12 November 2010

Discovering Montpellier

11 November 2010: Today was a "jour férié" - a public holiday - in France. In Australia, we get a minute's silence for Remembrance Day, in France it's an entire day! And when the public holiday is mid-week, lots of workers take an extra day - a practice known as "faire le pont" or literally to "make a bridge" to create a long weekend. I'm starting to think I could live here.

Because of the public holiday, I didn't have classes this morning, so I decided to extend my tour of discovery a bit further, especially as we had beautiful sunny weather as well.

Montpellier is a fascinating city, in one of the oldest region in France - the Languedoc-Roussillon region. If you're interested in the history and geography of the city, Wikipedia does a pretty good job of outlining the main points of interest.

What Wikipedia won't tell you directly is that the greater urban area of Montpellier is known as an agglomeration, so you have the transport system - TaM - which stands for Transports de l'agglomeration de Montpellier. For someone who loves great brand and design - Montpellier has really pulled it all together. And I love the notion of being part of an agglomeration, rather than just an urban sprawl. 

The tram system is great, with two lines currently in operation. The lines intersect in a wavy, wobbly "X" shape that crosses at 2 or 3 key points around the city. "La comedie" as it is known, is the heart and symbol of the city, but it definitely pays to move on and out from the main plaza to discover some other hidden gems.

Today, rather than get off at Gare St Roch as usual, I went on for a few more stations and got off at Le Corum where the main congress/exhibition centre is situated. From here you can stroll through a long allée (or park) that would be fabulously leafy in summer, with heaps of open air cafes, and take in a photographic exhibition (free) or the beautiful Musée Fabre, which was unfortunately closed today.

Montpellier has many famous people connected with it, but its modern hero - or perhaps anti-hero would be a better term - is a young man called Remi Gaillard. Remi is a bit of a prankster, with a wicked sense of humour that is often directed at authority figures. His website links to heaps of short video clips, many providing great travelogues of Montpellier. I found out about Remi from the sons of some new friends at dinner last night. Not the sort of thing you see in guidebooks, but maybe they should be there.

Montpellier is also known as a centre for study. On any day there's something like 70,000 students in Montpellier, many of whom, like me, are here to study for a short period of time. This ensures a lively cultural life in the city throughout the year, not just in the peak summer travel season. Good restaurants, clubs, bars and shops are dotted throughout the narrow stone alley-ways of the old city. Most areas in the old city are free of traffic, apart from delivery vehicles, taxis, trams and buses.

I'm still checking out the best places to eat, shop, get coffee and so on - at the moment I've got some worth going back to and others to avoid! Hard to know what will be good - everything looks wonderfully quaint because of the fabulous setting.

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