x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Contemporary edge meets classical grace in Montpellier

You never know what you'll come across in the timeless, quirky French city.

For many, if not most, visitors to the South of France, Montpellier is a place to pass through, not a destination in its own right. They fly into Montpellier airport, then hire a car and head for the beach. Or they potter around the sleepy old villages of Languedoc, cooing at the vineyards, snuffling out the best restaurants.

Some bypass Montpellier altogether, which is a pity. It is an intriguing city, light years in ambience from Paris or Lyon or Cannes. It has contemporary energy as well as classical grace - a rare trick to pull off.

You like history? Montpellier gives you history. In the city centre, cobbled streets zig-zag past centuries-old buildings pockmarked with age. Moss-covered statues commemorate long-forgotten writers and generals. Decrepit priests emerge from medieval churches, then stand blinking in the sun, like moles. Some of the trees in the squares are so gnarled with antiquity it is a miracle they are still standing.

If you love the timeless France of folklore, that innocent world in which Madame Blanc the schoolmistress buys a baguette off Monsieur Gautier the baker, then gossips with Madame Duval the greengrocer, you will still find it in Montpellier. Monsieur Gautier does not have a Gauloise sticking out of his mouth any more. Madame Blanc has a mobile phone. But that older, gentler Montpellier has not let itself be trampled underfoot by the march of time. You just have to dig a bit deeper to find it.

But history, ultimately, is not what Montpellier is about. Probably no other major city in France has so resolutely refused to live off its past. As befits a university city, teeming with young people of many different races, speaking many different languages, it has entered the 21st century with a bang.

As we take the airport bus into the city centre, we pass state-of-the-art office blocks, glass gleaming in the sun, and modern air-conditioned shopping malls that would not be out of place in Miami or Houston. Sleek trams glide so smoothly through the city centre you can hardly hear them. The thrill of the new - new ideas, new architecture, new approaches to town planning - is all around us.

Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Metropole, is tucked away down a side street and, from the outside, is nothing much to look at. Inside, it is a gem, with all kinds of 19th-century grace notes, including a little courtyard garden where you can take afternoon tea under a palm tree and feel like a character from Proust.

The waitress is Russian, by the accent, but could pass for a Parisian. Our fellow guests include a young couple from Hong Kong, several Italians, a family from Seattle and a Middle Eastern man. A true cosmopolitan melting pot.

The hotel is just a short walk from the Place de la Comédie, the social epicentre of Montpellier, where tourists and locals alike gather to watch the world go by and plan their next meal. Everywhere you look, there seems to be a waiter in a white jacket weaving his way through the tables of the cafes with a precariously balanced tray. The action is incessant, the people-watching irresistible.

The egg-shaped square is known locally as L'Oeuf and is dominated by a 19th-century opera house fronted by a playful fountain of the Three Graces. It's feels a bit stage-set, and the restaurants in the square are probably too touristy for most tastes, but if you are in quest of somewhere less frantic, you do not have far to walk.

There is a clutch of good bistros on the neighbouring Champ de Mars, a handsome tree-lined esplanade that also hosts a daily street market and a delightful art gallery, the Musée Fabre, characteristically French in its laid-back charm. But the best of Montpellier - whether you are shopping, looking for somewhere to eat or just wandering the streets - is to be found in the maze of streets to the west of the Place de la Comédie.

As we take an exploratory pre-lunch wander, the sun falls on brilliantly coloured window boxes, spreading plane trees, crooked old churches, fusty antique shops and dogs asleep under cars. There is even the odd saucy trompe de l'oeil - a scantily dressed woman looking out of a top-floor window - done up with painterly skill.

The area around the little Church of St Anne is particularly beguiling, with all manner of quirky shops, each New Age boutique more eccentric than the last. Designer jewellers do their own thing with style and confidence. Exuberant modern light-fittings scream at you from every window. You get a real sense of a thriving bohemian community, a thrilling antidote to cities dominated by chain stores.

An old woman sits on her doorstep, hunched over her needlework. Children bustle past on their way from school. The smell of garlic wafts through an open window, next to a shop selling candles and hand-painted porcelain. A plump gendarme strolls past with the air of a man who has not seen a crime all year.

For lunch we are spoilt for choice, but decide on the Sisters Cafe, near the site of an old convent, and eat al fresco under a tree in a tiny square, out of earshot of the traffic. The tarte maison, a crème brûlée, a pichet of beverage and change from €20 (Dh105). Voila!

It is the juxtaposition of old and new - 15th-century churches next to Starbucks, crumbling gargoyles peering down on backpackers - that makes Montpellier such a joy. You never know quite what you are going to come across next.

The vast Antigone plaza, where the younger set congregate, is a modernist folly with classical notes. State-of-the-art fountains shoot 10 metres into the air, creating a cloud of spray that dims the sun, and are flanked by statues of Greek gods who look as if they have been nicked from the Acropolis.

It is over-the-top, it is dotty, it is not France as most people think of France, but it is pure Montpellier, a self-confident modern city, not afraid to be different.

For a total contrast - serenity instead of exuberance, greenery instead of concrete, the slow lane instead of the fast lane - the rambling Jardin des Plantes, one of the glories of Montpellier, should not to be missed.

The oldest botanical gardens in France date to 1593, when plants were grown mainly for medicinal purposes. Nowadays, it is an urban Eden, overhung with trees, dotted with lily ponds: a place of leafy arbours where couples meet under cypress trees and students slump on the lush grass, their textbooks neglected.

The centre of Montpellier is so compact that it makes the perfect short-break destination. Visitors who explore the city on foot, people-watching, window-shopping, ducking down side streets, savouring the quirky cocktail of ancient and modern, will not disappointed. But the hinterland of Montpellier is not too shabby either.

Time permitting, why not hire a car and explore the region by car? You will be spoiled for choice because the surroundings are as varied as the city itself.

To the east, the beautiful Camargue, famed for its flamingoes and bulls and wild white horses, is only an hour away. There is no more evocative region in France than this windswept corner of the Rhône delta, ringed by wizened old towns like Aigues-Mortes and Arles, where Van Gogh came to paint.

To the south, there is the bustling port of Sète, a riot of nautical colour, where there are so many fish restaurants that you get dizzy from the embarrassment of riches, wandering around the harbour in a daze, with the smell of bouillabaisse in your nostrils.

To the south-west, where our own meanderings take us, there is the Canal du Midi; here, we picnic in splendour, sprawled under a tree. This famous waterway, overhung with huge plane trees which seem to kiss in the middle, runs for more than 270 kilometres. It was considered a triumph of modern engineering when it was built in the 17th century, but is now a monument to eco-friendly living, with boats chugging along so slowly that even the ducks overtake them.

After lunch, we drive to the little fishing village of Marseillan, do a bit of shopping in the street market, then head for the beach at Marseillan Plage. It is not San Tropez: there are no yachts, no designer bikinis. But there is nothing wrong with the temperature of the water, or the softness of the sand, or the fugitive beauty of the sunset. Plan your visit carefully and you will find that Montpellier is not just a city of charm and distinction, but a gateway to quintessentially French pleasures.

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Abu Dhabi to Paris cost from Dh5,275, including taxes. Air France (www.airfrance.com) flies from Paris to Montpellier for €173 (Dh910) return, including taxes

The stay

Double rooms at the Holiday Inn Metropole (www.holidayinn-montpellier.com; 00 33 467 123232), a period building in the heart of Montpellier, start from US$170 (Dh624) per night, including breakfast and taxes