48 hours in Montpellier

Relaxed yet buzzy, this dynamic Mediterranean city is where Parisians flee to

Why go now?
Languedoc-Roussillon's capital hosts a Mediterranean cinema festival from 27 October to 5 November, but you don't need an excuse to visit one of France's fastest-growing cities. Montpellier buzzes thanks to a huge student population and high-tech business concentration. Dynamism aside, the city is a laid-back, new-economy place, where people smile and nobody wears a suit. No wonder harassed Parisians are moving in.

Why go now? Languedoc-Roussillon's capital hosts a Mediterranean cinema festival from 27 October to 5 November, but you don't need an excuse to visit one of France's fastest-growing cities. Montpellier buzzes thanks to a huge student population and high-tech business concentration. Dynamism aside, the city is a laid-back, new-economy place, where people smile and nobody wears a suit. No wonder harassed Parisians are moving in.

Beam down British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.britishairways.com) flies daily from Gatwick, Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com) from Stansted (Saturdays only). Winter fares can fall to £100 return. The airport is 15 minutes from the bus station on Place du Bicentenaire (1). From London Waterloo, Eurostar connects at Lille or Paris for Montpellier. The lowest fare (Rail Europe, 0990 848 848) is about £125 return.

Get your bearings Historically, Montpellier was a centre for trade and healing. Rabelais and Nostradamus studied here, at Europe's oldest Medical Faculty (2). However, Montpellier has become southern France's most progressive town during the 20-year reign of its irrepressible mayor, whose contributions include controversial modern-architecture projects, a car-free city centre and state-of-the-art trams. Experience all three over a coffee on the marble-floored Place de la Comédie (3). To the east, opposite the glass-fronted tourist office (4) (00 33 4 67 60 60 60; www.ot-montpellier.fr), stands a ghastly concrete pyramid, gateway to the modern Antigone district (5); west lies the old town.

Check in For a luxury stay in the old town, try the recently refurbished Le Guilhem (6) (18 rue Jean-Jacques- Rousseau, 00 33 4 67 52 90 90). Doubles, some with views of the cathedral, cost around £40-£70. Round the corner, and just off the exceedingly pleasant Place de la Canourgue, is the 17th-century Hÿtel du Palais (7) (3 rue du Palais-des-Guilhem, 00 33 4 67 60 47 38), a charming mid-range option, with doubles from around £34. Or, at the Hÿtel des Etuves (8) (24 rue des Etuves, 00 33 4 67 60 78 19), a short stroll from Place de la Comédie, double rooms cost a mere £17.

Take a ride You won't learn much about the city's sights if you take Le Petit Train, which wiggles its way from Esplanade Charles de Gaulle (9) through the Old Town's narrow cobbled streets - but you will meet most of your driver's mates, batter a couple of bollards, exchange jovial insults with stallholders and get a crash-course in Montpellier's irreverent spirit. Sober up by taking a tram from Place de la Comédie to Antigone, a colossal neighbourhood built in the late-Seventies to provide moderately priced housing and, frankly, show off. The complex, precisely as long as the Champs-Elysées, has street names like Place Zeus; the high-tech Olympic swimming-pool is an apt symbol for Montpellier's desire to go further, higher, faster.

Take a hike From Place de la Comédie, take rue de la Loge and explore the pedestrianised old town, a higgledy-piggledy jumble of ochre-paved streets and secret squares, laid out in medieval times and dotted with handsome 17th- and 18th-century town houses. Admire the elegant architecture on rue des Trésoreries de la Bourse (10) and around Place St-Roch before heading north towards the serene Place Ste-Anne (11). Check out the view of the cathedral from Place de la Canourgue (12) and head for rue de l'Université (13), heart and soul of the student quarter. Then, take the bustling rue de l'Aiguillerie back to Place Jean-Jaurÿs (14), once the commercial centre of medieval Montpellier and now a café-heavy social hub.

Icing on the cake Oyster-lovers should head south-west to the pretty town of Bouzigues, in the Bassin de Thau, the heart of the region's oyster-production (a 40-minute bus ride from the Gare Routiÿre). Discover how oysters and mussels are cultivated at the wacky Musée de L'Etang de Thau (Quai du Port de Pêche, 00 33 4 67 78 35 37, open 10am to noon, and 2pm to 5pm), or simply stroll along the beach or take a dip before tucking into a ridiculously cheap platter of just-caught crustacea in one of the many waterfront restaurants.

A walk in the park Montpellier is home to France's oldest botanical gardens (25), created in the 16th century by Henry IV and now a slightly down-at-heel place with rusting plant labels, a romantically faded orangerie and a Tree of Secrets, where lovers traditionally left each other billets-doux. The best-kept patch, devoted to plant classification, is scientists only, but you can stroll through the incongruous bamboo forest or admire the Triffid-stalked water lilies of the English Garden's pond. The poet Paul Valéry described it as a dusk-time haunt for thinkers; professors and students from the nearby university pace the gravel paths looking suitably pensive.

Bracing brunch Sunday seems to be a day of rest for the city's restaurateurs, but a popular cheapie is Toast' Tea, on Place St Roch (24), where you can leaf through French novels while sampling local specialities such as squid pie or aubergine and goat's cheese tart. Alternatively, make tracks for Bouzigues (see Icing on the Cake), and enjoy some of the freshest seafood on the Med.

Sunday morning: go to church Most of the city's churches were razed during the 16th-century Wars of Religion, but one remaining original is Saint-Pierre Cathedral (23), a lumpen, fortress-like 14th-century structure with spooky turrets. It's not the world's most uplifting place of worship, but there's an impressive 18th-century organ and a frieze, along the tomb of Cardinal de Cabriÿres, depicting the poverty of Languedoc wine-growers, whose 1907 protests later inspired the Occitan movement. The most tangible fruits of their struggle are Montpellier's red-and-white Occitan street signs.

Demure dinner If you like vaulted ceilings and modern, minimalist decor, not to mention the best of local cuisine, head for La Maison de la Lozÿre (21) (27 rue de l'Aiguillerie; 00 33 4 67 66 46 36). The service is impeccable, the clientele is discreetly wealthy, the wine list favours Languedoc vineyards, and the £25 menu is fantastic: tuna tartare as an amuse-bouche, heavenly cep ravioli and crisp, tender confit de canard served with aligot, a rich, cheesy mash that the waiters tweak and twirl, like pasta dough, before your eyes. Finish with a platter of pungent local cheese and gratinée of orange in melted white chocolate. A (much) cheaper alternative is La Tomate (22) (6 rue Four-des-Flammes; 00 33 4 67 60 49 38), where you can wash down homely fish soup or cassoulet with regional wines costing as little as £1.20 a demi.

Cultural afternoon One of the best provincial art museums in France, the Musée Fabre (16) (39 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, 00 33 4 67 14 83 00), offers a rich collection of 16th- to 19th-century French, Dutch and Italian art: Raphael, Veronese, Poussin, Teniers, Gerrit Dou, Delacroix and Géricault. Thanks to the red-bearded art-lover Alfred Bruyas, the museum also has an extraordinary Courbet collection, and a collection of paintings of Alfred Bruyas: upwards of 20 portraits by some of the 19th century's top talents, including a comically hubristic image of Bruyas as the crucified Christ.

Lunch on the run If you must dash, grab a merguez sandwich or salade niçoise at one of the snack bars on the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. But most of Montpellier shuts down at lunchtime, so you can afford to take lunch at a gentle stroll. La Posada (15) (20 rue du Petit-Saint-Jean; 00 33 4 67 66 21 25), a popular place with a shaded terrace, has a £5 three-course menu featuring gargantuan portions of mussels in cream, tapenade, grilled aubergines with anchovies, and implausibly fresh fish, accompanied by a mound of tasty hand-cut frites. You may not be able to walk afterwards.

Window shopping Montpellier seems completely uninterested in tourism, with no souvenir shops, no glossy guidebooks and few postcards on display. Instead, the Old Town has hip, vinyl-heavy music stores, trendy shoe shops, like Des Pieds et des Mains, at 14 Rue Petit-Saint-Jean (17), and designer factory outlets. Rue de l'Ancien Couturier (18) is the place for stylish prêt-à-porter. If you want something more unique, pick up some "grisettes" at Godiva (19) (5 Rue de la Loge) - liquorice balls named after the dust-covered cloaks of medieval pilgrims who passed through on their way to Compostela.

An aperitif Everyone else will be on Place de la Comédie, watching the world go by, so join them by grabbing a table at the Café des Riches and enjoy spontaneous entertainment from stand-up comedians, African drummers, student jazz bands or Irish flamenco guitarists. If you've got to be different, try the café-crammed Place Jean-Jaurÿs or the Cuban-style Café Latino, a friendly dive on Place Castellane (20). The de rigueur drink is the dry vermouth Noilly Prat, a blend of barrel-aged white wines, herbs and spices made in the nearby fishing village of Marseillan.


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