Bienvenue à Montpellier

A splash of southern sun

Since the Renfe trains will soon stop in Montpellier, this week’s guide is dedicated to this southern French city, with its legendary blue sky and buzzing atmosphere. Often overlooked by international tourists, Montpellier will lure in any visitor with its rich history and host of top-notch cultural spots. Having stopped off in Bergen, Yerevan and Nantes in recent weeks, this time we’re sticking around in France for our latest adventure. And the good news? It’s likely to be sunny, as Montpellier is known for its year-round warmth.

You know how we roll: we’ll let you discover the basic attractions for yourselves, instead suggesting the lesser-known hidden gems that are off the tourist trail. So meander the magnificent ancient streets of the city centre and hit up the Espace Saint-Ravy. This beautiful building with bay windows in the Ecusson neighbourhood is now home to an arts centre that displays works from sculptors from Montpellier and the wider region. There are excellent temporary exhibitions, too, with talent from all over the world spotlighted throughout the year. A must-visit for all art lovers.

Now head a little out of the centre, crossing the Place de la Comédie and towards the Lez, the river that cuts through Montpellier. Here, on the banks of the river, you’ll find an unusual market that goes by the name, Marché du Lez. Housed inside a former industrial building, this collection of businesses is little known to tourists, but adored by Montpellier locals. With vintage clothes’ shops, street art, small second-hand stores filled with unique objects, plus an events programme that spans art, live music and sport, there really is something for everyone here. Our top tip? Pull up a seat at one of the big tables and order a glass of something and some street food from one of the stands (but don’t eat too much, as we’ll be heading to a restaurant next).

The one you want to visit first is Le Ban des Gourmands. Led by chef Jacques Delépine, formerly of Guy Savoie, and his nephew, this welcoming spot is known for both its friendliness and the quality of its food. The setting is homely and laid-back, and the Mediterranean food refined, seasonal and locally sourced. With a bit of luck, you’ll be able to try the croustillant de foie gras or the baked prawns with espelette pepper. But even if they aren’t on the menu, you’re guaranteed to be impressed by the dishes on offer here.

Next up, the brilliantly off-piste Villa des Cents Regards. This bizarre monument is the work of an Italian builder, Victor Grazzi, who had fled Mussolini’s regime with his wife Ida. Started when the latter was alive and finished after her death, this villa is made entirely of exposed concrete, and really is beautiful (in its own way). Comprising battlements, towers and 100 windows, the structure was later abandoned to illegal parties and squatters. Happily, it’s recently been put under the control of an association that both welcomes visitors and puts on cultural events.

Later in the afternoon, head out of town to discover Pic Saint-Loup. This magnificent mountain is definitely worth visiting if you’re into a hike, but even more so if you like your wine. Reds, whites, rosés: all sorts of marvellous elixirs are made in these parts, and there are several vineyards open to visitors. Pair your drinks with a trek and you’ll be very well prepared for dinner.

In fact, the place we recommend you grab something to eat isn’t your typical Montpellier restaurant, by any means. In a futuristic setting that sort of brings to mind a spaceship, Michelin-star chef Guillaume Leclère, whisks diners on a journey that’ll really make you feel like you’ve left planet Earth. But that doesn’t mean his refined dishes don’t use fresh, seasonal, well-sourced ingredients. Quite the opposite. The menu here changes every day, and you’ll be blown away by every bite.

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