Montpellier: The most surprising city break in the south of France
Short breaks in France
Montpellier has a magical sense of style and elegance. For a few short weeks, it's within a direct flight of Dublin.
Set the Mood
I've yet to meet a French town that doesn't seduce me at first glance.
When that first glance includes a tiny, sun-dappled square, the gentle buzz of the early evening and a chilled glass of pale, blushing rosé... well, all the better.
Montpellier is a small, rambling southern town that's so laid-back, it's practically supine. Yet somehow, you'll find everything you love about France within its core - the boulangeries that fill the air with the scent of warm bread; small, medieval streets that spill into wide boulevards, and the food.
Oh, the food… Aer Lingus is running direct flights from Dublin up to September 12, the perfect excuse for an impromptu, end-of-summer trip.
If you're looking for one culinary blow out in Montpellier, let it be Le Petit Jardin (petit-jardin.com). Walking in from a tiny alley, you'd never guess that a beautiful open terrace awaits you... complete with incredible cathedral views. The dishes are prettily delicate, but pack a powerful French punch - think plump, juicy duck with an onion confit and dreamily creamy praline parfaits (three courses from €39).
Elsewhere, on a ramble through the old town, stock up on children's clothing (why do the French do this so well?) and foodie treats like macarons and mustards. You'll find designers around the Rue de la Loge area, but don't skip the French high street classics - Petit Bateau (petit-bateau.fr) is great for timeless Breton stripes.
City tours can be a drag, but Montpellier is filled with spots you'd never find solo - like the medieval mikveh. Behind a heavy wooden door, 15 steep stone steps lead down into the darkness, where you'll find a rectangular pool of luminescent water. The 13th-century bath was used for Jewish rituals and only recently rediscovered - it's only accessible with an official tour guide (book with montpellier-france.com). The same goes for the Faculty of Medicine, the western world's oldest medical school.
If you want to escape the midday sun, head to Le Jardin des Plantes, one of the oldest botanic gardens in Europe. Find a wide bench and unwind for a while - my favourite spot was by the towering bamboo shoots, which whispered in the gentle breeze.
See jardindesplantes.net for further info.
On a longer stay, use Montpellier as a base to explore the Languedoc region. At the Domaine Saint-Jean de l'Arbousier vineyard (domainearbousier.fr), you can pick up a bottle (or two) of organic rosé and even take a horse ride around the picture- perfect vines. Stay at the nearby Domaine de Gallieres (domainedegallieres.com), a charming country villa with gigantic suites starting from just €90.
For a city so close to the beach, the journey to the sea is a little tricky without a car (and involves a tram and shuttle bus). If your French isn't fantastique, brush up - English isn't as widely spoken as you might expect.
Get me there
Aer Lingus flies twice-weekly to Montpellier as a summer route, up to September 12. The city is about 20 minutes from its airport - a shuttle will get you there for €2.60.
For accommodation, Hôtel d'Aragon (hotel-aragon.fr) is in a great location - a quaint old building just off the Place de la Comédie (double rooms from €97). For more information, visit uk.france.fr, montpellier-france.com and languedoc.com.