On arrival in Montpellier, an immediate air of Frenchness pervades, an underlying notion that that one has entered a city of siestas, expressos and a stubborn reluctance to do anything productive on Sundays. The buildings are adorned with ornate balconies and picturesque shutters while the streets are narrow and cobbled, all lending to Montpellier’s irresistible ambiance.
As a language student, I was keen to feel part of the local community, to avoid the estrangement of feeling like an outsider in the pursuit of improving both my French cultural and linguistic knowledge and Montpellier welcomed me to do just this. Thankfully, the disdainful Parisian stereotype has, as of yet, evaded Montpellier as all the locals I interacted with seemed keen that I spoke French to them: not once was I confronted with shameful question ‘You are English, no?’. Montpellier is the ideal place to be a language student; the locals are friendly, it is (almost) impossible to get lost and it welcomes you to be part of its happening society.
From medicinal gardens to staggering cathedrals, Montpellier contains a multitude of cultural amusements and, as I visited in the late autumn, I was lucky enough to have these treasures to myself. In fifteen minutes, you can peruse from one end of the city to the other, feeling that perhaps you have lived here your whole life, as the welcoming atmosphere allows even the most confused traveller to feel distinctly at home. Moreover, the knowledge provided by my French lessons at ILA French language school enabled me to immerse myself in the local culture as, while my mornings were structured by lessons, I was able to engage with the colloquial language, culture and cuisine in the afternoon and evenings.
Despite its compact size, Montpellier is far from a sleepy city, the air is bustling and purposeful subverting expectations of tourist congested streets as genuinely French people live and work here. This may seem an obvious point to make (that actual French people, living actual French lives exist in France) but in an increasing Anglicized world, this is becoming something equally rare and refreshing to find. Montpellians queue ten deep for their favourite baguettes, (Des Rêves et du Pain will not disappoint) smoke and drink with fervour and seem to genuinely enjoy life: not once have I witnessed someone complain, come slow service or restricted menus. Americans take note.
When traversing Montpellier’s plethora of winding streets you will find charming boutiques, classy clothing stores and quirky eateries which leads me to another important element of my immersive stay: French food. Colourful market halls are packed with goods equipped to rival most souks while artisan patisseries and boulangeries offer a range of irresistible treats. After French lessons, my soul mission was to relieve my boggled mind from lack of logic which construes French grammar and Montpellier’s charming cafes proved the perfect antidote for this. Chose any street and I guarantee you will find yourself spoiled for choice; The Coffee Club, Nina’s Cafe and Blend certainly ticked the box for me. If the lovely staff, uncomplicated menus and delicious bakes weren’t enough, an atmosphere of tranquillity and contentment pervades each cafe while small jungles of house plants decorate the welcoming interiors, there’s not a lot more you can really ask for. More than once, I was brought back from the brink by a chilli mocha, slab of banana bread or a toast avocat, the latter which often arrived done up like a Georgian hairdo, defying gravity in perfectly curated stacks of micro greens. There is a homeliness about these cafes, their kitchens are open and emit delicious smells of baking, menus are choice yet varied and customers spills happily onto the street. This daily ritual provided a glimpse into the quality of life enjoyed by the French as well as an opportunity to use actual speaking and listening skills which was to me of equal importance as memorising the idiosyncrasies of the subjunctive. As a language student, I found the culture and lifestyle enjoyed by Montpellians accessible and welcoming making my stay as rewarding as it was insightful.
If you are unconvinced by the immersive value cafe culture may offer, rest assured that staying with a host family will provide the complete experience. My famille d’accueil consisted of Ginette, a seasoned pro at hosting students. At every opportunity I found myself engaged in topical discussions, putting into use the skills I had obtained with ILA French Language School. These colloquial conversations were incredibly satisfying and educational, rendering my initial uncertainty and shyness obsolete. Remember, however, the French are fiercely opinioned on just about everything so proceed with caution!
Montpellier is also the perfect location from which to access other cultural hotspots. Thirty minutes of travel and you will find yourself marvelling at Nîme’s Romanesque architecture, the picture-perfect Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert or the sandy dunes of the South coast. I would recommend venturing out at the weekend, to experience a new aspect of French society or simply enjoy the punctuality of French trains, strikes permitting. Barcelona and Paris are also easily accessible from Montpellier so you will never be stuck without a packed agenda; between French lessons and homework, going out to bars and cafes and immersing yourself in French culture and language you will undoubtedly feel thoroughly Mediterranean, if a touch exhausted.