‘For just a mo­ment, in St Roch, I was 23 again’

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

quar­ters where the ser­vants would stash their own ser­vants. The blood froze in win­ter and boiled in sum­mer. I couldn’t fit com­pletely into the bath­room.

“Sorry, but I don’t re­mem­ber you, Mon­sieur,” said the bar­man, re­turn­ing at a sprint. “You wouldn’t; you’re only 13,” I said. He grinned, and I left.

Long ago, we were all jammed in these tiny, high­sided streets drawn tight around St Roch church in the heart of Mont­pel­lier’s his­toric bit: the baker and the butcher and the gro­cer in black since her hus­band had been killed in Al­ge­ria. Work­ers and bour­geois lived cheekby-jowl. Ev­ery­one in the few cafés knew ev­ery­one else and no one had heard of cock­tails. Ev­ery­one on the streets was go­ing some­where spe­cific – work, shop­ping, school, univer­sity. A knife-grinder on a bike rode through once a week (“Bring out your blades!”) Pur­pose­less tourists were a sur­prise.

No longer. Fu­elled by hi-tech in­dus­tries, brains and bril­liance, the city has spent 45 years or more grow­ing faster than any­where else in France – from 14th to eighth po­si­tion, pop­u­la­tion-wise – while keep­ing hold of the Med es­sen­tials. El­e­gant, sub­ver­sive and sen­sual, it has be­come the most cultured and tol­er­ant city in France. Am­bling visi­tors abound, thank heav­ens.

I’d kept in close touch over the years, but rarely re­turned as a (very) St Roch church and square; and An­thony with his wife Eve­lyne in 1974, below sim­ple tourist. So that’s what I did ear­lier this month, in tem­per­a­tures to fry the fur off cats. In my old St Roch district, what had been dark and func­tional had gone light and lively. Things which peo­ple needed – bak­ers, butch­ers, cob­blers – had ceded to things which no one needed but ev­ery­body liked: wine bars, be­spoke choco­late shops, vin­tage frock shops, hole-in-the-wall T-shirt, jew­ellery and bagel out­lets. Café ter­races spread across the nar­row streets now cars had been evicted. There was a sun­shine fer­ment of leisure and loung­ing with labour, once to the fore, now lost down in the mix. The Bee­hive English pub and a sa­lon de thé jos­tled with a tapas bar, a mo­jito bar, more restau­rants than any­one could count, a cafébou­tique or two, a café-bébé with every­thing adapted for nip­pers and, fac­ing the church it­self, a build­ing­sized trompe-l’oeil mu­ral which few would have thought nec­es­sary four decades be­fore. It worked bril­liantly.

I me­an­dered the labyrinth, then burst out on to the Place de la Comédie. The vast, sun-roasted square is where the me­dieval lay­out loosens its grip and the city sighs with re­lief. Trimmed with Hauss­man­nian build­ings ap­par­ently dis­patched direct from Paris, it’s been Mont­pel­lier’s fo­cal point for gen­er­a­tions. In the Seven­ties, it was over­come with traf­fic. That’s all gone. These days, it is the grand­est pedes­trian square in Europe, dis­turbed only by the swish of trams way too grace­ful to be pub­lic transport.

I took a ta­ble at Les Trois Graces, as usual, be­cause (a) the café over­looks the Three Graces statue and (b) the young wait­ers there seem more fo­cused than servers in other bars, so less likely to give the im­pres­sion they were fit­ting you in be­tween peace­keep­ing mis­sions. Thus did I ap­pre­ci­ate the stately spec­ta­cle of city life flow­ing past, the street per­form­ers and num­ber­less stu­dents, im­pos­si­bly hand­some women with a metropoli­tan

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