Most of us have been there at some point: you’re visiting a place and you come across something that looks really interesting. You have lots of questions, but there’s nobody to answer them. Mobile internet has made things a lot easier – smartphones allow us to call up information so easily, yet the information is only as good as the search terms we enter. You really want someone who can tell you all about it – a real person, A GUIDE!!
More and more towns in the Languedoc area now offer guided visits. I recently went on a guided visit of the historic centre of Montpellier – I booked it via the tourist office in Montpellier. A good number of different themed visits are organised by the tourist office there – this link should take you to the full list of visits on offer. I went on the “Centre Historique” visit, which started outside the tourist office on Place de la Comedie.
After handing a badge to each participant of the guided tour, our guide, Xavier Laurent, gave us an overview of the history of Montpellier. I’m going to give you a very brief summary: the city has no Roman past, it was founded around the 10th century by the Guilhelm dynasty. In the Middle Ages, the settlement expanded and prospered and became a centre for trade across the Mediterranean. Montpellier became famous for its University, especially the law and medicine faculties, and the city was a stopping place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. For more information, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for Montpellier.
Montpellier continued to prosper and grow – it later became the administrative seat of the Herault departement and the Languedoc Region, and today it is in 7th or 8th position in the ranking of France’s largest cities. The university culture, started in medieval times, is still thriving today!
Xavier walked with us to Rue de la Monnaie, where he showed us bronze markers which were set in the pavement, and told us why they were there.
Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela usually wore a scallop shell on a string around their necks. It was a symbol that was used along the pilgrimage routes – scallop shells would be affixed to buildings and doors, to denote shelter and welcome. The real shells could be used by the pilgrims to scoop food and water, a bit like a spoon. In Montpellier, the markers in the pavement denote the routes the pilgrims would have taken across the city.
From Rue de la Monnaie we went on to Rue de l’Aiguillerie and to the Hotel de Griffy. The notables of Montpellier built their mansions in the centre of the town – many of them still exist but it’s unusual to be able to peek behind the doors! Our guide had the keys to the enormous gates of the Hotel de Griffy, so we could have a look!!
In case you are wondering why I am only showing you some windows and not the whole facade, in the historic centre of Montpellier, most buildings are five times as high as the streets are wide, so it’s very difficult to get pictures of an entire house!
The Hotel de Griffy was divided into separate apartments at some point during its more recent history. We were not able to visit the interior of the house, but we could see the courtyard and the staircase!
The four facades around the courtyard were identical, but above each of the central windows of the first floor was a different mask, sculpted in stone and representing the four seasons. Lots of faces to watch all the comings and goings – if only they could tell us what they have seen…
The other windows were decorated with sculpted ornaments of various kinds, some of them probably heraldic.
The staircase took up one entire side of the courtyard – it was monumental! The finely wrought iron balustrade dates from 1790, when the whole mansion was given a makeover.
From the Hotel de Griffy, our guide took us to the Montpellier equivalent of the Champs Elysees: the Rue Foch.
We were headed for the triumphal arch at the western end of Rue Foch, but first we admired the facade of the prefecture building. The prefecture is the administrative headquarters of the Herault department.
A little detour around the back brought us to rue de la Canourge and this extraordinary street corner!!
This shell-shaped corner had been built in the days when the streets were frequented by horse and cart. It allowed the carts to turn the sharp corner without scraping the walls in the process! On the wall of the building opposite are traces of tracery. 🙂