A few years ago, when we were in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a small town at the French Atlantic coast near Spain, we saw the church in which Louis XIV married the Spanish infanta & Archduchess of Austria María-Teresa in June of 1660. After the newlyweds had left the church in pomp and circumstance, the door was hastily bricked up to prevent anyone else to cross the royal threshold. Oh well, an absolute monarch one should be … on the other hand, only one of their six children lived to adulthood. Louis XIV & his Spanish infanta were double first cousins through his dad being her mom’s brother and her dad being his mom’s brother, I kid you not. There might have been serious genetics issues, or just poor medical care or bad luck. Either way, after his long years on the job, Louis the Great was succeeded by his five year old great-grandson, because his son and his son’s son and all other potential successors had already predeceased him. And all these dead potential kings had been named Louis. Quite creepy, really.
Where were we? Yes, we just left l’écusson, the ancient center of Montpellier, thus named because it is shaped like an écusson, an escutcheon or heraldic crest, and we’re walking along rue Foch, passing the neoclassical buildings of the Palais de Justice, the court house, currently housing the Court of Appeals, itself well protected by intricate, period iron work.
After crossing beneath the triumphal arch, which marks the western terminus of rue Foch, another landmark unfolds before our eyes: la Promenade Royale du Peyrou, where we find the cowboy & his companion deep in conversation and dear Louis again, on horseback this time. With his right arm he points toward Spain, a gesture recalling Louis XIV alleged response to his grandson being chosen as king of Spain in 1700. Legend says, he proclaimed at the momentous occasion ‘il n’y a plus de Pyrénées’, meaning ‘there are no more Pyrenees mountains’. Another legend, though, puts these exact words in the mouth of Don Manuel de Oms y Santa Pau, 1st Marquis of Castelldosrius, Grandee of Spain, ambassador to the French Court for King Charles II of Spain. After Charles’ death, Don Manuel informed Louis XIV that the late Spanish king’s will named le Duc d’Anjou, Louis’ grandson, as heir to the Spanish throne. The ambassador supposedly said ‘Señor, desde este momento no hay Pirineos’. I wasn’t there, I can’t confirm any of it.
This park called Place Royale du Peyrou or la Promenade du Peyrou, ‘peyrou’ meaning rock in Occitan, was first created in 1689 as 3 ha or about 7.5 acres of public park for the citizens of Montpellier and it proved very popular ever since. It extends over the highest elevation in the city, a whopping 57 m or 187 ft above sea level, affording beautiful vistas over the city and the surrounding countryside. A view, which was ever so nicely preserved, when the height of neighboring buildings was restricted by royal decree. Under the right conditions one can catch a glimpse of the Sea and snatches of Alpes Provençal and Pyrenees mountains.
|view over the towers of cathedral Saint-Pierre|
Beside the actual park, upgraded over time with plane trees and statuary, there are several other noteworthy features in this pleasant area.
Climbing the steps under the streetlight, you’ll approach the fancy chateau d’eau. You could already catch a glimpse of it in a couple of earlier pictures. It’s the cut stone, Greek revival ‘folly’, beckoning with Corinthian columns and elaborate decorations.
The French call their municipal water towers ‘water castle’ (chateau d’eau), most of which aren’t as over the top, as this one. As it sits serenely on the highest point of the Promende du Peyrou, fronted by a reflecting pool, it’s purpose is simply to beautify by hiding a very large tank beneath it. This tank received drinking water for distribution around the city. The rear of the tank was connected to an aqueduct, built around 1760, bringing crisp mountain water from the river Lez.
The double-arched Saint-Clément aqueduct has since become the trademark image of its neighborhood, called quartier des Arceaux, the arches. In its shadow, community life plays out in bustling weekly markets, groups of grizzled oldsters playing pétanque and the silent movements of tai chi practitioners.
Often some of that busy community life spills over onto the promenade, where we stopped a while to listened to a group of musicians.
On our way back to rue Foch, we passed by the equestrian statue of Louis XIV once more. This isn’t the original statue, which was commissioned by the Languedoc government in 1685 to honor their king. Apparently it was a difficult undertaking to complete, because it took 33 years, including a 6 months sea voyage, to finally install the majestic bronze in 1718, three years after the honoree’s death. During the French Revolution, the statue, like so many bronzes of the old regime, was melted down, to make itself useful as a canon. In it’s place, ever practical, a guillotine was erected in Place Royale du Peyrou. The current half-size copy of the original statue was installed in 1838. There is a persistent rumor in Montpellier that the sculptor, who created the statue committed suicide because of a design error. He allegedly forgot the king’s stirrups. My research disproved that titillating tidbit, since both the artisan, who cast the statue and the sculptor who designed it, lived for years after the statue was proudly placed.
Jazz & guillotines – what could be next? Watch for Part 3!