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Montpellier For The Weekend

Xanthi Barker gets a taste of what this French foodie haven has to offer

Published on July 15th 2011.

Montpellier For The Weekend

IF only it had been a French queen who fell in love with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Instead of skulking through the twisted cellars of the vengeful King Minos, he could’ve sipped wine in the labyrinth of Montpellier. It would not be a difficult twist of history either, since Montpellier has a long-standing connection with the horned beast, it’s native sport being a non-murderous version of bull-fighting in which people attempt to remove ribbons from the maniacal bull’s horns. Charmed by the babbling conversations and clinking glasses, the Minotaur might’ve grown into a benevolent host, greeting lost young heroes with wine instead of devouring them. For this is a maze that you want to get lost in, where maps just prevent sweet surprises.

Marketers called from all directions, handing out slices of bread and cheese, luring us towards their stalls. ‘Gourmet’ is not the word. Heavenly banquet comes closer.

MontpellierMontpellierAt the bottom of the tangled medieval centre is the huge Place de la Comédie, where breakdancers compete with over-priced cafés for the attention of wandering crowds. At the northern tip, the labyrinth is divided by one straight road, Rue Foch, which ends at Montpellier’s own Arc de Triumph – the Porte du Peyrou. The open space of this hilltop plateau is sudden and shocking – the view is panoramic. At the farthest edge, the seventeenth century St-Clément Aqueduct stretches 800m across the outer districts.

Staring over the edge of all that grandeur could give anyone God delusions. Or vertigo.  For safety, we made our way down the steep staircase, where beneath the arches there is supposed to be a Saturday morning flea market. We found only a dozen tables stacked with antique French books and a tiny, broken-toothed old man selling enchantingly derelict typewriters. I cursed Easyjet’s baggage allowance, but not before the old man had seen my wistful look and begun rhapsodising in lightning-quick French about his goods.

Farmer's marketFarmer's marketEscaping this incomprehensible hard sell, we ended up in the middle of what was very definitely not a flea market – a farmer’s market stretching on for half a mile. Marketers called from all directions, handing out slices of bread and cheese, luring us towards their stalls. ‘Gourmet’ is not the word. Heavenly banquet comes closer. There were courgettes in every colour, onions still covered in mud, pots of jam with cloth covers, tapenade glistening in vats, breads as rich as cake, cakes puffing and twinkling with true, glutinous joy. We put together a ridiculous picnic and headed back up the steps to gorge. The Jardin des Plantes – France’s oldest botanical garden, filled with stone paths and secret corners - would have been the perfect spot, if we hadn’t spent all our money on delicacies. Instead, we found shade for free in the humbler Square de La Tour des Pins, opposite.

The wonder of these picnics makes up for the fact that, although Montpellier is brimming with eternally busy restaurants, finding somewhere inexpensive to eat is a challenge. One evening we ate at L’instant Gourmand on the tiny Rue des Teissiers and we were charged nearly €40 euros for cucumber soup, a chicken tagine and half a jug of wine. Cutlery, glasses and faultless food still couldn’t complete with the glorious mess of that picnic. But with the number of food markets around the city, including the daily covered market at Halles Castellane, eating like gods was too inexpensive and easy to refuse. Restaurants seemed unnecessary. Instead, we became expert at fashioning makeshift cutlery and saved our money for jugs of wine and tiny cups of frothing espresso.     

MontpellierMontpellierTo escape the boiling city, we decided to rent some bikes and cycle the 10km to the sea. With a cycle-path straight to the sea, and bike rental costing only €2 a day, an ocean of refreshment seemed easily reachable. But our plans to set off early were scuppered when we were turned away by the bike-rental place for not having ID or a €150 deposit. Gathering all this, we returned only to be presented, not with the dainty, wooden basket-ed bicycles of fantasy, but with the bastard cousins of Boris’s blue monsters. Dragging these heavyweight beasts through the tangled streets, crossing tramlines and roadblocks, left us hot, bruised and miles from the sea long after we should’ve been diving into it. The riverside cycle path was better, appearing to be completely hazard-free. I was cycling along, deep in a daydream when a scream shattered my thoughts. Twenty feet behind, my friend was lying in a bush, her limbs tangled in the bike’s frame. “A bee chased me!” she exclaimed. I stopped laughing when I realised half our picnic had rolled away and saw the tennis-ball sized swelling on her leg. In her defense, these bikes buckle at the slightest ditch. Our struggles were rewarded, however, when the cycle path came to an end at the seaside town of Palavas, with ice creams, sand and the Mediterranean to soothe our battered legs.

The final day we stuck to the city, getting lost in the endlessly appearing shops and secret streets. On the northwest side of the city, around Rue de l’Université, the high prices drop, and elegant shoe shops give way to cavernous vintage shops; the scent of posh perfume fading into heady student fumes. At the north end of all this sits the cathedral, huge and pointy, with it’s own soothing religious scent and sparkling stained glass windows. In the little stone garden at it’s foot we ate our last supper – crusty walnut-filled bread, bursting tomatoes and a waxy green disc of chèvre – and tried to figure out why we lived anywhere else. With the balmy, fading sunlight and jugs of wine so close to hand, leaving looked like madness. If only we couldn’t find our way out.


Where to Stay

Hotel Majestic, 4 Rue du Cheval Blanc, £28 pppn, www.hotelmajestic.hostel.com


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