Welcome to Part Two of our guided walk around Montpellier – for those who missed Part One, you can find it here.
At the end of last week’s post, we were on the corner of Rue de la Coquille, where we were admiring the most amazing architectural feature!
Xavier Laurent, our guide, continued our walk towards Rue Foch and its focal point, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe. On the way there, we passed in front of the Palais de Justice, the central court-house.
The Palais de Justice translates literally (as you may have guessed) as “Palace of Justice”. It certainly is a palatial building and it is definitely designed to impress! A long flight of stone steps leads up to a huge portico of Corinthian columns, surmounted by a very ornate pediment. On either side of the portico, wings of the building project forward, creating a courtyard, which is closed to the street by iron railings.
In the days when Montpellier was a fortified city, there was a gate in the place where the Arc de Triomphe stands today. The Arc stands at one of the highest points of Montpellier. Naturally, it is not as big as the one in Paris, but it is impressive all the same!
If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the heads of some people on the top of the Arc. Our group was larger than the maximum number allowed up there, so our guide split us into two groups.
The decorative reliefs are in homage of Louis XIV, glorifying his achievements during his long reign of 72 years!
To begin with, I thought the two faces of the Arc had identical reliefs, but on closer inspection they turned out to be different. The reliefs in the pictures above are the ones celebrating the battle victories. The two medallions in the pictures below celebrate the construction of the Canal du Midi, and the victory of Louis XIV over the French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The central figure in the second medallion used to hold a cross in its raised hand, but that was knocked off some time ago!
The next medallion shows Louis XIV as Hercules, crowned by Victory, and the one below that remembers the capture of the town of Namur in Belgium by French troops.
After I took all those pictures, it was the turn of our part of the group to climb the 88 steps to the terrace atop the Arc!
Xavier, our guide, had told us that the views were worth the climb, and he had not promised too much – the views from the top were magnificent!!
The large open space on the other side of the Arc from Rue Foch is called the Promenade du Peyrou – a tree-lined public space with a statue of Louis XIV at the centre. The statue which stands there today is a replica of the original, which (naturally) was melted down during the French revolution. The original was monumental in size, and, according to our guide, no building in Montpellier could be taller than the tip of the fingers on the original statue’s raised arm!
The building behind the statue was the “Chateau d’Eau”, a water tower of sorts. If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the arcades of the aqueduct to the left of the building, which brought water to Montpellier and the “Chateau d’Eau” from 1768 until sometime in the 20th century – the aqueduct and the “Chateau d’Eau” are no longer in use today.
Once we had had our “fill” of the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe it was time to descend the 88 steps of the spiral stone staircase. The top of the Arc de Triomphe can only be visited with a guide and I felt very privileged to have been there!
The next stop for our guided tour was a mysterious place – the medieval mikve. A mikve “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism” according to Wikipedia. I found the Wikipedia article very interesting and instructive – do read it if you want to find out more.
The mikve is located in the cellar of a house in Rue de la Barralerie. It was discovered by chance during renovation work: the cellar had always been very damp, so it was decided to dig in attempt try and find the cause of the dampness. In the process, the archaeologists were called in, and they discovered the remains of the medieval mikve. If you’ve read the Wikipedia article, you’ll know that a mikve has to be filled with naturally occurring water, either rainwater or a spring or well. In Montpellier, the mikve is filled by an underground water course. No wonder that cellar was always damp!! There is speculation that the synagogue was close by. When the jews were chased from the French kingdom in the 13th century their places of worship would have been repurposed or destroyed. It’s a miracle that the mikve survived!
The bath itself had been completely filled in with debris and covered over, but once it was all cleared out and restored, it filled up again with crystal clear water. The water was so clear that it would have been easy to forget that it was there, had it not been for bits of leaves floating on top.
The picture above was taken from a small room above the bath, perhaps used for undressing / dressing oneself before and after immersion?
I felt quite awed when I climbed the stairs on my way out, thinking of the many centuries that this place had survived!
The mikve was the penultimate stop on our guided visit. Xavier, our guide, walked us back to the Place de la Comedie – we stopped not all that far from where our visit had begun. He gave us a little history of this magnificent square, which goes by the nickname of l’oeuf, the egg! The Place de la Comedie is very much a 19th century creation, with its impressive buildings in the style of the Paris architect Haussmann surrounding it. Originally there was an egg-shaped island on the square, with roads around it. I’ve always known the Place de la Comedie in its present pedestrianised version, so that it’s difficult to imagine it with roads and cars. Below is a picture from 1949, which shows a view of the square towards where the Polygone shopping centre is today. You can see the egg shape quite clearly. If you take a look at an aerial view of Place de la Comedie on g**gle maps, you can see that the egg shape is still there – for the moment, as plans are underway to resurface the entire square!
The square takes its name from the Opera Comedie, the 19th century opera house of Montpellier. A succession of opera houses have stood on the self-same spot, all of them destroyed by fire, apart from the current one, which was built by a disciple of the architect Charles Garnier, of Paris opera fame! I’ll leave you with a picture of the opera house at dusk, all lit up! There’s much more to discover in Montpellier. You’ll see for yourself when you next visit!