First impressions of Montpellier

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By Michelle Orai

I tend to ‘gush’ quite a lot about Montpellier. I think my family and friends in the UK are fed up to the back teeth with me singing its praises. Can it really be so fantastic? What on earth can it possibly have that we didn’t have back in the leafy lanes of Surrey?

When we first arrived in Montpellier we didn’t know we were going to settle here. We were just trying it out, to see if it would fit. We had tried the Dordogne and found it just didn’t have what we were looking for.

We arrived on the 21st June 2015, which unbeknown to us coincided with the first day of the “Festivale de la Musique”. We had rented a ground-floor apartment on Saint Anne’s Square in the Ecusson, the old historic centre,
with a view of the stunning church (now an art gallery). I can just imagine the slightly, smug grins on the faces of those of you who know it. Yes, we were totally new to Montpellier; we had absolutely no idea what the following months had in store for us.

The apartment was opposite the ‘Conservatoire de Musique’. Our first evening was spent watching the world go by. Enthralled as organisers set out chairs in a semi-circle around the ancient, stone podium. The square filled with throngs of people, they took their places and we were treated to a concert of young children, playing violins, flutes and a harmonious choir, it was delightful. We spent the night sitting on the windowsill, legs dangling, glass of chilled rose in hand. We lapped up the atmosphere on a balmy summer’s eve. How fantastic was this? Ring side seats! Things were looking good.

The next night we were treated to the most beautiful choir of adults, it was superb. The third night, another choir, this time I believe it was gospel. All in all, we couldn’t believe our luck! As the week progressed, we were treated to all sorts, from heavenly angels to hard rock, punk, brass bands, and even a bit of what I think is called grunge or is it garage? (In my opinion they should’ve stayed in the garage!) All I can say is we were grateful for the double glazed windows on more than one occasion!

We didn’t sleep a lot while we were in St Anne’s Square, every night was an adventure! Beneath our lounge window were cobbled steps, just perfect for; sitting, drinking, picnicking, chatting with friends, doing homework, making phone calls, practicing musical instruments, reciting poetry or singing drunkenly! We saw it all. I think the cherry on the cake was the night (3 a.m.) when we had a threesome, no, not that kind! There were three chaps practising, one with a guitar, one with a sax and the third with a didgeridoo! I swear, you couldn’t make it up. And yet not once, did we ask anyone to keep the noise down, we quickly realised it would’ve been futile. On a couple of occasions we watched, amused, as the gendarmes came and moved people along, no sooner had they left the square, the steps and the square were full again and St Anne’s Square returned to what we now regarded as normal!

For me, the most remarkable experience was very late one night as we were returning to our apartment. We parked our car in the underground car-park in the centre of town. We came up the exit stairs on foot onto the Place de la Prefecture, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of approximately 300 youngsters who were drinking, dancing, singing, playing loud music and generally having a ball. As we made our way through the masses, we were greeted with, smiles, bonsoirs and bonne soirées and people making way for us (the oldies) to advance through the dense crowd. At no point did we feel threatened or vulnerable. To be honest I think we could’ve joined in and they would have welcomed us. Maybe I was wrong but at the time I made the comment, that had that been in Guildford or Kingston upon Thames, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the same relaxed feeling.

We had so many odd encounters through our ground floor windows. We would have people lean in and ask if we had any glasses they could borrow, another young lady decided, in her wisdom, to try and hand me her rubbish to put in ‘my’ bin, another called in just to ask how much rent we paid. On more than one occasion tourists took photos of us having breakfast, sitting at the table, just living our lives, ’à domicile’ – I can just imagine them saying, ’Gosh look at the natives in their natural habitat!’ We even had total strangers reaching in to stroke the dog!

We loved every minute of it! It was truly a baptism of fire; it was a complete contrast to the evenings we were used to, in our suburban lives back in the UK. We saw the best and the worst that Montpellier had to offer and it didn’t put us off. We had a lot of exploring to do, but I think it took us two weeks to make the decision; this is where we were going to settle.

We haven’t regretted it yet!