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