In Search of Lost History: Return to Montpellier, France
Few things are as delicious as a ripe tomato eaten like an apple while lost on a bicycle on the way to the Mediterranean. Nearly thirty years before, we had traversed this road to the beach almost every day of the summer. Our skin as toasted as toffee, we used to hop on our moped and head to the beach where we’d linger until sunset. We could’ve walked that route blindfolded - so how could we be lost now?
As Thomas Wolfe knew, it’s sometimes difficult to return to a place that you once called home - and way back in the Eighties, Montpellier had been our home. For a year, we had conscientiously saved our money so that we could move to France and rent a small apartment near the Peyrou in Montpellier. It was the same apartment that one of us had rented eight years before as a student at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier - so that even then there’d been a sense of homecoming.
The landlord back then had been a Moroccan man with two college kids - and as luck would have it that year, the daughter’s boyfriend was attractive enough to merit our interest in the peephole in the wall between the two apartments (and particularly when their unleashed libidos produced an amatory chorus). A cat named Minou used to jump back and forth between the two apartment balconies, following the sun, sleeping on our desk by the window - until the day that she slipped and fell to the street below, whereupon the landlord’s daughter nursed her back to health with a stopper filled with milk and painkillers. At night, we drank wine and smoked: Marlboros and hash.
Montpellier in those days was a sleepy Mediterranean town - and particularly in the summer when many of the city’s students left town. Founded in 985 A.D., Montpellier has been a university town since 1180, when the oldest medical school in the western world was founded, as well as a school of law. And with more than 300 days of sun annually and a distance of ten kilometers from the sea, Montpellier in the summer could be very hot - which was why we often headed to the beach and why we were headed there again.
What we didn’t fully comprehend (apart from the difference between pedaling a bicycle to the beach and riding a gas-powered moped) was how much larger the city has grown in recent years. Back when we’d lived in Montpellier, the city was the 25th largest in France, with a population of less than 200,000. Nearly thirty years later, Montpellier, the fastest growing city in the country, has become France’s eighth-largest city, with nearly 40% of its population under 25. Today, nearly one in three residents of Montpellier is a student.
In short, the city had stayed young, while it was us who had aged, a fact of which we were acutely aware as we parked our bicycles in front of a local produce stand and wiped the sweat from our faces. We devoured the tomato with a baguette and then sucked down four fresh peaches, a liter of water, and two aloe vera drinks. Apparently, we were halfway to the sea - that is, if we turned back, turned around, and followed the signs.
Built on a hill in the Early Middle Ages, Montpellier was settled inland, due to pirate raids on other towns closer to the sea. The original two hamlets and chateau were surrounded by fortified walls - and the resultant shape of the city was similar to a shield or an escutcheon. Not long after we’d last visited Montpellier in the 1980s, the city had embarked on an innovative migration "back to the sea," with massive developmental projects to the east of the city along the Lez River. The monumental Antigone project, a neo-classical district designed by Catalan architect, Ricardo Bofill, will soon be followed by Odysseum, a retail and leisure development in the new Port Marianne district. Poised on a lake, overlooking the Lez River, the new city hall, designed by Jean Nouvel, is scheduled to open at the end of 2011.
The result of all this urban development is that Montpellier has become a paragon of a medieval city complemented by contemporary architecture. With buildings by prize-winning architects such as Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier, Christian de Portzamparc, François Fontès, Bofill, and Nouvel, as well as a tram decorated by fashion designer Christian Lacroix, the city has become as notable for its visionary architecture as it is for the vaulted archways and medieval alleyways across which streetlamps hang. Montpellier’s "Ecusson" (or historic city center, so named for its resemblance to an escutcheon) is one of the largest pedestrian zones in all of Europe - and a major draw for the city’s five million annual tourists.
Back when we’d lived in Montpellier, hardly any of the locals had spoken English - and the French they’d spoken was with an accent that made the language sound nearly indecipherable to Parisians. The influx of French Algerians, resettling in France after Algerian independence, as well as the migration of Moroccans into southern France, had given Montpellier a polyglot culture befitting its medieval history as a trading center with its traditions of tolerance for Muslims, Jews, Cathars, and later, Protestants.
(Feature continues on next pages...)