We left the stark, windy inlet aire at Gruissan under dark grey skies and headed first north, then east. We passed near to Narbonne again before turning right to visit the nearby city of Béziers. After our now obligatory fruitless drive around the centre, we finally got parked on the side of a wide road just south of the city, an ideal spot that suited larger vehicles beautifully; a good find and an easy five minute’s walk back to the city centre.
We crossed a stone bridge over the wide river, heading directly at the intimidating, elevated cathedral on the hill that dominates the city. There were three other similar bridges carrying traffic into the city, all looking busy. Our first thought was to gain height, to enjoy the views and get our bearings. We found a set of stone steps leading up the side of the rockface and followed them upwards. They led on to a road, then a narrow side street where we suddenly arrived in a wide plaza with expansive views over the countryside and the rooftops of the city. This plaza sat directly in front of the tall church we had been seeing on our walk in, standing tall and dominating the square.
We passed through a small archway and found a passage leading to sheltered cloisters to the side of the church. These covered arches then led on to open formal gardens that presented views out over the city roofscape and the river with its many bridges. We wandered back around the small backstreets into the centre, where Christmas was in the process of being dismantled. Some very large, each around 5m high, Santas and Snowmen remained on display in prominent places. We walked from the distinctive Town Hall down an impressive avenue lined with large, mature but leafless plane trees to where a holiday season ice-rink was also being removed. A steady trickle of water from the discarded melting ice and a large plastic polar bear in fearsome attack pose still marked the spot.
This street led to another very large square, lined with small shops and houses, that had small streets leading off in many directions. We followed a few, circling around the nearby streets to see a small portion of the city and grasp a little of its flavour and ambiance. Eventually we ended up back near the church in the historic quarter, to enjoy the views again before making our way back to Benny.
We drove on to an aire that we planned to be our stop for the night, near the town of Sète, but it was bleak, exposed and empty, and was surprisingly still charging at this time of year, so we decided to move on. We drove through Sète, quite possibly the most anti-motorhome city in France, with every parking space in town being closed off, ugly and wastefully, with individual height restricting barriers to prevent camping-cars from stopping. Where there were no barriers and ample space, instead large signs declared with no possible confusion that camping cars were ‘interdit’. Again, we moved on, feeling like pariahs, unable even to stop for a short time to have a bite of lunch or to stretch our legs and see any of the busy seaside town.
We continued on along the coast road, hungry and frustrated, to reach the village of Villeneuve les Maguelone, a few miles south of the city, to utilise a commercial aire for a few days. What followed was a tragi-comedy of errors, involving French bureaucracy and small streets; the pay machine at the unmanned aire gate didn’t have the facility to accept cash, and despite their signs saying they accept Visa and MasterCard and all our best efforts, it simply refused to allow us to pay to gain access, trying four different cards. We asked a passing local Gendarme who confirmed it was possible to purchase a ticket at the Town Hall, so we drove to the centre to see. We parked on a narrow street in a marked bay whilst Nicky jumped out to buy our ticket.
The town hall told her we had to go to another local office, so Nicky did, but on arrival there they said the person who normally sells the tickets was on holiday. They had to send word back to the town hall for someone else to come over, and eventually a new person appeared from the original booth Nicky had first visited. But the only computer capable of selling the ticket had a dodgy screen, so nothing could be issued until this was resolved. Cue another techie person dispatched from the thankfully nearby town hall to fix this screen so the first person could then begin the laborious process of selling us our entry ticket.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, the narrow streets normally used by tiny French cars suddenly had a large city bus arrive that was unable to pass our parked up motorhome. So I had to drive off, with no idea where to go next, to allow it to pass. I quickly pulled into a small parking area a few hundred metres further on to be out of its way, but was immediately followed in by several cars who left no space to turn, and the only road onwards was much too narrow for Benny to negotiate. After much teeth-gnashing and complicated, delicate manoeuvring I finally got turned around, only to find another impatient queue of non-indicating but stationary traffic apparently waiting to turn into the same tiny street, so having them reverse to allow me back out was the only option.
When I finally escaped the cramped town centre, found a suitable parking space and walked the long distance back into town, we had still not managed to obtain the elusive aire ticket. We sat for many more minutes whilst four staffers buzzed around the one broken computer screen, as if their dance might appease the computer gods so they would permit access. For want of a working pay machine at the aire the town instead had traffic flow blocked and four municipal staff members tied up for over an hour to sell one €10 ticket to visiting tourists; what a palaver.
After the drama of getting parked up we felt like doing nothing more today but buying lots of bread and wine, and consuming it. This was exactly what we did, along with planning a trip by bus to Montpellier the following morning.
Early next morning, with much less drama, we bought tickets and caught an early bus to a travel hub stop called Garcia Lorca, a few kilometres shy of the historic centre. We then hopped on a tram that circles the centre on the same single ticket. On a bit of a whim we jumped off the smooth, modern tram a stop earlier than we originally planned, at Rondelet, and walked in from here. We found the Rue Jean Moulin, a wide commercial lane with many fancy boutiques and Artisan shops. We passed the Place de la Comédie and proceeded through the pretty Jardins du Champ de Mars to the Le Corum Opera House. We climbed the external stairs to the roof terrace of the building that offered great views over the city. It was also home to a helicopter landing pad, should we ever wish to quickly return in style to watch a performance.
We passed through the central market place, busy with commerce. We wandered the wide boulevards and tree lined avenues skirting around the edge of the centre, before delving into the narrow, older streets that led around darker corners. We reached the inpressive Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built originally as a monastery in 1364, later becoming a cathedral in 1536. The dominant portico was supported by two wide diameter circular columns more in the guise of a solid, medieval fortress.
We walked on, along grand, tall streets with a real Paris flavour, all solidly paved with marble and stone. We arrived at the Arc de Triomphe square, and circled through the adjacent Place Royale du Peyrou with its small chateau building and huge aqueduct built in 1754 to supply the city with water from springs in the nearby town of Saint-Clément.
Before catching the tram and bus back to Villeneuve les Maguelone, we had a final stop through Antigone, a huge 1970s experimental building project consisting of housing, shops and offices all conceived and laid out in a grand Neo-Classical style. Whilst it was quite opulent and formal, we found it cold and detached, not a particularly compelling place.
Montpellier was recently designated one of the most desirable places to live in France, likely due to climate, geographical position and employment opportunities. It was not difficult to see why. Positioned near the Med coast but sheltered from the worst of the winds, near the haute mountains both east and west, home of a busy, grand and actively vibrant centre with history and class to spare. We only touched on a small portion of what Montpellier had to offer in our few hours there, but we could definitely sense the energy and love locals have for their city.