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Montpellier – originally called Monte Pestalario – is one of only a few larger cities in southern France that does not have Roman roots. The city was not founded until the 10th century, and came to be one of the most important cities for its Aragonese (Spanish) rulers. At the same time, the city’s reputation as a seat of learning was growing, as it welcomed Jewish and Arab intellectuals. In 1289, Montpellier’s school of medicine and law gained university status. Its roster of famous alumni includes the creator of prophecies, Nostradamus, and the author Rabelais. The open-minded and liberal Montpellier was faced with several challenges over the next centuries. It was struck by the plague in the 1300s, and later became a stronghold for the French Protestants, the Huguenots. Until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, they fought a losing battle against the Catholic Church and the French crown. By the time these religious wars ended, all surviving Huguenots had either surrendered or fled to England, Ireland or America. Today, Montpellier is known for its university and a quarter of its citizens are students. The beautiful medieval area, “centre historique,” is a pedestrian haven with marbled alleys like L’Ancien Courrier. Low-set medieval buildings and churches adorn the area’s 16 squares, including the one in the city centre, Place de la Comédie.
There is plenty to do in the way of culture and entertainment, as well as exciting tours to go on - from regional vineyards and wineries to hiking up Pic St-Loup. Visit the city's many cathedrals (Carre Sainte-Anne is one that stands out with its refurbished interior turned into an art space), walk down the windy streets of the old town, and plan a field trip to the nearby seaside villages.
The cuisine of the Languedoc region has much in common with Mediterranean cooking, including sumptuous fresh ingredients from the best that both land and sea have to offer. In Montpellier, the ties to Catalonia on the other side of the Spanish border are apparent in the size of the portions served. The city has the full range of dining options from luxury restaurants to rustic neighbourhood eateries.
Cafe culture is alive in Montpellier, with quite a few establishments serving coffee of the highest quality. Brunch is very much a thing, and finding a suitable location in the vicinity should not present much difficulty.
Montpellier’s large student population sets the tone to its vibrant nightlife. There are quite a few dance clubs, as well as concept bars that are not afraid to break away from convention and put unexpected twists on old familiar favorites. The warm evenings and relaxed atmosphere make Montpellier one of France’s nicest cities for an evening out; many of the bars and clubs are located around Place Jean Jaurés in the Old Town. When in town, remember to savour the locally produced Languedoc wines and champagne.
Rue de la Loge is Montpellier's ultimate High Street, and the post-modern Polygone galleria just east of Place de la Comédie is three-storey open-air mall full of everything from designer fashions to deli foods. Halles Laissac (currently under reconstruction) and Halles Castellane are two good covered food markets next to each other on rue Anatole France by Place Jean Jaurés. Obligatory purchases include cheese, olives, and regional wines.
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