Architecture dating back to the reign of Louis XIV, framed by palm trees and surrounded by street artists – what more could you ask for? My short getaway to the south of France in Montpellier was one of my favorite destinations, and also one of the least expensive vacations! I traveled with two friends from Finland (Anna and Karin) who were also students, so we didn’t have the time or money for an expensive vacation. We took advantage of carpooling with Covoiturage, and Couchsurfed with one of the locals (thank you, Vince!). Staying with a Couchsurfing host is a great way to really get to know the city you’re staying in – they’ll always know the best places to go for breakfast, and the unsafe or over-touristy areas to avoid. That being said, we did run into a problem when we decided to take his advice on how to take the tram out to the sea – ne faites pas confiance aux locaux when it comes to matters that might be… breaking the rules.
My French was conversational, and I could make my way around, but luckily Karin had worked at Disneyland Paris for a spell and had excellent French! She led the way around the city and we sort of stumbled upon the major sites to see. One of the first things you’ll see is the city center; the Place de la Comédie, which is one of Europe’s largest pedestrian plazas. Here you’ll find the main railway station, Gare de Montpellier Saint-Roch, the Opéra Comédie, street markets, and the beautiful fountain you see pictured above with Anna and Karin called The Three Graces. It looks absolutely gorgeous when lit up at night.
There’s brightly colored trams that move through the city and out to the ocean in Palavas-les-Flots. Our Couchsurfing host advised us that a lot of the locals just jump on the tram and jump off without paying. “Everyone does it,” he said, “I do it all the time.” And if it doesn’t work, just speak English and feign ignorance. We were a bit nervous, but since we felt the fare out to the ocean was a little pricey (and who hasn’t bent the rules a little bit before?), we decided to try it. We rode all the way out to the ocean, and as we rolled to a stop, we thought we had successfully cheated the system. Suddenly, the doors opened, and in flooded a storm of officials to check that people had valid tickets. We nervously told the officers in English that we had “no idea we had to buy tickets for the train,” but this trick had been played before. They fined us around 35 euros each. Still not giving up, we pretended to get upset and not understand the situation. Taking pity on the poor, confused foreigner girls, they let us off easy and let us split one fine between the three of us. We learned our lesson, and I do not recommend trying to break rules and/or laws (no matter how small it seems), especially when you are a guest in a foreign country. We did enjoy the rest of our day, though. The day was overcast, but stayed clear of rain as we toured the seaside docks and markets, bought a simple lunch of fruit, bread, and cheese, and headed to the beautiful beach.
In the rest of the city, it’s very easy to walk around and stumble upon things to see. Some must-sees are the Porte du Peyrou (the arch below), right next to La promenade du Peyrou, which opens up to include Le château d’eau (the tower shown at the top of the post), the bronze horse statue of King Louis XIV, and spectacular views. We also did a quick ground floor visit of the Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier, which, established in 1289, is one of the oldest universities in the world. It is now a prestigious medical school, which greatly interested Anna, who was studying to be a doctor. We wanted to see the Anatomy Conservatory inside, but we came on a day when it was closed!
Montpellier is an old city, but young in population. Because of its three universities, half of the population is under 35 years old!* The younger atmosphere of the city means it’s a hot spot for new architectural innovations, cultural diversity, and modern art. If that’s not enough, the shopping, history, and the sea will satisfy anyone’s taste!
Several photographs above are courtesy of Anna Tuhkuri – thank you!