Montpellier: once and future city
Tradition and innovation combine to evoke the soul of Montpellier, writes Harriet O’Brien
Friday 25 March 2011
Atranquil wine estate, complete with noble château, sits in the midst of a very urban, very modern area of light industry and IT offices. Three kilometres away a violinmaker works intently in a studio adjoining a medieval square, delicately honing the maple back of an instrument being made to order for a Korean soloist. Montpellier is a city of semi-secret gems and surprise delights.
Most visitors to the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon come to wander the maze of alleyways in the city’s ancient heart and to take in its must-see sights: the exceptional Musée Fabre with its fabulous collection of Impressionist paintings and works by Pierre Soulages; and the elegant town mansions, or hôtels particuliers, around the centre – most notably Hôtel deVarennes at 2 place Petrarque (which today houses the Museum of OldMontpellier). But this is also a city of rich and radical extremes. And from its medieval core to its urban vineyard, its contemporary architecture, and its international art scene, it is a vibrant jumble.
There’s an almost overwhelming sense of vitality here. The eighth-largest city in France, Montpellier has a youthful population (a good third of its residents are under 25 years old) and a near-tangible atmosphere of innovation. A striking new town hall, designed by the country’s renowned architect Jean Nouvel, is nearing completion in the southern Port Marianne district; a state-of-the-art new shopping and entertainment complex, Odysseum, lies just east of this area; a new, third tram line with styling by Christian Lacroix is under construction. Yet among all the change and development this is a place where the past is very much honoured and where innovation embraces tradition – which has been skilfully adapted and updated for the present.
Château de Flaugergues is perhaps the finest example of this blend. Montpellier’s silicon valley, the Millénaire district, has grown up around its rolling vineyards of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and other grape varieties. From a host of mini-roundabouts and office developments in this eastern part of the city you turn down a dirt-track drive and abruptly find yourself in another world. The domaine was established by an artistocrat, Etienne de Flaugergues, in 1698 and today is run by the 10th and 11th generations of his family. They inhabit the same gracious house that he built, maintain the stunningly beautiful gardens that have been developed here over the centuries, and produce award-winning AOC Coteaux du Languedoc wine and vins de pays from the zealously protected land. There is a typically modern twist, of course: while some of the wine is sold to European outlets (the Cuvée Rosé and the Cuvée Sommelière are available at Majestic Wine in the UK for example), more and more is exported to newly developing markets in China and Thailand.
Visitors are invited to taste the wines and wander the extensive grounds – a formal French garden of neatly clipped box hedge and a wilder jardin Britanique complete with orangery and a glorious grove of bamboos. The gracious 18th-century house itself can be visited by appointment between October and May, and during the summer months it is open most afternoons for guided tours. The guide explains how the château was one of a number of “follies”, grand houses built outside the city among the leaves ( les feuilles, hence the word “folly”).
The exterior of this property is neat and unadorned, the interior magnificent. You are taken up a sweeping staircase to a succession of salons that are still lived in, and down to the library and dining room complete with Roman glassware and Limoges porcelain. Contrary to any lingering expectations of aristocratic aloofness, there is nothing stuffy here. Visitors are frequently greeted by Etienne de Flaugergues’s descendants, the Colbert family. Henri Colbert and his son Pierre are not only the winemakers here, but also the hosts. Pierre is frequently on hand at Le Folia, the chic lunchtime restaurant he and his wife, Marie, opened in the grounds last August, the menu well complemented by Flaugergues wines.
There’s further food innovation a short distance away at Odysseum shopping complex across the A9 from the château and its vineyard. On the first floor you’ll find Cabiron, a stylish shop selling chocolates and exquisite, brightly coloured macaroons. Flavours range from pistachio to chocolate, chestnut and lime and are concocted by the Cabiron brothers, Gérard and Bernard, who are much acclaimed in Montpellier for their originality and creativity.
Over in the heart of Montpellier, about a 10-minute tram ride to the west, Bernard also runs the Marquise de Sévigné boutique, selling the finest of chocolates along with macaroons and the local speciality, grisettes de Montpellier: tiny, honey-flavoured candies with a hint of liquorice. Here, in the medieval centre of the city, you’ll also find a host of other craft enterprises. In fact one of the best ways of exploring its warren of lanes is to follow a trail of artisans’ workshops. Ateliers St Roch is an association of craftspeople whose studios and little shops are dotted around the vicinity of Place de St Roch – you can pick up a small map of their outlets from the tourist office and spend a happy hour or so visiting ceramicists, jewellers, glassmakers and more.
Perhaps best of all, though, are the stringed instrument makers of Montpellier. The city is home to 11 luthiers, highly skilled artisans who create world-class violins, violas and cellos. This year for the first time they have organised a festival celebrating their work. So between the last few days of April and the start of May the public will have the privilege of being able to hear these instruments being played; they will also have the opportunity to watch some of them being produced. Thereafter the festival is due to held every two years.
Hôtel Le Guilhem, 8 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau (00 33 4 67 52 90 90). Close to the botanical garden, Hôtel Le Guilhem is a beautiful renovation of a 16th-century home. Doubles from €96 without breakfast.
Mon Jardin en Ville, 23 avenue de Palavas (00 33 4 67 64 00 35). Late-19th century architecture is complemented by a contemporary wooden extension on the ground floor. Doubles from €115 including breakfast.
Suite Novotel, 45 avenue du Pirée (00 33 4 67 20 57 57). With 139 bright and spacious suites, this modern hotel is conveniently located on the eastern edge of the Antigone district and a stroll from trams offering services to the centre. Doubles are from €95 including breakfast. See www.ot-montpellier.fr/en/on-line-reservations to book somewhere to stay in Montpellier.
What to see and do
Château de Flaugergues, 1744 avenue Albert Einstein (00 33 4 99 526 637; flaugergues.com). Open Mon-Sat (and Sunday afternoons during June, July and September) for wine tasting/buying and for unguided garden tours (€6) 9.30am-12.30pm and 2.30-7pm. Chateau open for guided tours June, July and September Tues-Sun 2.30-7pm and at other times by appointment; adults €8.50
Musée Fabre, 39 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (00 33 4 67 14 83 00; museefabre.fr) Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday 10am-6pm; Wednesday 1-9pm; Saturday 11-6pm. Adults €6.
Ateliers St Roch craft studios in the heart of the city include 500 Degrés at 14 rue en Gondeau (00 33 4 67 91 02 88) for ceramics; Atelier Myriam A (00 33 6 10 51 97 23) at 6 rue Alexandre for pottery and glass; La Boutique de Kiara ( kiaracreation.com) at 9 rue des Flammes for jewellery; Elisa Johnston (00 33 4 67 60 28 61) for one-off designs from shirts to skirts.
Cabiron, Odysseum (00 33 4 99 64 58 54); Marquise de Sévigné, 4 rue de la Barralerie (00 33 4 67 66 36 90).
Fête des Luthiers, a celebration of stringed-instrument makers, runs from 25 April-1 May. Exhibitions, concerts and demonstrations of violin and cello making will be taking place at the Conservatoire Sainte-Anne music school on Place Sainte-Anne (for details, see fetedesluthiers.com).
Montpellier Tourist Office, 30 Allée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (00 33 4 67 60 60 60; ot-montpellier.fr).
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