Again we turn back the clock a few months and return to France, where we enjoyed a home exchange in the town of Pézenas, département de l’Hérault [Occitan: Erau] in the Languedoc-Roussillon region last May. While in Péz we visited the préfecture or chef-lieu MONTPELLIERS, the administrative capitol of the department.
The city of Montpellier is home to over a quarter million people, while the population of the whole metropolitan area adds up to over half a million, making it the eighth largest city in France. It spreads out over two hills, about 10 Km or 6 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. This distance from the coast is its raison d’être, the reason Montpellier [Occitan: Montpelhièr], possibly meaning ‘mont pelé’, naked hill, for it’s poor vegetation, was founded around 985 CE by the feudal overlord of the region, Guilhem I, who was thoroughly fed up with the opportunistic looting & pillaging of his coastal hometown by passing pirates.
Such a late appearance of a major city on the map of the Mediterranean coast is quite unusual for an area, where most settlements go back to at least the Roman Empire, if not all the way to Greek and Phoenician trading centers, themselves conveniently erected on neolithic foundations. In other words, the entire circum-Mediterranean coast, including northern Africa, the Iberian ‘Levante’ and along the coast of modern France and Italy, Venice, then into the ‘Levant’ or Near East, had been a hotbed of activity for thousands of years, before Montpellier ever came along to wrestle the Scepter of Commerce from them all in the 12th century.
It took about 200 years and seven successive Guilhems to lay the foundation for the subsequent 250 years of Montpellier’s superiority as a mercantile center and the focus of medical science in all of Europe. The rise of Montpellier’s importance began with a strategic move by the Greek Orthodox ruler Manuel I Komnenos, Leader of the powerful Byzentine empire. In 1174 he sent fourteen year old Eudokia Komnena, one of his nieces, to the West to be married to a son of the king of Aragon and Barcelona, whose realm included the modern day Languedoc and thus Montpellier. Manuel I envisioned a marriage to the king’s eldest son and heir for his little Eudokia, since he was trying to throw a wrench, rather a wench as it were, into the power games of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. We can imagine what a long and uncomfortable journey from Constantinople to Barcelona it must have been for Eudokia and her entourage, as the distance between the two comes to around 3000 Km or 1800 miles. Whilst for macho Gaius Julius Ceasar, who was known to lead his legionnaires in forced marches of 40 Km or 24 miles a day, in full gear, mind you, such a distance might be feasible, I suspect the Byzantinians sailed part of the way, yet it would still have taken months to complete such a journey. And then the other worn out hiking shoe dropped upon her arrival in Aragon. While she was en route, the crown prince, her intended, had married the infanta or crown princess of Castile. Sadly, no kingdom for our Eudokia. The boys haggled some more over the desirable virgin and decided to give the younger Aragon brother Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence a shot at her hand in marriage. However, the runner up was eliminated from competition as well, when his liege lord, the same said all powerful Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, the counter-kaiser to Eudokia’s Byzantine uncle, handed down a categorical NO. Well, guess who won the prize from Constantinople? Correct. None other than Guilhem VIII, the Lord of Montpellier became her betrothed, the House of Guilhem being much too lowly and unimportant to be a fly in Barbarossa’s ointment. Finally, after six years of musical chairs, Eudokia Komnena married her Guilhem in 1180. Before the nuptials, she made every male citizen of Montpellier swear an oath that her eldest child, male or female, would succeed her husband to the Lordship of Montpellier. Thus their daughter Maria, born in 1182, succeeded her father in 1204 as Sovereign Lady of Montpellier, the ninth and last ruler of the House of Guilhem.
Lady Maria’s reign however did not commence without difficulty. Daddy dearest was quite the schemer and suffering so mightily from seven-year itch that he banned his wife Eudokia to a nunnery in order to marry a more desirable lady. Poor Eudokia had already became the butt of crude jokes across the donjons of the Languedoc, when a well know Occitan troubadour, Peire Vidal, used her misfortune of loosing out to the Castillian princess to wax satirically: ‘the young king preferred a poor Castillian maid to the emperor Manuel’s golden camel’. Now she was rejected even by her husband, who ironically claimed Eudokia, who was revered for her piety, had been unfaithful – with a troubadour of all people! Meanwhile Eudokia’s legal husband had eight children with his second consort, favoring his eldest boy Guilhem, naturally, over Maria as his heir, when Pope Innocent III declared this second ‘marriage’ null and void, which rendered all of Maria’s half-siblings illegitimate. Maria herself slipped in and out of marriages a few times in swift succession, but she did it legally, contrary to her father. Her third marriage made her queen of Aragon, the title her mother was supposed to receive. As queen and with the popular support of the citizens, Maria overcame her half brother’s challenge and remained the rightful Lady of Montpellier.
Driving to Montpellier exactly 800 years after Maria’s ascension to power, we swooped down into the city from our swap home in Pézenas, guided by a GPS mobile app, directing us turn by turn to the most convenient parking facility in the very heart of the city. A whole lot easier than Eudokia’s approach, I’d say!
When we emerged from the underground car park escalator, we swiveled and turned to take in a first impression of Lady Maria’s town.
We were standing on la Place de la Comédie, the pulse, the heartbeat of Montpellier. We had had no expectations and were overwhelmed by its splendor. What a gorgeous lil’ town square! On the right, quite prominently situated is a Garmont cinema, a subsidiary of the oldest motion picture company in the world.
Looking North toward the Italian style opera house, the view was most gorgeous, of course, but the other directions offered very interesting options as well.
Walking East into the Esplanade we discovered some wonderful artisans displaying their work. The far end of the Esplanade opens to ‘Le Corum’, with its new opera house and conference center, all clad in pink marble.
While looking West from la Place de la Comédie, you’ll find the most incredible bookstore, the Librairie Sauramps leaning against the pyramid building. 2500 sqm or 27 000 sft of sales floors with nothing but books. A veritable labyrinth of nurishment for mind & soul. Oh, ok, and e-games and DVDs.
We neither perused literature, nor did we go to the movies, nor did we zip around in the white tourist choo-choo. Instead we entered Old Town by way of rue de la Loge and wandered about enjoying the sights.
There are so many impressions to process, it boggles the mind. The general atmosphere enriched with thousands of details, like the small banner in the middle of the alley above for the ‘Maison de Heidelberg’ a German cultural center maintained by one of Montpellier’s eleven sister cities, Heidelberg. I wouldn’t have noticed the sign, but for its tiny German flag.
The hilly cityscape we encountered was a bit of a surprise. I’ve always thought of Montpellier as a coastal town, so I wasn’t prepared for such noticeable elevation changes.
The narrow streets offered new vistas and discoveries at every turn, ultimately leading us to a charming, secrete plaza, the Carré Sainte-Anne, with bicycles, both decorated and embedded. More of the latter in due course.
First, we had to have lunch and relax from the hard work called sightseeing. We chose ‘Le Prés Vert’ (Green Meadow) with its outdoor tables nestled against the walls of the now deconsecrated former church of Saint Anne and, surrounded by green stuff naturally, settled down for a beautifully presented and tasty meal.
Saint Anne’s now serves as a contemporary art gallery & performance center. I don’t think, this particular character approves. He seems to say, oy vey iz mir, what have they done?
The bike in the wall kept niggling and I had to get a close-up. What a splendid piece of random art! Makes you smile.
After lunch we continued to amble through alleyways, slowly turning this way and that, passing intriguing street signs,
one of which was actually a double street sign.
Looking into the narrow curve of Stanislas’ street, we first see the office for ‘Casa Voce’, the local contact for the famous Roy Hart Voice Center in the Cévenne mountains, before we notice the ‘ABMD Société d’Avocats’, a large law firm locate at Nº 2 rue “criminel”. Of course, where else?
So many impressions, so much fun, and we haven’t even learned anything yet about Louis the Great or Hippocrates … stay tuned for Part Two!!