The stories of a couchsurfer

Montpellier: A refreshing modernity

One of the great advantages and incentive to visit Europe and it’s countries is the history. The age of the place and it’s civilisations makes for fascinating history and remnants that can be visited and admired. But while this history creates spectacular architecture and conjures up the imagination for what may have been so many years ago, it generally means that the facilities and buildings may not be the most comfortable or convenient in todays societies.

Streets can be found to fit only a single car and the footpaths barely even fit a person at times. Sewerage networks are constantly having to be repaired or replaced. The same thing with plumbing and shoddy electrical fittings that are crammed into buildings that were not designed for their use when constructed. Cities are (understandably) reluctant to knock down these historical artefacts in order to rebuild something more modern – particularly in the center.

If a visitor comes from a relatively young and therefore more “modern” country, this can be in stark contrast to their hometown.

The south-western town of Montpellier proves itself to be surprisingly different. One wouldn’t exactly call it modern, but perhaps this is the most appropriate word to describe it, at least relative to the other French towns visited.

Upon arriving at the city limits there is a different feeling. There is greenery along the roads. And the roads seem wider and more organised too. People here will complain about the traffic being horrendous and the road networks not adequately planned in conjunction with public transport, but in actuality the transport network of Montpellier (roads included) operate at a much higher efficiency than other French towns. Modern trams drive past at regular intervals.

The buildings here appear more modern. Outside of the inner city limits the architecture is more modern. Inside the city limits the architecture remains ancient but there is still a feeling that they are more modern. They appear cleaner and perhaps more polished throughout their renovations. The buildings of the inner city limits are clearly historical and were constructed long ago, but the interiors present themselves with a modern feel and high quality facilities.

Montpellier certainly presents itself as a modern alternative to the other cities of France. And it feels like it prides itself on this modernity too. It doesn’t seem to place too much emphasis on historical sites and instead feels free to move on into the present world.

The fact is that Montpellier was not always the thriving city that it is now. It was much smaller and it was not until initiatives were devised to bring higher education to the city that things began to change. Now, Montpellier is regarded as one of the largest student cities of France and hosts many universities. Students from all over France opt to come to Montpellier for their university studies. Due to this reason, the population is in general quite young and this creates a lively bar and café scene in the inner city. It’s this population that forced the city to expand, creating new residential areas.

Montpellier is thus an educated city and attracts various industries. Large technology companies have offices here and it creates various employment opportunities for the locals. It still very much holds the French values and culture but in many ways Montpellier is a city far separated from the ideals of France because of it’s decreased emphasis on history.

It’s almost as if it doesn’t bother to look behind, instead opting to dedicate itself to progressing forward. With this dedication, it moves at a much faster rate than the other cities, which prefer to progress at a slower rate for fear of damaging their historical prestige.

That’s not to say that there doesn’t remain any history in Montpellier. A visit to the Faculté de Medecine de Montpellier shows that it goes back to the 11th century. There are plenty of monuments to visit.

Montpellier appears to be one of the cities within France the most comfortable to live in. But it’s not without it’s downsides. Surprisingly, given it’s intellectual and industrial superiority, it contains a relatively large amount of the homeless. Perhaps this is only the case in summer when the warm southern climates attract them here as a more comfortable alternative to sleep outside, but there are many within the more touristic areas of the city.

Not only this, they were the worst kind of homeless. Not the kind to sit quietly on the side of the street holding a cup, but the kind that would instead sit next to an ATM and then talk to you as you withdraw cash. They say outside of the supermarkets, knowing that you had most likely received change as a result of your purchase and then hassle you as you exit. They go out of their way to walk up to you and ask you to help them out. They force you to look into their eyes and say no, and when you do they will give you a look of disappointment, as if all hope of feeding their family has just been shattered. Of course it hasn’t, they know how to deal with the situation – they get told no hundreds of times a day, but they know the best ways to exploit tourists and the young, idealistic population of Montpellier.

Montpellier also doesn’t contain any large, inner city parks to sit down and enjoy the shade with a picnic on a warm summers day. There are some small parks, but they don’t really offer anything in terms of escaping the city life in a small sanctuary.

It is not the most naturally rich or beautiful city, but Montpellier is one of the most organised and well planned, something that a lot of other French cities could learn from.

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