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Following Tour de France the annual cycling event and exploring parts of France, Spain and other neighboring countries was a great way to start my Europe trip this year. In the very first week of my trip I found myself in this bustling and vibrant city in the South of France called Montpellier.

Located near the Mediterranean Sea, Montpellier is a beautiful city teeming with energy and surrounded with lots of history. Even a simple walking tour of the city will show its wonderful architecture and rich history.

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Not many of us know that it is in this city of Montpellier that the Parachute was born. Located at a corner of a street, Tour de la Labotte tower is the very tower from which Louis-Sébastien Lenormand jumped with the Parachute! Lenormand, born in Montpellier, was a French physicist & inventor who was the pioneer in parachuting. He is considered the first human to make a witnessed descent with a parachute and is also credited with coining the term parachute (from French parasol – “sun shield”, chute – “fall”). On December 26, 1783 he jumped from the tower of the Montpellier observatory in front of a crowd that included Joseph Montgolfier, using a 14 foot parachute with a rigid wooden frame. This tower is today the pride of the city & I did cover it in my city walk.

The city of Montpellier is of over a thousand years old. The reputation of its university especially, founded in the 13th century and most famous for its medical school, is a long-standing one: more than 60,000 students still set the intellectual and cultural tone of the city – the average age of whose residents is said to be just 25!! The university attracts students from all over the world giving the city a distinct international atmosphere.The University of Montpellier is one of  the oldest & still functioning in the world.

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As I have said before, a city is best explored on foot. While doing these walks one comes across stuff which are non-touristy and may / may not have a historical relevance, but definetly gives one a better insight into the lives of those living in the city. During one such walks I came across promotional posters of a photographer named Yann Arthus Bertrand and they were good enough to pique my interest. I decided to visit the exhibition centre where his work was on display. And what an experience it was. The exhibition entailed blown up images of aerial shots taken across the world for 365 days showcasing the global destruction to environment from a never before seen angle! All the pictures were simply mind blowing and did make me think twice about our policies – economic & political!

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A photographer of international repute Yann Arthus Bertrand has published over 30 books including Earth from the Air and Greece from the Air. That day I decided that I must have his books in my collection and now I am a proud owner of “The earth from the Air 365 days” which I picked up in London.

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Place de la Comedie – The city centre of Montpellier is a pedestrian only area and grand in its own way. Shops and road side cafes keep the area active and busy. Besides there are street performers aiming to attract the bystanders who generally end up circling to enjoy the performance put up by the artists. At the centre of the square is a fountain called the Three Graces, built by sculptor Etienne de Antoinne. The statue of Three Graces comprises of 3 ladies signifying charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. They are numbered from youngest to oldest – Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth) and Thalia (Good Cheer).

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There are narrow lanes merging out of the city square and forming an interesting labyrinth encompassing age old architectures built along cobbled streets. Unlike the cafes at the city centre the cafés here had a factor of peace as you enjoyed your sumptuous meal. We were three of us and my local friend too joined us at one such café. Incidentally this café has been operational since 75 years and was a place her father frequented in his early days! The café here served here a local delicacy which is bull’s meat. Nevertheless, I stuck to sea food while my companions stuffed themselves with the local fares!! The chocolate dessert here was a killer. Besides such road side cafes the city also offers multiple on the go food service where in you can pick things like jumbo pizza slice, quiche,…etc which are delectable as well.

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The other places of interest in Montpellier are the Montpellier Cathedral, Port du Peyrou, Corum and Antigone District. Montpellier Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral and is a national monument of France. It is the seat of the Archbishops, previously bishops of Montpellier. The cathedral suffered extensive damage during the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century and was subsequently rebuilt in the 17th century. Port du Peyrou is the triumphal arch in Montpellier designed by Francois Dorbay after the model of the Porte Saint-Denis in Paris.

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It was in the 20th century the city experienced major development projects in the form of Corum and Antigone District. Situated close to the city square, Corum comprises of Berlioz opera house with seating capacity of over 2000 people and a huge conference centre with 6000 sq m of exhibition space. Corum was designed by Claude Vasconi and has been open to the public since 1988.

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The Antigone district is best known for its architectural design by Ricardo Bofill. Designed in a neo classical way, the district is located between the old centre of Montpellier and the River Lez. At the opposite site of the river, the Hôtel de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon is also designed by Bofill and together with Antigone makes for one great visual axis 1 kilometre in length, nicknamed the Champs-Élysées of Montpellier.

The best options for visiting Montpellier are to fly into Montpellier, or fly to Paris and take a train or rental car to Montpellier.

One point that I would like to make here is that visiting Paris necessarily does not mean you seen France!! It is when you move to the other parts in France you enjoy the most, like I did!

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