Much of France has a definite Roman and Greek history, especially near the Mediterranean Sea where they established colonies in the 1st millennium BC. The remains of amphitheaters, triumphal arches, and city gates from the era abound. Even in Carcassonne where we’re about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the water’s edge, at the base of the giant fortress that overlooks the city you can still the clay bricks laid over 2000 years ago. Somehow, Montpellier, the 7th largest city in the country, was bypassed by those early invaders, not being settled until around 985 AD. We only knew this regional capital from having visited the immigration office there soon after we moved across the Atlantic, so we happily accepted an invitation to lunch with friends that would give us the day to leisurely look around.
We had last seen Anne and Eliot in the beautiful city of Nîmes where we had spent the morning and afternoon exploring while meeting them midday for a fresh salad and a glass or two of local wine. That was so successful we planned a similar schedule for this day. We hopped aboard an early train with our round trip tickets that cost 2 euros per person that put us in the heart of Montpellier in time to see office workers beginning their shifts and students, who represent 15 percent of the city’s population, scurrying (or not) off to their classes. Our first stop had a much less-serious name than where those people were all going: La Place de la Comédie. Named after a theater that stood until 1785, this central square is surrounded by sidewalk cafés and in the middle is a fountain called The Three Graces built in 1790. The opera house here dates from 1888 with the nearby Parc L’Esplanade following soon thereafter where theater goers could, and still do, promenade before and after the opera.
Speaking of places to walk, it was a short stroll from there over to the Promenade du Peyrou, a square that was begun in 1685 with five purposes: as a viewpoint to the mountain ranges of the Cévennes and the Pyrénées; to display a statue of Louis XIV (the Sun King); to showcase an Arc de Triomphe that replaced one of this formally-walled city’s gates; to house the Chateau D’Eau which is a very classy looking water tower; and as the endpoint of a Roman inspired aqueduct from 1753 that is still used today to supply water to the decorative fountains all over town.
Although founded in 1364, the Cathedral St. Pierre didn’t achieve that status until nearly 200 years later which was the same time period that Nostradamus, who published a collection of prophecies in 1555, was studying next door at the University of Montpellier. He was admitted to their school of medicine, perhaps the world’s oldest still operating from at least 1137 but was soon expelled because of his earlier work in pharmacy that the school considered inappropriate for their diploma candidates.
With lunchtime approaching, we headed back towards the center via old town to admire its cobblestone streets, narrow and curvy lanes, sidewalk cafés, and tiny boutiques. Our destination was the restaurant L’Artichaut with its promise of “a Mediterranean garden on your plate” and we were not disappointed. Our meals were fresh, beautifully presented, and light enough that we all opted for the 3-course daily menu that started with a salad or marinated shrimp, continued with the veal we all chose, and ended with the slightly sweet “tender dark chocolate cream” or a coconut and lime caramelized banana.
In keeping with the “promenade” theme of the day, we then walked around the oldest botanical garden in France that was set up in 1593 by the University for its medical students and is still maintained by them although now for its beauty rather than its healing powers. Attracted by that long history of medicine, wealthy noblemen had mansions constructed in Montpellier to be near the sea air and the promise of the country’s best doctors close at hand. We walked by several of these magnificent folies, as they are called, from the 18th century on our way back to the train station.
We never did make it out to the zoo nor to the 17th century Chateau de Flaugergues with its splendid gardens, but we had to save something for a return trip.