Back in college, I spent three weeks in Montpellier France for a May seminar. For those geography-challenged like me, Montpellier is in southern France. I loved every minute of it, even those first few days when I had to get by with only the clothes off my back because the airline lost my luggage (they did, however, give me a XXXL Extra Husky “Sky Team” t-shirt). I had every right to be miserable without my belongings and having to deal with my worsening OCD as I traveled. I was younger then, but much more assured that I would get through it all. I craved a nomadic life in a place that I knew only on the map–I sought out that desire, expunged it, and forgot those fears and habits that chained me to my home. I laid down my head to dream of the Mediterranean, the feral Cevennes, and all the steps on cobblestones laid by laborers who worked by their hands (but in their minds they defied the king, praising Martin Luther in the vernacular).Perhaps it was because I was in their company, but those days I felt boundless, taking cures of walking deeper into the ancient corridor of the city. I think I saw past the temporal and even admitted a humbling piousness in the company of cathedrals. I will be back here, I thought–yet years later I only see the city on the map. I think of the city often.
The Place de Comedie (pictured above) has the bustle of an open square. I can still see the creperie in the center and the Opera building looming on the other side. For literary fans, Café Riche was a particular favorite of Joseph Conrad. They have different fairs there at times as well as a market where you can find unique pieces. I loved just sitting at a cafe there and people-watching. In the medieval section of the city, there are countless boutiques, including a chocolate shop. You must go there.
The Medical School is one of the oldest in Europe-in fact, it is the oldest medical school that is still active in Europe. I am not one for ghosts and macabre things, but as a student of history I enjoyed seeing the names of doctors as far back as the medieval era. I remember walking back to the hotel from the cafes at night and having to walk past the school. If any place was going to be haunted, it would be a centuries-old medical school. Fortunately, only a rat was sighted.
The Cévennes mountains have been inhabited for a thousand years. Protestants hid out in the wilderness to escape persecution from their Catholic king. The paths can get pretty steep and rocky, especially for those wearing jeans and simple flats (like a certain author). You can even do a tour of the route Robert Louis Stevenson took for Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.
Montpellier has an Arc de Triomphe as well. It was completed in 1693, making it older than the one in Paris. It was created to honor Louis XIV aka The Sun King.
The Mediterranean Sea is a short bus ride away from the heart of the city. The water of the Mediterranean is unlike anything else I have seen-clear, almost a shining turquoise in color. The beach is about life, color, and the soft edges of life with a horizon of striped umbrellas.
Day trips are cheap and easy in Montpellier. Nearby, Avignon has the Palace of the Popes (I know, the Popes live in Rome! But they moved to southern France for about a century back in the Middle Ages, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity) and Nimes has Roman ruins, including a very imposing colosseum. Both cities are short distances by train.