Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon région, as well as the préfecture (administrative capital) of the Hérault département. Montpellier is an ideal place to discover a lively city and some of the world's most prestigious heritage sites.
The capital of Languedoc Roussillon, Montpellier, is located just a few miles inland from the sea and is one of the fastest growing cities in the south of France. Montpellier is an ancient academic city with handsome historic buildings, abundant gardens and an impressively vast central square. It is a lively and upbeat city with university students constituting almost a quarter of the population.
In 1180 Lord Guilhem VIII signed a surprising and far reaching edict. He declared that anyone, regardless of religion or background, could teach medicine in Montpellier. Thereafter, at the end of the 13th century the Faculté de Médecine was born. It was the first operating medical school in the Western world and is located in the ancient halls of a medieval monastery and Episcopal palace.
In the 17th and 18th medieval dwellings turned into grand mansions. Noblemen and rich traders built nearly one hundred such luxurious buildings in the centre with monumental staircases adorned with balustrades which led into internal courtyards. Later façades became embellished, huge gate entrance appeared and balconies boasted elaborate ironworks. In the 19th century some of the private mansions became income properties and turned into ostentatious apartments.
More recently a long-term programme of renovation and innovation, including a sleek new tramway, Ricardo Bofill’s postmodern Antigone quarter by the river Lez, the Corum concert and conference complex, has helped to make Montpellier France’s fastest-growing city.
City life centres on the vast, pedestrianised 'Place de la Comedie' with its open-air cafés and entertaining street performers. The buildings that surround it are stately with the elegant 19th century Opera an exact replica of the Paris opera house. At the opposite end, the landscaped esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where there’s a market most mornings where you can try Pelardon goat’s cheese, savoury olive and bacon fougasse breads, and oysters from Bouzigues.
Rue de la Loge is for serious shopping, this runs from place de la Comédie. Rue de l’Aiguillerie has ethnic boutiques, and circus and magic stores. The big names such as Galleries Lafayettes can be found in the vast modern Polygone mall which leads to riverside bars and restaurants. Les Halles Castellane is a covered market selling a wide range of food and drink.
Rue Foch leads west of the old town to the ornate 17th century Arc de Triomphe, from where the terraced promenade de Peyrou (the royal square) provides views as far as the Mediterranean and Cévennes National Park. The walk leads eventually to an aqueduct modelled on the Pont du Gard outside Nîmes, passing the Jardin des Plantes one of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens. Nearby is the bulky St Pierre cathedral, set in steep and picturesque streets.
The city has two national Opera Houses just 400 metres apart. The Comedie Opera House and the the Berlioz Opera House. In the mid 18th century, because of the real thirst for shows and productions, the Comedie Opera House was changed into a much needed theatre. The Duke of Richelieu, governor of the city, entrusted Jacques-Philippe Maréchal with this project. The theatre was inaugurated on 1st October 1888 with an auditorium replete with gold and light, featuring 1,600 seats covered in red velvet. Today, the Comedie Opera House is a centre for the lyrical arts in France.
In 1990, Montpellier inaugurated the Berlioz Opera House in the Corum, which was designed by the architect Claude Vasconi. The theatre features 2,010 seats and an enormous open stage 20 metres deep. The Berlioz Opera House is built on anti-vibration springs and its ceiling is made of removable wood, it can host an orchestra of 80.
The Montpellier Botanical Garden is one of the oldest in Europe. It was created by order of Henri IV in 1593 for Pierre Richer de Belleval (1564-1632). At the time it served as a model for designing all the botanical gardens in France, including the one in Paris 40 years later. Originally of limited size, the garden occupied around one hectare with one main butte, the ‘mountain’, plus some space for a plant collection. Over the years the garden area grew to include a systems school, an arboratum, and a landscaped park. Now the property of the University of Montpellier I, the garden is classified as a Historical Monument and Protected Site.