Sète is a seaside resort city and port in the Occitanie region of southern France. Though we docked in Sète, we did not get to explore the area, as we had scheduled an excursion that took us about 35 minutes inland to Montpellier. I had read that the sun shines almost every day in Montpellier—360 days a year! Not so, the day we visited, though. Instead, it was drizzly and cold for that time of year, putting a damper on us wanting to spend a lot of time exploring and appreciating the city’s charming outdoors.

What were the chances of crummy weather? Maybe I should play those odds at our upcoming stop at the casino in Monte Carlo.

University city

Montpellier was founded in 985 AD around a Benedictine abbey. Now a city of more than 275,000, it is a seat of education, known for having established the first school of medicine during the Middle Ages. The school is still active today. The school of law was founded around 1160, and the University of Montpellier—one of the oldest universities in the world—originated there in 1220. In addition to academics, Montpellier is an industrial and transportation center, and is the principal administrative and commercial center of the Occitanie region. Montpelier, VT is named after this old university city.

Placé de la Comédie—the heart of Montpellier’s historic district

Our visit started in the heart of Montpellier’s historic center—la place de la Comédie—Comédie (comedy/playacting) Square. Also known as “place de l’oeuf”—“Egg Square” because of its original oval shape, the plaza is one of the largest pedestrian zones in all of Europe. It is anchored by the landmarks, Opéra Comédie, built in 1755 and regarded as a “National Opera,” and the fountain of the Three Graces. This statue of three goddesses guards the plaza and serves as an emblem of Montpellier, representing the unique soul that is attributed to the city by its residents. The square is lined with beautiful buildings and cafes that are representative of 19th century Parisian architecture. There is a park at the other end of the plaza, and while it looked very inviting, our tour took us in a different direction.  

L’Ecusson District

From the square we journeyed deeper into the Écusson—“the shield”—Montpellier’s historic center that from above resembles a shield carried by warriors. The Écusson is comprised of a maze of charming, cobblestone streets, lined with shops that are filled with beautiful clothes, shoes, jewelry, and other items. There are restaurants there too—and they would have been delightful places to people watch, time and weather permitting.

Our walk through these medieval streets took us to the L’Arc de Triomphe—the Triumphal Arch, erected in 1691 and modeled after the Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. Montpellier’s arch, also known as the Porte du Peyrou, is considered to be the city’s most famous landmark. There, a statue of Louis XIV on horseback stands in glory, celebrating the king’s conquests and reign. The part of our tour that was dedicated to historic Montpellier ended here, so while we did not go up the stairs of the arch, there are said to be magnificent views of the city at the top of the roughly 100-stair climb. I’m also told that there is a flea market at the Port du Peyrou every Sunday. 

Our walk back to the bus held a surprise—the visible results of France’s Yellow Vests/Yellow Jackets movement. In October 2018, protesters claimed that France’s working and middle classes were bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of the government’s tax reforms. Choosing yellow vests because of their availability (France requires all drivers to keep them in their cars and to wear them during an emergency) and identification with working class professions, the protests have sometimes taken the form of violent demonstrations. We saw the remains of some of those actions in the otherwise beautiful streets of the Ècusson—broken and boarded-up windows of more-than-a-few local shops.    

Back to the bus. Next stop: wine tasting at Chateau de Flaugergues

Chateau de Flaugergues—a look at French aristocratic life in the 18th century

The Chateau de Flaugergues is a country home built in the late 1600/early 1700s. The land was purchased in 1696, but work on the house is said to have continued for 45 years to get the appearance that it has today. The home is representative of the “folies”—“houses in the foliage”—second homes that aristocrats built around the Montpellier countryside that were surrounded by magnificent gardens. This new order of wealth came from serving the king, and in fact, the home’s owner, Entienne de Flaugergues, was an advisor to the Court of Auditors. The home, passed down through generations of nobles, has been designated a national heritage site.

A beautiful, sculpted, English-style garden led up to a very grand-looking mansion. Once inside though, the house was actually a little smaller than I expected. A large sweeping staircase took up much of the entrance, and in fact, accounted for 25% of the house! The stairway took us up three floors, passing a room to the side where guests would stay. On our way, we saw furniture, tapestries, and other items that were typical of 18th century noble life. The tapestries were particularly notable, having been classified as Historic Monuments.

Then, it was off to the winery for a tasting session. We were served a delicious selection of wines from the Languedoc—our current location which was once its own province of France. Now, it is part of the Occitanie region.   

And then, our time was up—when we boarded the ship, it would be five hours from the time we had left, that morning. We were greeted with hot chocolate—testament to both the raw weather and customer care that we were treated with throughout the cruise. Off to dinner and evening activities, and then to bed—tomorrow was another busy day.

Next stops: Nice, Provence, and Cannes  

Until next time,

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