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Montpellier, France: The Full Monty

Young, modern (and rugby mad) Montpellier, on France’s Mediterranean coast, is preparing to host the World Cup. Friendly and hospitable, this university city is ready to party.

Count Henri de Colbert, winemaker, historian and raconteur extraordinaire, looks a little unhinged when we meet at Château Flaugergues, his grand home on the outskirts of Montpellier. The Mistral, the bitter northerly that chills southern France in winter, is blowing fiercely and its icy fingers have torn through the count's wavy grey locks, restyling them into a tangle of Einstein-meets-Dr Who. Clad in corduroy and tweed, he tightens his cravat against the cold as he shuffles us inside.
Flaugergues is one of the famed Montpellier 'follies', grand country estates of the wealthy, and it has been in de Colbert's family since the late 17th century. De Colbert and his wife Brigitte moved in 34 years ago and have continued the winemaking begun by his ancestors, tended its lovely gardens, and done their best to maintain the property. He is a superb host, charming and knowledgeable, self-deprecating and humble.
A tour through the endless treasures stockpiled in the château turns into a general knowledge quiz. Whose life is depicted in these 300-year-old Flemish tapestries? What is the name of this curious mirrored viewing device? And a bottle of wine is awarded for every correct answer (Moses and zograscope, respectively). Afterwards, gathered in the vaulted stone manger that serves as his cellar door, he assures us his job is the best in the world. "My aim is to give - and sometimes to share - pleasure," he explains.
The genial count could well be speaking on behalf of all Montpelliérains, who seem to have a knack for hospitality. It's possible that this southern city's residents are simply polishing their image en masse for September, when more than 100,000 fans - many of them Australian - will arrive for the Rugby World Cup. But given Montpellier has received pilgrims and traders for more than a millennium, you sense the warmth of their welcome is genuine rather than turned on for tourists.
That sense strengthens during a ramble through the old town, the Ecusson (named after the medieval shoulder plate whose shape it resembles), parts of which date back to the 12th century. The Sainte Anne district, in the west of this compact, car-free zone, is home to Montpellier's luthiers - there are more than a dozen - and its best bakery, Le Vieux Four Sainte Anne in rue de la Coquille. The baker, Monsieur Hugues Bailly, is a ruddy-faced, rheumy-eyed, always-smiling gentleman who's about to have a smoko on the footpath when I introduce myself. He cheerfully postpones the cigarette to usher me inside his deliciously scented workplace and show off his 200-year-old oven, a broad, low brick kiln that can bake 100 baguettes at a time. "Feel it! It's still warm from this morning!" he beams.
He lifts the lid on his sourdough starter, its sharp tang stinging the nose, and describes how virtually every stage of the bread-making process is still done by hand, just as it has been for centuries across France. Then he leads me through to the adjoining shop where he proudly displays his pain fromage, his millefeuilles, brioche aux pignons, and what I suspect are his favourites, the petites madeleines au miel de châtaigner - mini-sponges with chestnut honey. He insists I take a little something to taste when I leave - perhaps a madeleine? I hesitate, but a customer interrupts: "You are mad if you say no!". So I try a madeleine and it is sweet and sunny, like taking a bite of Montpellier itself.
Later, beneath the extravagant arches of the Saint Clément Aqueduct at the Marché des Arceaux - one of several lively markets that define the city - 22-year-old Jeremy Bouby and his grandmother Michèle Perez offer cheery greetings when I discover their cheese stall. Mme Perez was one of the first stallholders here when the market began 35 years ago. Bouby has worked alongside her since he was 15, and it would be hard to find a more passionate advocate for French cheese. He points out local specialties such as pérail de brebis, a soft ewe's milk cheese, and pélardon, a chèvre. Bouby sources all his cheeses direct from farms; he won't buy from factories because, he says frankly, "they don't know the cows".
All his cheeses are handmade, certified Appellation d'Origine Controlée, and all are 'cru' - unpasteurised. Such production methods may cause an attack of the vapours among Australian health authorities (who took until 2005 to allow Roquefort to be imported here) but, as Bouby points out: "Ten thousand years we have been making this cheese for, and we're not dead yet."
Even at Le Jardin des Sens, Montpellier's two Michelin-starred restaurant, there was none of the stuffiness often (wrongly) associated with the French. In the 20 years since they opened their first restaurant here in Saint Lazare, just outside the old city, twin brothers Jacques and Laurent Pourcel have built an empire of restaurants in France, England, Thailand, Japan, Morocco, China and Mauritius. The tasting menu at their Montpellier landmark costs about $200, the degustation about $300. You might expect some serious attitude here, but you wouldn't find it. Quite the contrary - Jacques graciously interrupts the running of his realm to greet a couple of Australian visitors and chat about his recent visit to Sydney, where he cooked at Altitude restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. He even insists we stay for lunch - the Breton lobster does look incredible - but sadly we don't have time. Silly mistake. The most important thing we learn about life in Montpellier is that you should always make time.
To outsiders, the south of France is best known for the movie-star resorts of St Tropez and Cannes on the Côte d'Azur. But just west of there, on the Gulfe du Lion, the Languedoc-Roussillon region enjoys all the languid Mediterranean pleasures of its more showy neighbours, with little of the hype.
For those who have no knowledge of the Languedoc's charming capital, here are the basics: Montpellier was founded in 985AD, which makes it relatively young in a region of cities (Nîmes and Marseilles, for example) that date back to Roman times. It is young, too, in its outlook: about a third of its 235,000 inhabitants are under 25, thanks to the large student population - 60,000 or so - who study at Montpellier's respected universities and language schools.
Superlative-wise, it is home to Europe's oldest Christian school of medicine, established in 1021, whose alumni include Rabelais and Nostradamus. The botanic gardens (circa 1593) are the oldest in France, and were once tended by botanist Pierre Magnol, after whom the magnolia was named. And Languedoc-Roussillon produces one third of France's wine. (Its rosé, from Tavel, is regarded as the best in France.)
Evidence of Montpellier's 1000 years of history is on display wherever you wander. Once a walled city, remnants of its 12th-century fortifications can still be seen at the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babote, the last two of the 25 towers that once guarded Montpellier. A heavy door on a narrow street in the town centre reveals stairs leading down to a mikve, Jewish ritual baths, from the 12th century. Only discovered in 1985, there's an almost hallowed beauty to this limestone sanctuary of glassy green waters and perfect silence. Around the corner lies the Arc de Triomphe, a smaller, 17th-century likeness of the Paris version that forms a grandiose entry gate to the old town. It was constructed during the reign of Louis XIV. The Sun King himself is honoured in bronze perpetuity astride a horse on the royal square of Peyrou, a handsome sweep of public space that offers views to the Mediterranean coast, 11km away, and to the distant mountains of the Pyrenées.
There is history wherever you look, but this is not a city smothered by its past. Under the 27-year leadership of its controversial Socialist mayor, Georges Frêche, Montpellier grew from France's 25th-largest city to its eighth, and became a thriving regional technology centre. One of the most obvious legacies of this growth is the new town centre of Antigone, a neoclassical quarter of pilasters and pediments, designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, on the former army barracks.
Two new tram services, boldly coloured and decorated with swallows, now bisect the city, connecting old and new. When I emerged from the Saint-Roch train station into rue de Maguelone, flanked by palms and ornate buildings, with a tramline running through the middle and buzzing café terraces in the sun, I was reminded of St Kilda. (Even the people seemed Australian at times. When I heard that Parisians view southerners as 'backward, lazy and unsophisticated', it recalled the same hackneyed stereotype that used to dog Australians. They, like us, simply take the time to enjoy life.)
The latest source of civic pride is the Fabre Museum, which reopened in February after a $100 million, three-year renovation. One of Europe's finer provincial galleries, the Fabre is the result of three bequests by prominent local citizens which endowed Montpellier with 800 paintings by European artists, among them Raphael, Rubens and Véronèse. Unfortunately our guide hurried us through the gallery so quickly (she had another appointment to get to) that its renowned collection was a blur of Bourdon, Delacroix and Degas masterpieces, glimpsed for 30 seconds apiece. This is not an experience to be rushed.
Nor is dining, because to do so would risk missing the specialities of this unique region. Bourride is Montpellier's answer to Marseilles' bouillabaisse, a heady white fish stew laced with saffron and garlic, then still more garlic in the form of an aïoli. Garlic also dominates the tielles sétoises, pies filled with calamari in a tomato sauce. They originated in the nearby port of Sète, where fishermen's wives created the pies as a way to use up 'leftovers' - in this case, squid. (You don't have to visit Sète to try them, though. Head to Les Halles Castellanes, Montpellier's covered market, where Monsieur Titone sells them for $3 each at his stall.) Other regional delicacies include Bouzigues oysters and mussels, cultivated in a flamingo-filled saltwater lagoon, licorice and honey-flavoured sweets called grisettes, and, of course, Monsieur Bailly's madeleines.
Also peculiar to the south is rugby, which, along with bull running and boat jousting, ranks among the favourite sports in this region. The craggy arc of coastline running from Perpignan to Toulon is the spiritual home of rugby in France, and Montpellier, which will be the host city of the Wallabies, is likely to go a little wild during the tournament.
That's not to say the city is starved for excitement - more than three million people visit Montpellier each year for its climate, the beach-strewn coastline a 10 minute drive away, and a non-stop calendar of festivals encompassing everything from extreme sports to Christian film, skateboarding, dance, hip hop and the Equisud horse festival.
It's more that Montpellier likes to turn it on for visitors. During the World Cup, outdoor video screens will broadcast all the action from the place de la Comédie, the 17th-century, café-lined plaza that forms the social hub of the city. Buskers and street artists will keep fans amused and the city is also planning mini-festivals to keep visitors occupied in between the four games that will be played here (the main match will be Australia versus Fiji, at the 35,000-seat La Mosson Stadium on 23 September).
But by far the greatest gesture Montpellier has made is to build a new stadium, the 12,000-seat Yves du Manoir, and hand it over to the Australian team. The Wallabies will have the exclusive use of the ground during the Cup, training here between matches and being looked after in style by the local rugby authorities. There will even be Australian beer on tap. Such thoughtfulness is typical in Montpellier.