Montpellier: Pulls on your heartstrings, not your purse strings

Montpellier Side Street

One of the lovely side streets

One of the great things about having a lot of friends doing a gap year the same time you are, is that there are plenty of floors or couches (should you be so lucky) around the world to sleep on for nothing. One of the floors I found myself on was that of my good friend Sean’s, in Montpellier. This gorgeous city is a 3.5hr train ride from Paris to the warm south. I’d heard a lot of positive things about Montpellier before this and wasn’t disappointed. Here’s why:

On arrival, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d walked into a 50s movie – no joke, I was actually expecting to see Marilyn Monroe in that famous white dress of hers strutting down the long, golden boulevard dotted with tall palm trees that met me on exiting the train station. Once you veer off the main street, the place takes on a different tone; that of a quaint and quiet French town – not as imposing as the huge and elaborately decorated buildings that line the main street but they provide a similar aesthetic pleasure in their higgledy-piggledy structures. The city (unlike many 50s movie stars) has aged elegantly – the buildings are old, some looking a bit more tired than others, yet they retain an air of grandeur in their bricks. I found it delightful to go exploring the beautifully cobbled, narrow side streets with their tall walls stretching into the sky. Being from Dublin, a city famous for its fine collection of Georgian doors, I never understood why people got so excited about them – what’s so attractive about a bunch of old doors? Having wandered around Montpellier’s winding alleyways speckled with all sorts of interesting doors to admire, I finally get it! Perhaps this comprehension was helped along by the hilarity of my friend accidently falling through one of these doors into the hallway of a startled French family. Maybe all “door hunters” are thrill seekers of a similar nature…

The difference between Paris and Montpellier is vast! While I will always have a soft spot for Paris, I fell in love with Montpellier during my short stay. Things were much more laid-back – the weather was considerably nicer and it’s beside the sea, which was something I was missing in Paris (as I live close to it in Dublin). When we weren’t accidentally breaking and entering, our time together was spent enjoying the deliciously sweet white wine of the region, visiting the zoo, cycling along the coast to check out the local flamingos (a huge novelty for this Irish girl given the most exotic bird she gets to see at home is a pigeon) and relaxing on the glorious beach!

Fire Risk Dial at Montpellier Zoo

Fire Risk Dial at Montpellier Zoo

The Lunaret Zoo a is free admission, 80 acre zoo filled with fun walks and all sorts of interesting animals including a large variety of birds, monkeys, lions and bears. A reassuring sign at the entrance told us there was only a “moderate” chance of a fire occurring that day, which is certainly something to put you at ease going in. I’m not going to linger on this as it really is something you need to see yourself but in short, it’s a very enjoyable day out. To get there, take Tram Line 1 to “Saint-Eloi” and then get the no. 13 “La Navette” bus heading towards “Universités“. There’s a stop called “zoo“, so you should be able to find it easily. However, the zoo wasn’t the only place Sean and I came across amazing animals. We were lucky enough to happen upon an “art” exhibition by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot where electric guitars were placed around a room filled with tiny birds, who flew from one to the other making all sorts of interesting sounds. We could walk around the room as this all happened, right in the center of it all – the pair of us didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day we were so enamored by it! While this clip doesn’t do the display justice, it does give you an idea of what it was like.

Birds on a guitar

These little guys are so cute

Given that Montpellier is a student city, the nightlife needed to be sampled! We had a bizarre, yet fun night. The banter kicked off at a quaint wine bar on Place Jean Jaures, Café de la Mer. This bar is meant to be the gay HQ of Montpellier, with a popular gay club L’Heaven beside it. Lovely for conversation and just easing yourself into the swing of things. From there it was onwards to Cargo nightclub. Maybe it was just the night in question but I didn’t like it at all. The crowd was VERY young and the mood of the place was sort of flat. However, should you find yourself there on shallowpockets, entry is free before 12. We didn’t spend long there, progressing to a rather unusual bar, Baccara. The reviews I’ve found for this place are very mixed, which is understandable; I enjoyed it as a once-off experience, however I definitely wouldn’t be a regular. The place is small, but comfy with a decent atmosphere, however drinks are pricey and the “no smoking” law is completely ignored which I didn’t appreciate at all. Although, we didn’t go to it, Sean assures me that Villa Rouge is a fantastic club. You can get a “free entry” pass in most of the bars around Place Jean Jaures which is a nice bonus. It’s a bit out but the Amigo Bus will take you there for €1.50. Some other clubs of note are O-Bar and La Côte (which has its own pool).

With a long night behind us, a gently bike ride to the beach was the perfect way to dispel any muzziness. There’s a cycle path that runs to the beaches at Palavas-les-Flots and Carnon. It takes about an hour to get to the beach but you go along really pretty routes displaying fine foliage, horses and wild flamingos. Bikes cost €2 to rent for the day so they won’t break the bank. The beach itself was splendid – long stretches of soft sand and bright blue ocean.

Sean on his bike at Place de la Comedie, Montpellier

Sean on his bike at Place de la Comedie, Montpellier

It was with a pang of regret that I stepped off the station platform and headed back to Paris as there was some much more to explore. It’s a city I want to go back to 🙂

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