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.
Lady Maria’s reign, however, did not commence without difficulty. Daddy dearest was quite the schemer and suffering so mightily from the seven-year itch that he banned his wife Eudokia to a nunnery in order to marry a more desirable lady. Poor Eudokia had already become 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. Not surprisingly, faithless Guilhem favored his eldest boy over Maria as his heir, when Pope Innocent III declared his 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 the 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 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 sqft of sales floors with nothing but books. A veritable labyrinth of nourishment 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.
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?
After lunch we continued to amble through alleyways, slowly turning this way and that, passing intriguing street signs,
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 located at Nº 2 rue “criminel”. Of course, where else?