Making the Most of Montpellier
I spent four days in Montpellier for the taping of my 49th House Hunters International, which is just enough to get a taste of the city that is one of the highest population growth areas of France. It has one of the largest pedestrian areas of any city in France and university students comprising almost a quarter of its population. In all honesty, even with having done a lot of research, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Our crew’s hotel, the Grand Hôtel du Midi, is located just at the southern tip of Place de la Comédie, a vast public square southeast of the Écusson area, in the heart of what was once the medieval city. It extends over a former fortification that ends at the citadel of Montpellier (now the Lycée Joffre) and the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle to the east—a shady promenade, brightened up with “guinguettes” and ice cream parlors. It forms with the esplanade, one of the largest pedestrian areas in France.
From the hotel dining room, where I perched on a stool to work and write, I could see most of the Place and the throngs of people crossing the square. It takes its name from the municipal theater whose monumental façade adorns the southwest side of the square. The Place de la Comédie is the nerve center; the center of all activity in Montpellier. In fact, it is not only a great pole of attraction, but also the starting point for a more in-depth discovery of the historic city. It was a perfect location from which to see most of the city on foot.
I wrote all about Montpellier in Thursday’s French Property Insider, which was an ideal way for me to research and learn more about it before landing there and getting to rediscover it first hand.
The “contributors” in the episode are a young couple who just moved to Montpellier from the US. She is French, he is American. They met in the US, were married less than two years ago, then she (Julia) landed a job based in Montpellier, so they moved there. It was all new to them, too.
An article in France.fr, claims that Montpellier is a gem for architecture lovers. They got that right. There are many buildings of serious note:
* The City Hall of Montpellier, a large cube of blue glass and aluminum laid on the edge of the Lez, imagined by Jean Nouvel and François Fontès and completed in 2011;
* The RBC Design Center, also by Jean Nouvel, with the jewel-like shine of its two-tone glass railings;
* The Cloud by Philippe Stark, a rectangular building located near the Jacques Coeur basin in Port Marianne, that shines at night like a blue, pink or multicolored halo;
* The Pierresvives glass and concrete vessel by Zaha Hadid made of smooth lines, sharp edges, superimposed planes and false volumes;
* L’Arbre Blanc (The White Tree), that is called an architectural madness of the 21st century, evoking a plant form, white and graceful, blooming with balconies and shadows as light as leaves;
* The Montpellier Contemporain or MO.CO. by Philippe Chiambaretta who transformed the Montcalm Hotel into a 3,200 square meter contemporary art center with modular exhibition spaces, a bar-restaurant and a contemporary acclimatization garden;
* And in Antigone, a district considered the first “laboratory” of architecture in Montpellier by Catalonian architect Ricardo Boffil who drew six large squares along a pedestrian axis with sculptured constructions of columns and pediments.
As it turns out, we had the pleasure of taping in and near some of these buildings, but I dare not give too much away or the producers of the show may cut off my head! One evening I met up with newly installed Canadians, Angela and Paul de Burger of “Unlocking France” and “Step Up” podcasts who I met a few years ago in Paris. (The podcast I did with them can be heard here.) It turns out they sold it all in Toronto and are now living in one of the city’s iconic buildings in the Antigone—the Esplanade de l’Europe designed by Ricardo Boffil. I saw the semi-circular building from the rooftop of the Arbre Blanc and took photos before realizing that the three of us were scheduled to have dinner in a restaurant on the Lez River just in front of it. It was all very coincidental.
Montpellier is NOT one of the south’s most colorful cities. In fact, I learned that the city has strict policies designed to preserve its heritage. There are molded windows with original “espagnolettes”—a locking device, normally mounted on the vertical frame of a French door or casement window, in this case often in the shape of the heads of animals such as crocodiles, on folding shutters in thick wooden panels. This original joinery must be preserved or changed when it is too damaged. But, there’s a second requirement and here’s where I am dumbfounded: the recommended shades of “color” are shades of gray—pale for the windows and more intense for the shutters, which is actually called “Montpellier Gray.”
I am shocked by this, considering how much life the beautiful colors of the shutters on the buildings in Provence and the Riviera give to the environment and that Montpellier would actually choose gray as a “color.” Gray is NOT a “color.” Sonny, our episode contributor, remarked that when the surface of the building has imperfections, colorful shutters distract you from seeing them, while when the shutters are gray, your eye passes over the shutters and on to the imperfections. It was an interesting observation that is so true.
Once I learned this, I realized why I never had a strong connection with the city. For me, such smoky tones are depressing. In fact, when the hotel installed me in a room decorated in shades of gray and black (even the bathroom was all black), I asked to be changed and got happily installed in a red room with a white bathroom! Ah, the difference was night and day!
For four days I was in the same clothing in order to tape the show that is edited to seem like it all takes place in one day. I wore a rainbow of colors —multi-colored striped top, bright green puff jacket, multi-colored scarf, black skirt and blue tights. Even the heels of my shoes were matching—one red and round, the other orange and square. Interestingly, I was complimented by people on the street wherever I went. “Madame, j’aime vos couleurs; comme un arc-en-ciel,” one woman exclaimed! (“Madam, I love your colors; like a rainbow!”) Now, I realize they just don’t see that kind of color often in this town!
Montpellier is only 15 kilometers from the seaside resort of Pavalas-les-Flots, where we taped in another apartment, just steps from the Mediterranean. As we drove to the waterfront, we passed flamingos and white horses, the kind you see in the neighboring Camargue. The resort is surrounded by several lakes and crossed by the river Lez. The sandy beaches attract French families because they are ideal for boating, swimming and all sorts of water sports. The lively streets of this little enclave are dotted with seafood restaurants, pizzerias and open-air ice cream parlors, which sit alongside surfing stores and souvenir shops. It was here that we lunched on fresh seafood in a sunny cafe right on the water.
Montpellier was a fascinating and fun four days, surrounded by people one-third to one-half my age. I can now conclude that it’s not a town for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right for you or many others…particularly the young.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with HHI contributors Julia and Sonny
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