We’ve both previously visited Montpellier a number of times, either during the Tour de France or on one of my beloved’s many business trips. However, we’ve always felt that the city lacked a great hotel, thankfully no longer.
We spent three nights in Montpellier en route to Catalunya back in June staying at the recently renovated and listed Hôtel Richer de Belleval. It was previously used by the town hall but re-opened last year after a major renovation led by the architectural firm Philippe Prost. Its delightful historical decor has been restored by the Atelier de Ricou, while the quirky interior was designed by Christian Collot. The building now houses a 20-room luxury, boutique hotel with an excellent bistro, the Michelin starred restaurant Le Jardin des Sens run by the Pourcel Brothers, and the Fondation d’entreprise GGL-Helenis for contemporary art. We had a wonderful time and will most definitely return.
Looking at my earlier posts on Montpellier, I realise that I’ve not covered anything about its history.
History of Montpellier
Montpellier has a relatively short history. Unlike many other French cities in this region, it has no Roman background. A settlement here dates back only to 10th century and is first mentioned in records from 985 AD. From then until 2th century, it was ruled by the Guilhem family, a feudal dynasty from Toulouse. They built a castle and enclosed the settlement with defensive walls, as one did in those days.
In 13th century, Montpellier began to develop as an important centre for trade. It became a popular stop-off for pilgrims travelling along the via Domitia to the north. Its reputation for education and learning was already established, thanks to the schools of law and medicine set up in 1180 by William VII of Montpellier. Later, these schools came to be recognised as the city’s university.
In 1349, Montpellier came under the control of King Philip VI of France. It was thought to be one of the more important cities in France at that time although, towards the end of 14th century, life became very difficult for those who lived and worked here. Successive plagues killed many people, perhaps as many as a third of its population. By the start of the 15th century, however, Montpellier had managed to recover some of its former status and economy.
During 16th century, Montpellier welcomed one of its most famous students, Nostradamus, an astronomer who later became known for his prophecies. The city soon acquired a number of grand buildings and its church dedicated to St. Peter became a cathedral with its own bishop. A botanic garden was also created and today, it remains France’s oldest such example.
This was a time of great religious change in France. Montpellier didn’t escape the influence of Protestantism and the city became a major Huguenot stronghold. During the Wars of Religion, many of the city’s churches were destroyed. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes brought some calm to Montpellier, although it was only to be a brief respite. Finally, King Louis XIII besieged the city to try to quell its Protestant rebels. After two months, a settlement was reached. Once again, it came under Catholic and royal domination.
During this period, Montpellier developed its own style of architecture. This is largely because of the renovations that took place during the Wars of Religion and it became the royal capital of Languedoc. The nobility attached to the royal court were responsible for many of the grander building projects at that time, including their own private houses, known as hôtels. Distinctive architectural features that have survived to this day include the Carré St. Anne and the Promenade du Peyrou.
In 19th century, wine making played an important role helping the city’s economy to grow. In the 1890s, however, disaster struck Montpellier, in the form of a fungal disease that affected its vineyards. Phylloxera destroyed many vines, leaving the city’s wine makers struggling in the face of competition from other wine-growing regions.
During 20th century, Montpellier transformed itself into a cosmopolitan city. The 1960s saw an influx of immigrants from North Africa, particularly Algeria. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city undertook a number of major redevelopment projects including the modern concert halls of Le Corum and the Antigone District. Designed by world renowned architects.
Wandering throughout the historic district there are over 70 fascinating interior courtyards in private mansions dating from 16th to 20th centuries where I love having a nose. The narrow medieval streets of L’Ecusson, where we stayed, are part of the oldest and most attractive part of town.
The Triumphal Arch, designed by the architect François d’Orbay, was built on the site of one of the gates of the city’s old ramparts. Montpellier was surrounded by ramparts forming the ‘Commune Cloture’ designated by 25 square towers, however there are only two surviving towers, the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte which were built around 1200. The surrounding boulevards were later constructed upon the old city’s moats.
La Place Royale du Peyrou esplanade, known as the Royal Square, with its panoramic view, towering statue of Louis XIV, Arc de Triomphe, water tower and the ancient arches of a Roman aqueduct, was built in 1774 to celebrate the King’s accession to the throne. Saint-Pierre Cathedral was commissioned by Pope Urbain V in 1364 but was not completed until 1536. It is known for its two rocket-shaped pillars which support a stone canopy above the main door.
The Botanical Garden (Les Jardin des Plantes), created by Henri IV in 1593 is now part of a landscaped park and arboretum in the grounds of the University of Montpellier and is classified as a Historical Monument and Protected Site.
Montpellier is simply a lovely city to wander around although parts of the Old Town are still being sympathetically restored.
While we were there, aside from wandering around and enjoying the city’s architectural splendours and its gardens, we visited the Musée Fabre and MO.CO. I’ve previously covered the former in an earlier post but this was my beloved’s maiden visit which he much enjoyed.
MO.CO. is the Montpellier Contemporain, an arts ecosystem, ranging from arts training related activities to art collections. The model is unique to Montpellier and encompasses two exhibition centres and an arts school. l’Hôtel des collections, an exhibition centre for public or private international collections which we visited, plus La Panacée, a contemporary art centre and ESBA (Montpellier Art School).
We viewed an exhibition from Belgian born Berlinda De Bruyckere whose work explores the contradictions between images of current affairs. She uses malleable materials, like wax, fabric, or animal skin to build a unique body of work, simultaneously identifiable and moving, at times also unsettling. Working both as a painter and a sculptor, her hybrid forms with human, animal, and plant features, all bear an envelope, a diaphanous skin, or a bark .
We much admired the exhibition space and I personally enjoyed the artwork. Not anything you’d display in your home but maybe a talking point in a civic space.