My first introduction to free walking tours was when I went interrailing, and I soon discovered that they are a really great (and economical!) way to see a city. Therefore when I saw that ILA French language school offers tours every Monday for new students learning French, I was keen to take advantage of this opportunity. I had been in Montpellier almost a week when I joined for the tour of l’Écusson, the old town, so had had a bit of time to explore already in between my French courses in South of France. Sights like the Place de la Comédie, l’Eglise Saint Roch and the Arc de Triomphe were not new to me, but the anecdotes and details from our guide Brunelle gave me a new insight into these famous Montpellier landmarks. Without spoiling too much about the tour, you will learn what the Place de l’Oeuf is, the reason behind Montpellier’s many fake windows, and why some parts of the city look like you’ve just stepped into Paris.
Montpellier’s history is not just confined to these big tourist sites however. On every street there are points of interest, and on many occasions we stopped in front of something I had never noticed before, even if I had passed through that street countless times. In particular, Montpellier boasts many hotels particuliers, grand buildings built in the 17th and 18th centuries to house noble families. The main building of ILA French language school is actually a hotel particulier, as you can tell from its impressive winding staircase, symbol of prestige and wealth. As you walk through Montpellier, you come to realise that behind each grand door you see is another of these beautiful houses. It was also great to see how different places connect up in Montpellier – if, like me, you have a terrible sense of direction, this will be very useful!
The following Monday, I did the visit to Antigone, the new town of Montpellier, which could not be more different. My only word to describe Antigone: bizarre. It was designed in 1980, and the mayor at the time took a lot of inspiration from Greek mythology in his vision of the quartier. As a result, everything looks simultaneously Greco-Roman and 80s, sort of how I would imagine Camp Half Blood to look for all the Percy Jackson fans out there. All the street names are Greek – I spotted Place de Zeus and Rue de l’Acropole – and the wide, curved buildings resemble amphitheatres, complete with statues and fountains.
Antigone was part of a project to extend the city of Montpellier towards the sea (“ouverture vers la mer”), and you can see the influence of the sea on the architecture. Our guide Delphine pointed out the circular windows on the Mediathèque Emile Zola, which resemble those on a cruise ship, Antigone bridging Montpellier with the sea. The architects also wanted the new quartier to mirror the historic parts of Montpellier. Where in the Place de la Comédie, there is a famous fountain of three women from Greek mythology, the Place de Thessalie in Antigone echoes this with a fountain of three Greek men.
The most bizarre thing about Antigone however is that it feels like a secret city, an Atlantis. Although I had been learning French here for almost three weeks when I did the tour, I had never imagined that behind the shopping centre, Polygone, there would be a whole neighbourhood of tree-lined avenues and massive neo-classical buildings. Its architecture might be an acquired taste – but it’s absolutely a must-visit, and besides, the Australian is there, a bar very popular with international students here. Montpellier is definitely a city with two sides, and I’d really recommend doing both guided tours to see everything that the city offers. The tours are all in French too, which guarantees a real French immersion even outside of your French lessons in France. Though I enjoyed my visit to Antigone, I can say with some certainty that it is the old city of Montpellier which has my heart!