For Travel Writers Tales

By Chris McBeath

If you’re looking for un peu de culture Francais typique, Montpellier, on the edge of the French Riviera, isn’t always top of mind. Look a little closer and you’ll not only find a medieval city with a youthful vitality that’s hard to match, but also a countryside strewn with historic hamlets, vineyards, and brackish lagoons filled with flamingoes. Oh yes, and long sandy beaches. So who needs the Cote d’Azure at triple the expense?

Live & Learn

Welcoming, pedestrian friendly, and transit-efficient, the city’s international flair comes from its three universities and 22 language schools – students make up about one third of the 600,000 strong population. Founded in 1160, the University of Montpellier is one of the oldest in the world and is a big draw for those pursuing various medical fields. But it’s in the language schools where you’ll find the most intriguing diversity of age, experience and character.

In my French language class there was an English professor from Brazil, an international financier from Mexico, a philosophy student from Costa Rica, a physicist from Germany, an apprentice chef from California determined to open his own Chinese Spanish sushi eatery (huh?), and Rina, an exotic looking woman whose newly-minted husband was French. Hers was not just a journey of language but of discovering a self-reliance and confidence which she would demonstrate in one-of-a-kind show-and-tells, substituting her poor French with demonstrations of kick-boxing, charades of her learning to drive, and producing the results of new found recipes of local dishes.

The schools offer programs that are as intensive (full days) or relaxed (half-days) as participants choose; weeks are often themed to drill home areas of grammar in addition to equipping their charges with practical tools such as ordering food in a restaurant and clothes shopping. On this score, France’s bi-annual six-week sale extravaganzas in January and June put North America’s feeble discounts to shame. Other opt-in activities include evening and weekend events that cover the gamut from pub-crawls, political debates and cinema outings. Schools also assist with accommodation and can connect students with all manner of host families, apartment shares, B&Bs and hostels depending on whim and budget. I stayed with Madame P. who sent me off to school each morning with a café au lait, buttery croissant and brie, and welcomed me home with a simple, home cooked supper and patient conversation, en Francaise naturellement.

Exploring La Belle Provence

For getting out and about, though, the schools’ organized tours in and around Provence are real winners. Run by local, multi-lingual guides, the itineraries are terrific, the groups small enough for van travel, and at prices geared for students vs. regular tourists!

In my 2-week stay, there was a trip to Nîmes and its beautiful Fountain Gardens and impressive Roman Arena that’s still used today for concerts and special events, including an annual Roman Gladiator Spectacle every April. Then there was Avignon, best known for its legacy of ecclesiastical architecture (in the early 1300s, this was the centre of the Roman Catholic world) although for me, the highlight was singing the nursery rhyme Sur La Pont d’Avignon while actually crossing the bridge! There was Arles with its ancient arena that hosts the Carmargue bull games (no blood is shed), and the garden square made famous by Vincent Van Gogh; the magnificent bridge and aqueduct Pont du Gard – a must see for anyone’s historical bucket-list and which left me awe-struck at Roman ingenuity; and the Chateau de Baux-de-Provence, a true eagle’s nest of a feudal fortress. Its steep cobblestone streets hark back to its medieval origins and the white-washed stone cottages, a village of sorts, are still home to those who can withstand Les Mistrals – biting winds that whip an Arctic frigidity across the mountain top. The views over the Baux Valley, vineyards and fields of olive trees are worth the climb, as are the displays of medieval military catapults!

As home-base for exploring La Belle Provence, Montpellier is a quality choice offering cobblestone streets that weave around leafy squares, and a striking modernity that is happily at home within its 12th century environment. My two-week stay may not rival Peter Mayle’s best selling book about underground truffle dealers and goat racing, but over a glass of Grenache Noir, my French is now much more lucid.

All Photos: Chris McBeath