Hidden Montpellier

When we return to a city that we’ve already visited, it’s fun to seek out the less well known sites that are still interesting to see. We did so with Bordeaux and that revealed several links back to revolutionary America that I don’t think we ever learned in history class. Now it was time to discover what we missed on our first visit to Montpellier. The featured photo across the top of today’s blog post is one of the best known spots in the city, La Place de la Comédie, but even it holds a secret. Here to the left is a closeup of one of the buildings there that the locals know as the scaphandrier, a word I’d never seen before to describe something that is viewed but perhaps not noticed by thousands of people every day.

A dictionary told me that scaphandrier means “diver” (underwater) and now I can understand the resemblance to a deep sea diver’s helmet. It was built in 1897 simply as a way to distinguish the Villa Lonjon from the others nearby and today it serves as a storage attic for the apartment below. 

La Tour de Babote

Many streets branch out from this Place and we followed one of those, Victor Hugo Boulevard, to our next discovery, La Tour de Babote. This tower is where in 1783 the inventor of the parachute tested his theories, so the story goes. Montpellier native Louis-Sébastien Lenormand covered a wooden frame with cloth in what apparently resembled more of a giant umbrella rather than our current idea of a parachute to float safely to the ground from a height of 26 meters (85 feet). 

Rue de la Croix d’Or

Only a few streets from there took us back in time to the medieval period when towns were laid out in circular patterns around an important building in the middle such as a castle or a church. We’d seen these circulades when we spent the day in Bram and we took some photos on several streets, including one of the oldest, rue de la Croix d’Or.

Mikvé bath, Tourisme Montpellier

Nearby in what was once the Jewish Quarter is the Mikvé, a ritual bath from the 13th century. There is an underground stream that constantly refills the reservoir with fresh, cold water at a temperature of 17℃/63℉. This national monument can only be visited on a guided tour from the Tourist Office, which we were unable to attend, but I’ve included a photo from their website of the interior.

La Coquille

On La Place de la Comédie we had seen a feature that was put at the top of a building simply to make it stand out from the others. Now we were going to view what seems to be the same concept on a different building except this would be at ground level. La Coquille (the Shell) decorates the corner of what was a private mansion rebuilt in 1636. This artwork is concave and large enough for us to stand inside of it and to be surrounded by the shell. 

Cathedral and Pic Saint-Loup behind

Here is the Tourism Office’s description of where we went next: “The most beautiful, the most romantic and the oldest square in Montpellier is the Place de la Canourgue.” I’d read that from one end of this public square you could see the mountain Pic Saint-Loup in the distance and the vantage point itself held a secret. We stood on paving stones that outline where the cathedral started being rebuilt in 1623 but Cardinal de Richelieu soon ordered a return to the original site just below, as you can see on the left side of this photo with the mountain behind.

No stirrups

You may remember a fairy tale that generated the phrase, “The emperor has no clothes” and where we went next reminded me of that with a slight change of words. Installed in 1838 is a huge statue of King Louis XIV riding his horse but he has no stirrups. A legend has developed that the artist took his own life upon realizing his mistake but according to France TV3, it was intentional: “it is because he is represented as a Roman rider, bareback, without saddle or stirrups.” And by the way, TV3 says that sculptor François-Frédéric Lemot died of natural causes years after his work was put on display.

Arceaux market

To finish off we went to what I believe was our favorite part of Montpellier—Arceaux Market. Each Tuesday and Saturday morning around 80 vendors of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads and meats set up shop below the arches of the aqueduct that was inaugurated in 1765 to ensure a supply of water to the city. The surrounding neighborhood, called Les Arceaux and officially designated by the city as a “quiet (calm, peaceful) neighborhood” with attributes like walking and cycling paths, businesses and schools nearby, and lots of green space would be exactly where we’d want to live. Hmm, maybe that’s why we’re in Carcassonne!

Having lived in several major cities in the US, we didn’t feel the need to settle in a metropolis in France although we can still enjoy visiting them. In the gallery below are some additional photos of what we found just by wandering the streets of Montpellier.

11 thoughts on “Hidden Montpellier

    1. One of my favorite cities and the sister city of my hometown (Louisville, KY); there was an exchange program when I was an undergrad and I spent a summer working in a pharmacy and stayed at the university with other Louisville students. One memory is that one of my friends was named Grace and we had her climb up on the statue of The Three Graces in Place de La Comedie and renamed it The Four Graces. My husband and I returned a few years ago.

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  1. Oh la la! What a pretty place. It’s been on the list for some time. The treehouse was unexpected! And the prices on that menu, well…..😬
    Thank you, as ever, for a lovely tour.

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    1. It was wonderful to walk past the restaurant every day to the apartment we rented and have a nice lunch at home knowing that the money we could have spent for one lunch would actually purchase all the meals for a week for two people. Those prices didn’t even include drinks.

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      1. I noticed that it was not inclusive of drinks. I can only assume the meals had bits of gold leaf and truffle strewn all over them….wise choice to avoid and enjoy the delights of your own making. 😃

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  2. Nice photos. And that blue whatchamacallit! I grew the plant but can’t think of the name right now. Plumbago maybe?

    Had to look up the pronunciation of scaphandrier on forvo.com. My guess was wrong.

    Having read nearly all your blog posts, I know that you two are crack researchers. What resources do you use before you first visit someplace new? Or even before a second visit?

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    1. Well spotted, Carolyn, on that flower! According to Google Lens you might call it Dentelaire du Cap or Moût de plomb but all roads point to Plumbago, just as you thought. There are a couple of blog posts that outline some of what we do when researching a destination: “Paris for Dinner” https://letsliveinfrance.com/2022/12/04/paris-for-dinner/ for first time visits and “Secret, lost, hidden, invisible Bordeaux” https://letsliveinfrance.com/2019/01/06/secret-lost-hidden-invisible-bordeaux/ for return trips. Happy hunting!


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