The face of Montpellier, a city that manages to punch above its weight as a 21st-century design hub without losing its medieval mojo. In old-new Montpellier the sense of energy is palpable. Half the population (of about 260,000) is under 35, there’s an amazing array of cutting-edge architecture, with more in the making and it is one of France’s fastest-growing urban centres. In fact, it is only over the past decade-and-a-bit that the city’s IT district has expanded to engulf Château de Flaugergues and its vineyards. Montpellier’s old town has Its streets are lined with the superbly stylish windows of small boutiques and its leafy little squares buzz with café life. In some respects this is an upstart place that has never really shaken off its newcomer status: Nîmes, Béziers and Narbonne, the other sizeable towns near the coast in Languedoc-Roussillon, date back to Roman times and earlier.
An unusually wet day provided an opportunity to explore the museums. Three of them are exceptional. The Musée Fabre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and -the most remarkable of all- the Musée Atger, with its wonderful collection of drawings by Fragonard, Watteau, Tiepolo and others. It’s a semi-secret place, open only a few afternoons a week and tucked away in the university’s glorious school of medicine. Any trip to Montpellier should include a visit here. It’s the oldest medical school in operation in France and is set in a former monastery. In the 16th century the building became the bishop’s palace, and its church was transformed into the city’s cathedral. A large botanical garden for medicinal plants was established, and today the Jardin des Plantes is a deeply tranquil place, still run by the university, open to the public in the afternoons and containing some 2,500 species.
Montpellier started to get a reputation for bold new architecture in the late 1970s, when the Antigone neighbourhood was built on the site of former barracks near the old town. Devised to look like a model Renaissance city, it’s a monumental mix of offices and apartments by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. Moving beyond the old town to explore the brave new city, you’ll find the scale of Antigone disturbing, feeling like an ant as you walk on its huge pilasters and through its gigantic arches. The best way to see the city changing shape is to take a tram ride. Trams were reintroduced here in 2000, and two new lines were opened in 2012. Smart, designer trams they are, with exterior styling by a graduate of the city’s art school, Christian Lacroix.