One of France's major galleries, the Musée Fabre, has been renovated. Out go the dusty old masters, in come bright contemporary spaces. Alison Culliford reports from Montpellier

Montpellier's ex-mayor Georges Frêche is never out of the news. No sooner did he pay his fine for insulting the Harkis (Algerians who supported France in the war for independence) than he got thrown out of the Parti Socialiste for his comments on the French football team. But for all his tactless soundbites, the man has done much for the city of Montpellier during his lengthy rule.

As the artist Pierre Soulages said at the inauguration of the newly revamped Musée Fabre, "Frêche does things. Here's the proof." The €62.7m (£43m) renovation has turned the museum from a fusty repository of old masters to a glowing art attraction with luminous contemporary galleries and a grand entrance designed by Daniel Buren, making Montpellier a new destination for art tourism.

Frêche's grands projets, which include the extravagant "100 fountains" scheme and a tram line with carriages to be designed by Christian Lacroix, have jazzed up what was already an innately attractive city. Basking in the Mediterranean sun and only five miles from the sea, Montpellier combines the grandeur of a successful mercantile city with the laid-back attitude of the south. It is also imbued with a youthful energy that comes from its 60,000-strong student population.

One of Montpellier's greatest successes has been the pedestrianisation of a large swathe of the town centre in 2004. Arriving by TGV (only three and a half hours from Paris), by tram from the airport, or emerging on to the Esplanade from the 12,000-capacity underground carpark, the first thing you do is breathe. There is so much space; the air is clean and everyone seems so relaxed. The pedestrianisation extends from the Esplanade through the new Antigone quarter to much of the Old Town, making exploration on foot - or flânerie, as the French like to call it - a pleasure that few cities can match.

Montpellier was built on a double axis of intellect and commerce. The king of Aragon, who ruled the city in the Middle Ages, promoted freedom of religion, which brought Jewish and Muslim scholars and resulted in the medical and law faculties. After much of Montpellier was destroyed during the wars of religion, Louis XIII established a Catholic supremacy and nobles and merchants built elegant hôtels particuliers. Place de la Comédie dates from this period. With its theatre at one end and the Esplanade - the longest in Europe - at the other, it is a majestic space where the fountain of the Three Graces provides a natural meeting place and cafés spread their terraces.

Off to the left, as you walk down the Esplanade, is the Musée Fabre, established in the 19th century by a Montpellieran painter who made some rich connections in Italy. "Finally!" proclaim posters all over town, "the Musée Fabre reopens its doors." The result of five years of renovation, the transformed museum is approached by a striking walkway in marble and black granite stripes and has two underground skylit galleries sculpted out of the 17th-century courtyards. Its crowning glory is the Soulages gallery, a space of white light diffused through frosted glass panels that create a contemporary echo of the Jesuit austerity across the courtyard.

Soulages, who in 1979 elected to work only in black (the outrenoir, he calls it), has donated 20 canvases and lent a further 12, which are hung in the middle of the room so that they seem to float in space. You may even catch a glimpse of the artist, imposing in his black Mao suit but eminently approachable.

The museum runs the full gamut from Caravaggio, Poussin and Rubens to the present day, through galleries including the impressive Columns Room in Tuscan red and the Griffins Room with its painted frieze. It is also rare to encounter an art museum where every single work on display has been restored to its full glory. Many long-term loans have been made from national museums such as the Louvre, enriching the collection to make this one of France's premier art museums. And behind the museum restaurant who else but the Pourcel twins, who created the renowned Jardin des Sens?

Two and a half hours is about what you'll need to give the museum its due, before heading up one of the steeply winding streets into the Old Town just behind. It is well worth taking a tour from the tourist office on Place de la Comédie. This enables you to see inside some of the hôtels particuliers, to ascend the Arc de Triomphe and visit the Jewish ritual baths with their almost iridescent coppery green water, which are normally closed to the public.

If you don't take a tour though, don't be afraid to push the doors (a button under the door codes will let you in during the day) to see inside the hôtels particuliers. The Hôtel des Trésoriers de la Bourse and the Hôtel de Varenne are two of the most impressive. Afraid of recriminations after the wars of religion, their architects kept it simple on the outside but put all their Renaissance artistry on the inside. Another fascinating building is the Hôtel Saint-Côme, built as a surgical operating amphitheatre and now housing the Chamber of Commerce.

Exploring the Old Town on your own you can drop into some of its boutiques. Rue de l'Ancien Courrier has jewellery and clothes shops in vaulted ground-floor cellars, while up near Place de la Canourgue are designery furniture shops and antiques dealers. To reach this pretty green with its unicorn statue you'll cross Rue Foch, a grand avenue of chic shops that ends in the Arc de Triomphe. This axis, with which Louis XIV put his stamp on the city, extends through Promenade du Peyrou with the statue of the king, and beyond that the aqueduct designed to bring water to Montpellier's fountains. Don't miss the moated Ecole de Médecine with its impossibly high cathedral towers, and France's oldest botanical gardens.

There are lots of lively eating options all over the Old Town, but before dinner it's worth descending back to Place de la Comédie to see Antigone. The whole of this large area was taken up with military establishments until the 1980s, when Ricardo Bofill masterminded a pioneering town planning project. Making its point, the grandiose Place du Nombre d'Or contains 100 per cent social housing in a golden concrete evocation of Italian Renaissance architecture. At night, when the columns and copies of Greek and Roman statues are illuminated, Las Vegas springs to mind, but it still has a utopian quality of which Montpellier is justly proud.

The Musée Fabre is not the only thing to celebrate in the "Year of Montpellier 2007". The city also gets a flying visit from the Tour de France in July and hosts Australia and South Africa in the Rugby World Cup in September, while the huge Mare Nostrum aquarium and an Amazonian glasshouse are also to be unveiled this year. But even without these projects, Montpellier is a delightful city whose café culture alone makes it worth a short break that you will want to prolong.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Ryanair (0871-246 0000; ryanair.com) offers return fares from London Stansted from £60. Return fares from London Waterloo to Montpellier by Eurostar (08705 186186; eurostar .com) with an onward TGV connection cost from £109. Doubles at the New Hotel du Midi (00 33 4 67 92 69 61; new-hotel .com) start at €155 (£110).

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Maison de la France (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; franceguide.com). Montpellier Tourism (ot-montpellier.fr).

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