Having spent the morning strolling around Montpellier in the warm sunshine, I was happy to retreat indoors in the afternoon to explore some more of the city’s hidden gems. But first my beloved and I dined in the museum’s restaurant which came highly recommended. We were not disappointed!
Entering the Fabre Museum, a step or two away from Place de la Comédie, means plunging into a wonderful world that is both far away and close at hand. Because this superb museum, opened in the early 19th century, featuring the collections of François-Xavier Fabre, contains major works from the history of art and the best productions from the past 300 years by artists with special links to Montpellier and the region.
Vien, Raoux, Bourdon, Fabre, Cabanel, Bazille, as well as Claude Viallat and Vincent Bioulès, are displayed side by side with Bruegel, Rubens, Veronese, Poussin, Ingres, Corot, Monet, Utrillo, Van Dongen and de Staël. Not forgetting a handful of portraits by David and Delacroix.
Through the museum’s three levels, you advance through time, from Flemish and Dutch painting and the Italian Renaissance to the centuries of classicism and flamboyance. I walked through the Columns Gallery, where the large-scale paintings from the 18th century fill the walls, to more intimate rooms, featuring NeoClassicism and Romanticism, Classicism and modern art.
I wandered on through into the contemporary section, its two exposed concrete rooms were specially designed for works by Pierre Soulages, a keen visitor to the Museum.
The Fabre Museum has one of the most important fine art collections in France. It’s a fascinating and comprehensive collection of artworks spanning the ages and well worth a visit. Surprisingly, I had the place almost to myself!
I first visited this charming city in 2009 when it provided the parcours for stage 4 (a team time-trial) in that year’s Tour de France. The Tour had kicked off in Monaco, where I’d worked as a volunteer, then my beloved and I had followed the subsequent stages to Montpellier. By chance we stayed overnight in the same hotel as the Astana cycling team which had both Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in its Tour squad. The pair did not get on and you could cut the atmosphere in the hotel with a spoon – no knife required!
I’ve subsequently visited Montpellier a number of times but always in connection with the Tour de France. The last visit was back in 2016. It’s a city I’m happy to revisit so when my beloved said he had a business meeting with someone at the University, quick as a flash, I said “count me in.”
Montpellier is the second largest city in the Occitanie region, capital of Hérault, just 12km (7 miles) from the Mediterranean. But its initial attraction is its medieval heart, the Old Town. Here you’ll find a captivating tangle of lanes and passageways, lined with buildings of mellow, honey-coloured stone, many containing superbly stylish, small boutiques. Its 16 leafy little squares are abuzz with café life. But Montpellier, which was developed in late 10th century, is an upstart by comparison with nearby Nîmes, Béziers and Narbonne, all of which date back to Roman times or even earlier.
Set on the River Lez, giving easy access to the sea, Montpellier rapidly grew into a major trading centre, and continued to prosper. Fast-forward to 16th century and Montpellier became a Huguenot stronghold, and consequently suffered in the onslaught of France’s religious wars. Its destruction resulted in a swathe of rebuilding, and the city acquired some seriously splendid architecture in 17th and 18th centuries.
Montpellier’s a lovely city to stroll around and where better to start than the Place de la Comédie, Montpellier’s iconic heart. Sometimes called Place de l’Oeuf (Egg Square) because of its oval shape, it’s one of the largest pedestrian precincts in Europe and is dominated by the imposing Opéra Comédie in front of which is the Three Graces’ fountain built in 1773.
The city’s medieval street plan has remained largely unaltered, though there are now squares in place of some of the churches; hôtels particuliers, resplendent with wrought iron and elaborate stairways; and even its own little Arc de Triomphe to glorify (and mollify) Louis XIV. Montpellier has almost 80 private mansions of the classical period, veritable hidden gems, most of which can only be visited on organised guided tours. However, I’ve found that it pays to keep your eyes peeled as you may just happen upon an open door and be able to take a rare glimpse inside.
Montpellier’s Arc leads to the Promenade du Peyrou which affords a panoramic view of the city, including the ancient arches of Les Arceaux, a Roman aqueduct, and its Botanical Gardens, the oldest in France. Peyrou was completed in 1774, the year of Louis XVI’s accession to the throne, by architect Jean Giral and features a statue of him on horseback and a classical style water tower.
Also worth a visit is the city’s 14th-century Gothic cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Montpellier which has been heavily restored. Behind its fortress-like façade, within its vast interior with high vaulted ceilings and grand stone archways, is a collection of biblical artworks, a striking-looking 18th century organ and many artworks.
The weather has always been delightfully warm whenever I’ve visited and, after pounding its cobbled walkways, I’ve enjoyed sitting outside, lapping up the sunshine, at one of Montpellier’s many cafés, just watching the world stroll past.
Last year, on the way to the Amstel Gold race, we ate lunch in Macon. It was a delightful place and, as we didn’t have time to look around, we resolved to return. The start of this year’s Tour de France in Normandy gave us an opportunity to do just that. It’s a good 12-13 hour drive from home to the Tour start, which we broke up into more manageable chunks. Finally, my beloved has agreed that we shouldn’t drive much longer than 4-5 hours each day.
This turned out to be a great resolve as we had to take my Smart rather than hire a (manual) car from RenaultRent as my beloved (yet again) had to “pop” back to UK for a couple of days for a client conference.
We left Tuesday morning, had lunch en-route and an overnight stop in Fuisse, some 5km from Macon, famed for its Pouilly-Fuisse wine. The countryside is glorious: gently rolling hills covered in regimented lines of bright green vines, warm honey-stoned houses nestling in the valleys and the odd herd of creamy coloured cows chewing the cud.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we continued our journey. Passing through Charolles, home to the famous Charolais beef, we saw plenty of cattle grazing or, more ominously, sitting on the lush green grass. As we headed into the centre of France and endless vistas of the countryside, I was reminded once more of the size of France. Something we tend to forget living in the highly populated Cote d’Azur.
Wednesday, we stayed not far from Le Mans in a hotel that’s been frequented by the greats of the motor racing world and whose names now adorn the hotel’s theatrically decorated bedrooms.
A gentle stretch of our legs around town and we were ready for a pre-dinner apero or two. I woke to birdsong and a drive to Le Mans to drop off my beloved who was heading to Bradford via Paris, returning lunchtime on Saturday. I meanwhile headed to ASO HQ at Saint-Lo and the Tour de France team press conferences and presentation.
I’d booked a hotel for four nights convenient for the run-up to the Tour and the first three stages. There’s nothing worse than having to change hotel every day, just ask any of the riders. The weather had gotten worse as we drove further north. It was over 10 degrees colder and leaden skies hid the sun. I broke out the woolies and wet weather gear.
Le Grand Depart at Mont Saint-Michel and you may be wondering “Where’s the peloton?” Unfortunately, my beloved’s train arrived into Saint-Malo at about the same time as the peloton set off from Mont Saint Michel. I couldn’t be in two places at once and the former was a good hour’s drive from the latter even without the Tour traffic. Simples! I had a lie-in and headed to Saint-Malo to collect my beloved. It was lunchtime, so we stopped to eat oysters and mussels in a restaurant along the seafront. It was full of French families and had white tablecloths and napkins – two sure signs we were in for a great lunch. We were not disappointed.
We walked off lunch wandering around the old town which was heaving with tourists – too chilly to sit on the beach – before heading back to Mont Saint Michel to have a look at the recently built bridge (2014) across the causeway. We didn’t tarry long, as you can see from the photo above, the clouds had closed in and the strong wind was keeping the rain at bay. At about the same time, Mark Cavendish was picking up another Tour stage win and his first ever yellow jersey, confounding all his doubters.
Sunday dawned cold, grey and wet. After an early start, we took refuge in a local restaurant awaiting the arrival of the team buses in Saint Lo. My plan had been to ask a number of supporters who they thought would win the Tour. Taking shelter in the same cafe were a dozen or so youngsters from a cycling club in Perier wearing their wet weather cycling gear. Unsurpringly, in a show of unity, they were all backing French riders Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. Fortunately, the weather was much improved for the start in Granville where the crowds were out in force, many of whom had just nipped across the Channel for the first three stages.
We then waived a fond adieu to the Tour and headed down memory lane to a hotel in Carnac which we first visited over 20 years ago. We had responded to an offer in The Sunday Times whereby we stayed at the hotel for free but agreed to eat every evening in the hotel’s restaurant. The hotel was a charming and slightly eccentric run family affair with an excellent restaurant where we held good on our promise and ate our way through their tank of lobsters. The following year, the hotel invited us back on the same basis and we once more pointed the digit of doom each evening at the occupants of its lobster tank.
This time around, we were keen to see if the hotel was still charming – it is – though there’s now a much greater choice of restaurants where we wreaked havoc on the local lobster population, along with the oysters and mussels. It was a delightful and restful sojourn, just what we both needed.
Our days were spent walking along sandy beaches and around the local neighbourhood admiring its property porn and truly magnificent hydrangea bushes which seem to love the Atlantic air.
My beloved had expressed an interest in visiting the Chateaux of the Loire Valley – more property porn – on our return journey. Sated with seafood, we headed to a bijou B&B just outside of Tours for our whistle-stop tour of the area. With only a day to spare, we passed the time in the magnificent gardens of just three chateaux. All three were jam-packed with tourists but the gardens were blessedly calm as the hordes of visitors oohed and aahed over stately splendours indoors. We, meanwhile, were finding our way round mazes and marvelling at the symmetry of the formal gardens and box hedging and lusting after the potagers and herb gardens. There’s many more places to visit so we’ll be back!
Neither of us was tempted to bid for one of these glorious properties – far too many windows to clean! Though a casual glance in a local estate agent revealed we could sell our apartment and with just 50% of the proceeds acquire our own, fully-renovated, mini-chateau with 10 bedrooms! Unfortunately, all that rich agricultural land and lush pastures induced a severe case of hay-fever in my beloved so here endeth our dreams of a mini Versailles.
Finally, it was time to head for home via Montpellier taking in the finish and start of two further Tour stages. As we drove there, we knew the peloton was going to face some echelon action as my Smart was visibly bobbing in the wind – it’s not the most aerodynamic of cars. Before bidding a fond farewell to the Tour, I managed to catch up with a few more acquaintances and contacts to set up some interviews post-Tour. Generally, I try not to get in the way of the other 1,999 journalists who earn their living writing about cycling. I’ll be content watching the action on the television for the next 10 days or so.