Sun, beaches, spacious areas and a great university tradition: everything has contributed to making Montpellier a most attractive place. Its population soared from 100,000 in 1944 to 244,000 in 2005.
Algerians of European descent forced to leave Algeria after its independence, Spanish and North-African immigrants, French citizens moving South, students (between 60,000 and 70,000 students come each year to Europe’s oldest university town), all have brought about major changes to the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Ideally situated between Spain and Italy, next to the sea and the via Domitia, the town quickly developed in the Middle Ages. Its church, Notre Dame des Tables, was a required stop for pilgrims on their way to Compostella. Hospitals and charitable institutions caring for pilgrims set up in the town, giving birth to its medical tradition.
With epidemics killing half the population in the 14th century, the inhabitants grew despaired and made a 12,750 ft long (the perimeter of the city ramparts) candle. It was laid out in front of Notre Dame church and as it burned the situation got better.
A stronghold of Protestantism, Montpellier greatly suffered during the wars of religion, as all places of worship were destroyed, with the exception of St Pierre cathedral, which was nonetheless damaged. Following a long siege in 1622, Louis XIII brought the city back into catholic ranks. In the 17th century were carried out major works, notably construction of the Place de la Comédie, which remains Montpellier’s liveliest square.
Not surprisingly for a university town, Montpellier has always put great emphasis on culture. Montpellier is the hometown of writers like philosopher Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, popular novelist Leo Mallet, precursor of the French roman noir, and poet Francis Ponge. As well as Rabelais, Nostradamus studied medicine in Montpellier.
Paul Valéry was born in neighbouring Sète and lived in Montpellier for a long time, as did André Gide and the Occitan writer Max Rouquette, who was born in nearby Argelliers.
Montpellier is also where comic book illustrator Lewis Trondheim lives.
An uncommon feat, Montpellier has had top-flight teams in football, rugby, handball, volleyball, women’s basketball and ice hockey. The imposing figure of Louis Nicollin, colourful president of the rugby and football clubs, looms over the city.
The city has hosted the Tour de France 27 times. With its flat landscape, it has been kind to sprinters, with winners such as Charles Pélissier, André Leducq, Georges Speicher, André Darrigade and, more recently, Barry Hoban, Olaf Ludwig or Robbie McEwen, last winner in 2005.
Naturally, Montpellier long staged the Grand Prix du Midi Libre, which folded in 2003. Greatest riders won the race like Eddy Merckx, Luis Ocana, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Jalabert. Jean-René Bernaudeau holds the record for victories, having won the event from 1980 to 1983.
Finally, it wouldn’t do to talk about Montpellier and cycling without paying tribute to Claude Sudre, rider and team manager, who left a lasting impact as press liaison for the Tour de France.
This small medieval has had a long and eventful history, as many vestiges are on display in St Pierre Chapel, a frescoed 12th-century jewel, can attest. Montbazin, where remains of the successive walls that once surrounded it are still standing, is a delight for anybody interested in old architecture. The vine, the village’s economic mainstay, yields remarkable Côteaux du Languedoc appellation wines.
Villeyeyrac grew up around Valmagne Abbey, a superb example of Cistercian architecture. Founded in 1138, it quickly became one of southern France’s wealthiest religious communities. But the Hundred Years War and the wars of religion brought about the decline of the abbey, where over 300 monks lived at its peak. During the French Revolution the last monks were driven out and Valmagne was sacked. The church had been turned into a wine storehouse by the time the count of Turenne acquired it, which is when it became known as the “Cathedral of the Vines”.
The abbey is still an admirable complex. The soaring, 23-metre high, 83-metre long church features noteworthy ribbed vaults. The abbey hosts many cultural events and has continued the wine business started after the Revolution, offering excellent Côteaux du Languedoc vintages.
Bédarieux, which lies in the heart of an area rich in prehistoric sites, started growing in the 12th century, but Gallo-Roman oppidums on the heights attest that the town can trace its past back to Antiquity.
The 14th-century fortified bastide is the most outstanding witness to the strife-torn medieval period.
In the mid-19th century, farmers started cultivating grapevines on the hillsides and building small stone houses on the Causse de Bédarieux.
The 518-meter-high Pic de Tantajo, offers wonderful views of the entire Orb Valley. It served as an observation post in Roman times and Bédarieux grew up around its base.
Anybody who enjoys stunning views will like the dike built in the 18th-century to keep the Orb from overflowing its banks. The view from the dike, its 37-plane trees and the 37-arch viaduct spanning the valley are outstanding.
Bédarieux is also the birthplace of international defender Vincent Candela, a member of France’s 1998 world champion football team.
The village’s main claim to fame is as the home of one of France’s last working bell foundries. Located on the site of the old railway station, the foundry is open to the public and the museum has exhibits on the different kinds of bells, from sheep’s bells to little round spherical bells, cowbells and great church bells. Visitors can also watch molten bronze being cast in the foundry itself.
The virtues of Lamalou-les-Bains’ waters have been known since the 13th-century, when the town established its role as a thermal centre. That is also when the beautiful pink limestone Saint-Pierrre-de-Rhèdes church, a superb example of rural southern French Romanesque architecture, was built.
The name Lamalou did not appear until 1878; before then, the town was called Villecelle. Lamalou’s springs were discovered during drilling for a mine. Legend has it that a farmer who took a bath in the muddy water was cured of his rheumatism.
The spa starting growing in the late 19th-century, when the casino, whose superb stained-glass windows are listed historic monuments, and the theatre with Doric columns were built in the Art Nouveau style.
The Romans, Vandals and Visigoths occupied Olargues, an old medieval village ideally perched atop a rocky spur at the foot of the Espinouse Massif to defend its population. It started developing into a fortified town during the 10th and 11th centuries. The viscount of Minerve had the castle built, whose bell tower was probably the keep. Saint Laurent Church, which no longer exists, stood behind it. The Pont du Diable, which spans the Jaur, dates back to 1202 and was so named because the town’s inhabitants supposedly made pacts with the devil. Olargues is an ideal starting point for trips to the Espinouse Mountains and Orb Gorges.
The site has been settled since pre-historic times; scholars even speak of saintponienne civilisation for the peoples who lived there ca. 3,000 BC. Traces that those early inhabitants left behind can be seen at the Regional Prehistory Museum. Devèze Cave, which was discovered beneath the Corniou train station in 1886 when the Bédarieux-Castres railroad was built, also attests to a pre-historic past.
The origins of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières as such date back to the abbey’s foundation in 936. In 1317, Saint-Pons became the seat of a diocese that stretched across the northwest part of the present-day Hérault department. The former cathedral, which was transformed in the 15th, 16th and 18th-centuries, is a vestige of that glorious period. The four crenellated corner towers and rows of arrow slits recall that the church was fortified in its early years. The portal, known as the Porte des Morts (“Door of the Dead”), is richly decorated.
Saint-Pons’ other noteworthy building is the crenellated tower of Count Pons. Visitors can see it on their way to the source of the Jaur, which gushes out from the bottom of a boulder.
Saint-Pons is also the trailhead for many hikes through the Somail, the most wooded part of the Espinouse Mountains.
Tarn, the Midi-Pyrénées region’s second-biggest department in size and population (approximately 360,000), wonderfully combines a rural, often mountainous geography (Montagne Noire) with a climate that benefits from the cool Atlantic and the sunny Mediterranean.
The department was agricultural for a long time, and farming remains a vital part of village life, but Tarn has managed to attract many highly diversified small- and medium-sized companies as well as a few giants, such as Laboratoires Pierre Fabre.
Food is one of the department’s economic pillars, especially in Lacaune, but glass, building materials, leather, metallurgy and textiles have also contributed to Tarn’s wealth.
The department, which was founded in 1790, also boasts a rich history because it was a Cathar stronghold – “Albigensian” even became a synonym for “heretic” – and the theatre of fierce fighting between Protestants and Catholics. The rivalry between Albi and Castres also punctuated the history of this rebellious, artistic land, in the image of its two most famous sons, Jean Jaurès, deputy from Carmaux, and Toulouse Lautrec.
For several years, this town’s economic mainstays have been “green gold” – its huge forest and – and “blue gold”, the lakes and reservoirs created by the construction of the Raviège and Saint-Peyres hydroelectric power plants.
However, farming is still important, especially the raising of ewes, which supply the cheese dairies of Roquefort, and milk-fed veal.
Anglès stands out for its granite-walled, slate-roofed mountain dwellings. Many of these sturdy houses have been restored and turned into holiday homes.
Boissezon, a scenic village of the Tarn with a 13th-century watchtower, has become a tourist destination where painters, potters and craftsmen have taken up residence.
Located in the heart of Haut-Languedoc Regional Natural Park, the village’s name is said to come from buis, the French word for boxwood, a widespread species in the area, as the Buis Pass at kilometre 74.5 attests.
Like many other villages in the area, Boissezon was fortified in the early 13th-century.
During the wars of religion, the castle changed hands between Protestants and Catholics several times. Then the viscount of Paulin had the structure razed except for the watchtower, which still stands today.
Legend has it that the village is home to a fairy named Salimonde, who appears only at Candlemas and eats an apple if the harvest will be good.
This year, when the Rugby World Cup is up for grabs, it is impossible to mention Noailhac without starting with Abbot Pistre, who was the parish priest and one of the area’s most fervent rugby fans. A priest who played the sport at a high level, he proudly wore the SC Albi team’s uniform in the 1920s and was also a big fan of the Tour de France, which he watched several times. He was a friend with Noailhac’s mayor, Mr Gabarrou, who long served as president of the Castres Olympique team, which the abbot also coached in the 1930s. Father Pistre, who became famous as a rugby tournament commentator with Georges De Caunes, went home to God in 1981.
Located on the Via Tolosana pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella because the abbey church kept the Spanish martyr Saint Vincent’s relics, Castres long ranked as the second-biggest town in the Albigeois.
Later, in the 19th-century, Castres grew at a brisk pace after mechanized woollen mills, a prosperous activity that employed up to 3,000 in 50 mills, were built around 1815.
In the late 19th-century, mechanical engineering became important in the economy, along with the arsenal, which was precious for the First World War in 1914-18, and the railroad, which arrived in 1865.
Castres, like neighbouring Toulouse, is rugby stronghold. The local pro team was champion of France in 1949, 1950 and 1993.
Gérard Cholley, former international and forward, played every game during the Five Nations Tournament when France won the grand slam in 1977.
The Goya Museum, named after the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), “the king’s painter”, resulted from the generosity of another Spanish painter, Marcel Briguiboul, who was born in Barcelona in 1637 and worked in Paris before moving to Castres. A friend of Renoir’s and Manet’s, Briguiboul himself painted 219 pictures. In May 1881 in Madrid, he bought the three Goya paintings now on display at the Castres museum: the self-portrait with eyeglasses, portrait of Francesco del Mazo and Philippines Junta. These works became the property of Castres in 1893, the year after Briguiboul’s death. The Goya Museum has more Spanish paintings than any other museum in France.
Like Jean Jaurès, Jacques Esclassan was born in Castres on 3 September – but 89 years after the socialist leader, in 1948.
Winner of the green jersey in 1977, Jacques Esclassan won seven Tour de France stages as well as several other major events, almost always by sprinting.
Then, Esclassan became a bicycle seller in Castres and, later, in 1988, general councillor of the Tarn. Today the former champion works for a semi-public company in the Tarn.
Jean Jaurès was born in Castres on 3 September 1859. His father was a farmer; his mother cared deeply about his education. After a brilliant preparation at the Lycée Louis-Legrand, he won first place in the 1878 Ecole normale supérieure entrance examination and third in the philosophy agrégation, a competitive teachers qualification exam. He taught at the lycée in Albi before becoming a lecturer at the University of Toulouse.
Jaurès was elected a Republican deputy in 1885. At first, he sat in the chamber with the “opportunists”. Jaurès was more or less on the centre-left and supported Jules Ferry, although his “great man” was Léon Gambetta. In 1889, the marquis of Solages, president of the Carmaux mines, defeated him in the elections in Carmaux. Deprived of his chamber seat, Jaurès became a journalist at “La Dépêche”. His work and knowledge of working-class circles eventually led him to socialism.
Later, when the marquis of Solages sacked the miner Calvignac, the small town’s mayor, on the grounds that he left work without permission to officiate in his capacity as an elected official, the miners went on strike. Supported by Jaurès, the miners pressured the government into forcing the mine to hire Calvignac back, but not before having to face off against 1,500 soldiers called in to try and quell the strike. The marquis resigned and Jaurès went back to the Chamber of Deputies. On the eve of the Great War he declared himself a pacifist and objected to the bill requiring young men to undergo three years of military service, which passed in 1913. He summoned pacifists to a big rally in Pré Saint-Gervais on 25 May 1913.
On 31 July 1914, a right-wing fanatic named Raoul Vilain assassinated Jaurès at the Café du Croissant – and was acquitted by a jury on 29 March 1919! Vilain eventually went into exile on Ibiza and was shot by a group of Spanish Republicans early in the Spanish Civil War.