic view.

It is more than 30 years since the Antigone district was cre­ated and this in­no­va­tive quar­ter has led to other zones spring­ing up on the out­skirts, most no­tably Port Mar­i­anne. Pass­ing from one to the other, it feels as if I have fast­for­warded into the fu­ture: build­ings come in an as­sort­ment of shapes and sizes, from giant ra­zors to di­a­monds and green­houses, and some have sound ef­fects that play con­stantly. A gi­gan­tic blue glass struc­ture glim­mers in the mid­day sun­light; it is the hô­tel de ville, de­signed by Jean Nou­vel and François Fon­tès, and the fan­ci­est town hall that I have ever seen.

Af­ter an eye-open­ing tour of mod­ern Montpellier, we move on to the his­toric cen­tre, which is known as l’écus­son, due to its ovoid shape rem­i­nis­cent of an old French shield. The jewel in the city’s crown is Place de la Comédie, one of France’s most grace­ful cen­tral squares. A walk across it re­veals an abun­dance of ele­gant hô­tels par­ti­c­uliers, sun-dap­pled café ter­races and the im­pos­ing late-19th-cen­tury opera house, af­ter which the square is named.

Nar­row streets lead off in ev­ery di­rec­tion. We bear right and ten min­utes later ar­rive at La Panacée, an ex­hi­bi­tion space de­signed for emerg­ing artists, and a tes­ti­mony to the city’s bur­geon­ing arts scene. The cen­tre hosts an eclec­tic range of off-the-wall ex­hi­bi­tions and lec­tures, and is a pop­u­lar meet­ing place for the younger crowd.

A few streets away, op­po­site an im­pres­sive trompe-l’oeil mu­ral, stands the Carré Sainte-anne. This Gothic church, which was de­con­se­crated in the 1980s, holds three ex­hi­bi­tions per year and com­mis­sions in­ter­na­tional artists to

pro­duce works for this space. The city’s artis­tic cre­den­tials are set to be bol­stered even fur­ther with the open­ing of a con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum in 2019. The cen­tre is part of Moco, Montpellier Con­tem­po­rain, a project spear­headed by the cur­rent mayor, Philippe Sau­rel, who has ap­proved the big­gest city arts bud­get in France af­ter Paris.

We head straight on to Rue Foch, Montpellier’s an­swer to the Champs-Élysées, with an­other Arc de Tri­om­phe at the end. Also known as Porte de Pey­rou, it looks more like the Paris icon, although pre­dat­ing it by more than a cen­tury. My guide pro­duces a key and says “Shall we go up?” More than 100 steps later, we are en­joy­ing panoramic views over old and new Montpellier. “Not many peo­ple know you can come up here. But it is open, you just have to book with the tourist of­fice,” Xavier says.

The visit con­cludes with a tour of the Musée Fabre. Ex­ten­sively re­fur­bished in 2007, the city’s lead­ing arts mu­seum houses an out­stand­ing col­lec­tion of Euro­pean art. We wan­der through rooms ded­i­cated to the Old Masters, with paint­ings by Flem­ish artist Rubens hang­ing next to a dreamy Venus and Ado­nis by French painter Ni­cholas Poussin. Next, we stroll through a Ro­man­tic sec­tion where paint­ings by Delacroix and Courbet catch my eye.

The tour con­cludes with works by Rodez-born Pierre Soulages, which are a sea of ab­stract, all-black can­vases. These works sur­prise me, and the word ‘ab­stract’ sticks in my mind. It takes me back to some of the ar­chi­tec­ture I saw in the mod­ern quar­ter and leaves me pon­der­ing just how pro­gres­sive this city has be­come. If Ge­orges Frêche, who died in 2010, could see Montpellier now, he would be thor­oughly im­pressed. I know I am.

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ABOVE: The trompe-l’oeil mu­ral on the side of a build­ing op­po­site the Carré Sainte-anne ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre

ABOVE: In­side the gleam­ing hô­tel de ville in the Port Mar­i­anne district; LEFT: The 17th-cen­tury tri­umphal arch at the end of Rue Foch; BE­LOW: The opera house in Place de la Comédie

ABOVE: The ‘Arc de Tri­om­phe’ Con­seil Ré­gional build­ing in the Antigone district

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