Montpellier is an old city, but it really hit its stride in the 19th century when it became a major portal for the distribution of wine. The grapes which flourished in the region due to the near year-round sunshine meant a lot of wine. The trade brought great wealth and a beautiful city arose.
When phylloxera decimated the vineyards in the 1890s, the city declined, but happily not for long. Boosted by immigrants from Algeria following that country’s independence from France, and the presence of one of Europe’s oldest universities, it continued to prosper. And happily, much of its old architecture is preserved.
Place de la Comedie is one of the largest pedestrian spaces in Europe, faced by the Opera Comedie built in 1888 and the statue of the Three Graces on a fountain in front.
Place de la Comedie is ringed with beautiful buildings.
Grand pedestrianised avenues lead into the historic centre.
And a maze of shady lanes worth wandering.
This trompe l’oile is unquestionably the best we’ve ever seen. The pale coloured building on the left which appears to be triangular in shape with balconies and recessed windows is actually a completely blank, flat facade. Likewise, the middle building with the blue shutters and arch is an illusion. The red building on the right is also a flat windowless facade facing the street but looks like a corner block. The only thing that’s ‘real’ is the single story canopied cafe out the front. Amazing.
On the opposite side of the historic centre, some older landmarks remain.
Built in 1692 to replace one of the gates of the medieval ramparts, the Porte de Peyrou looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
It leads to a Neo-classical water tower once used to store the city’s water supply.
The water was delivered to the tower via an aqueduct which stretched from a spring 14km away, built to feed the fountains of the city centre. 800 metres of the double arched Arceaux aqueduct still remain.
Montpellier has lots of food markets, great shopping and good cafes. A third of its population are students, which means a lively vibe and lots of bars. A great place to spend a few days.
Exploring further afield, we caught the train west from Montpellier to Sete, a port town strung out along a skinny stretch of land between the Etang du Thau – a saltwater lagoon famed for its oyster and mussel farming – and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s known as the ‘Little Venice of the Languedoc’ because of the network of canals which cross the town linking the lagoon to the sea. It is quite picturesque but aside from the presence of waterways, it bears no likeness at all to Venice!
A street art festival is held here every summer and there’s now such a body of work that people come just to see the art. Here’s a few of the interesting ones we saw.
In the 19th century, Sete was one of the world’s leading ports for wine and wine barrel transport, as well as for cod coming from Newfoundland. It still has a large fishing port bringing in line caught tuna and swordfish.
And with oyster and mussel farming in the lagoon, it’s the perfect place for a seafood lunch on the water.
A really pleasant way to while away a day.
We also made a trip to Marseillan, another town on the shores of the Etang du Thang. Arriving at midday, it was baking in the sun. Aside from a few people lolling in cafes by the tiny port, most of the population seemed to be taking a siesta.
Even the dogs were feeling the heat.
Like Sete, it has a pretty little boat harbour.
Both towns compete in Les Joutes, an annual water jousting tournament in the summer. It’s a bizarre sport dating to the Middle Ages. It was part of the festivities when Sete was inaugurated as a city in 1666 and has been part of the cultural life of the region ever since.
We were a week early for the event but we saw the grandstands being erected in both towns and in Marseillan these boats were ready and waiting.
Each boat has a crew of about ten men (and yes, it’s all men) dressed in what look like cricket whites. One unfortunate crewman stands on the end of a beam extending from the back of the boat with a jousting stick and the team endeavours to manoeuvre the boat so their man can knock the opposing team’s man into the water.
Here’s a picture from one of the promotional brochures of teams in action. Looks like fun and a shame we were a week too early to see it.
But the reason we came to Marseillan wasn’t the water sports. It was to visit Maison Noilly Prat.
Noilly Prat is vermouth, a fortified white wine created in 1813 by Joseph Noilly. There are other vermouths, but NP is the original French vermouth and, at least in our opinion, the only one to use if you want a perfect martini.
The Maison is as elegant as you’d expect from a premium French alcohol brand, with tours of the production rooms in French and English.
Finishing with a cocktail in their lovely bar.
In his TV series French Odyssey, Rick Stein visited here, describing Noilly Prat as “a true flavour from the Languedoc”. He said, “I’ve done lots of experiments with white wines for fish sauces and I’ve come to the conclusion that Noilly Prat is the best”.
He admitted upfront to stumbling over the pronunciation. It’s something like ‘nwa-ee prat’. Some people think because it’s French, the ‘t’ in ‘Prat’ must be silent, but actually the brand was founded by Joseph Noilly’s son Louis and his English son in law, Claude Prat. So it’s ‘prat’ not ‘pra’.
We agree you can cook with it, but we do think its highest and best use is drinking. In the courtyard of the Maison is a sun flooded courtyard to sit and enjoy the product.
We tried a classic martini and their ‘ambre’ vermouth which is spiked with 13 different herbs including rosebuds and coriander from Morocco, cardamon from India and cinnamon from Sri Lanka. It’s only sold on the premises. Consumed neat with ice and a slice of orange peel, it’s delicious.
And then another classic and a cocktail blending the ambre with tequila, pineapple juice and a few herbs.
One of the presenters from the TV show Queer Eye for a Straight Guy once said “martinis are like breasts. One is not enough but three is too many”. We’re not entirely sure how he’d know, but as far as martinis are concerned, those are wise words. After two, we called it a day and reluctantly headed back to Montpellier. On the train, of course.