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