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Making the Most of Montpellier

Looking up to the balconies from below on the Arbre Blanc building in 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.

A pedestrian street in the historic center of Montpellier, France

A pedestrian street in the historic center of Montpellier

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.

The Place de la Comédie in Montpellier France

The Place de la Comédie

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.

Adrian Leeds' view on the Place de la Comedie from the hotel dining room

The Cathedral Saint Pierre de Montpellier

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.

House Hunters International contributors Julia and Sonny on set for a taping

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 Lez River in Montpellier, France
* 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 L'Arbre Blanc apartment building in Montpellier, France
* 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.

Birdseye view of Antigone Esplanade de L'Europe in Montpellier, France

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.

Podcasters Angela and Paul de Burger

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.”

Color squares of the Montpelliers grays allowed by the city

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.

Examples of Montpellier gray shutters

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!

Adrian Leeds meets with House Hunters International contributors at a cafe in Montpellier, France

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.

The beach at Palavas les Flot in Montpellier, France

A seaside cafe in Palavas les Flots in Montpellier, France

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…

Adrian Leeds with House Hunters International contributors Julia and SonnyAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

Adrian with HHI contributors Julia and Sonny

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4 Comments

  1. Carol Marcum on February 28, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    I have been visiting Paris for at least twenty years (and following your IH series for almost that long). I usually try to blend in with a lot of black clothes , and am even asked for directions. But in October, I wore a Talbot’s sweater that had “Joie de Vivre!” woven into the front in red letters. I know logos are gauche but this one gets smiles here in the US. I was crossing the street in front of Galleries Lafayette and a young woman called out: “”Enchantee,, Madame!” I went to the corner magazine salesman in his little kiosk and said, ”Be honest, do I look like a tourist?” He laughed and nodded.

    • Adrian Leeds Group on March 1, 2022 at 4:24 am

      Thanks for sharing. You can wear whatever you’d like in Paris – there are no fashion police!

  2. Genevieve on March 1, 2022 at 1:26 am

    Hi Adrian,

    Just listened to your interview with Paul de Burger and really enjoyed it. Even though it was a few years ago it is still very relevant and most interesting. It was great. 🇦🇺

    • Adrian Leeds Group on March 1, 2022 at 4:23 am

      Thank you! Glad that you enjoyed it.

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