Sunday, September 15, 2013

Too Pooped to Patrimoine

Dimanche, 15 septembre.

Before arriving in France, I was warned by several people not to become a tourist, jetting off to a different country every weekend, but to try to really live in and experience the city I was in! Spending a weekend "at home" with my host family or with friends might not sound as exciting as a short trip to Spain or Italy, but it would make for a richer experience in the long run. So, although I'm beyond excited to travel outside of the city again in the upcoming months, I've made it my mission to balance all those trips with as much quality time with Montpellier as I can manage!

To be fair, I've already done a whole lot of exploring the city in the past three weeks. I've checked out parcs and cafés and grocery stores and bars and banks and museums ... and I've even ridden every single tram line! (There are only four, but still.) But this weekend, my exploration of Montpellier hit a new level, all thanks to les Journées européennes du Patrimoine.

What are these Journées du Patrimoine all about? Well, as you might be aware, Europe is old. Very old. And because it's so old, it's absolutely teeming with history -- much of which is difficult/expensive for the average person to access! In order to encourage Europeans to explore their patrimony, somebody had the bright idea to create a special weekend in which historical and cultural sites are opened to the public, free of charge. The sites, which range from museums to churches to historical buildings, often charge admission or are closed to the public during the rest of the year, so the weekend is a pretty great opportunity!

Even in a smaller and "younger" (read: not Roman) city like Montpellier, there is a lot of exciting patrimoine. And since this will almost certainly be my only chance to experience Journées du Patrimoine in Montpellier, I decided that I had to see ALL of it. So yesterday morning, I packed up my camera and water bottle, put on my walking shoes, and headed downtown to see not one, not two, but eleven patrimoine sites. Molly and I finished up the tour today with two more, for a grand total of THIRTEEN sites of cultural/historic importance.

Thirty six hours later, I'm so cultured that it hurts (or maybe that's just all the stairs...) and now you're about to be too! Scroll down for a little information -- and a lot of fun pictures! -- of all the places we visited.
First stop: la Préfecture de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon. Because it's the functioning seat of the regional government, the Préfecture is rarely open for visitors. Our quick tour gave us a chance to check out some of the building's most historic rooms and boy, are they something!

Next up: la Faculté de médecine. As you might remember from my historic tour of Montpellier, the city's school of medicine is the world's oldest school of medicine still in existence. And let me just say that, as a current student at one of Montpellier's other two universities, I was feeling pretty jipped! The Faculté de médecine is AMAZING: ancient and filled to the brim with old books, statues, anatomical sketches, and paintings of the professors and doctors who once walked its halls. Oh, and a seriously creepy anatomical museum. (Yuck!)


It's like Dumbledore's Office up in hur.

But the best part of the Faculté was, hands down, stepping outside into the gardens and looking up to THIS view. (Don't forget, the building's next door neighbor is Montpellier's most famous gothic cathedral!)

Oh hey there, Cathedrale Saint-Pierre!

Which brings me to our third stop -- la Cathédrale Saint-Pierre itself! Molly and I actually had a chance to stop in the church a few days ago while wandering around centre-ville one morning before class (la vie est dure, n'est-ce pas?) and discovered that the inside, which is a functioning Catholic church, is even more amazing than the outside. You might remember the really simple stone towers in the very front, but apart from those, the rest of the church is an enormous, ornate gothic masterpiece -- in fact, it's actually the largest church in Languedoc-Roussillon!

I'm sort of completely in love with the cathedral, which is why I absolutely jumped at the chance to be able to climb the Tour Urbain V! It's a special offer that is only possible for a few hours each day during Journées du Patrimoine, so it's an insanely popular destination for both citizens and tourists. We got there nice and early to make sure we had time to climb and let me just say ... WOW. Whoever told me that the view is the best in Montpellier was not lying!

View on the way up!

In the photo above, you can see the orange roofs of the Faculté de médecine and, just beyond it, the Jardin des Plantes! (Remember, it was originally planted to grow medicinal plants for the school.)  Look below to see into the school's courtyard (where we he had been standing just a little bit earlier!) and a shot of downtown Montpellier. The church in the background is the Carré Saint-Anne, a beautiful church that unfortunately now houses ugly modern art. (Still, it's pretty from the outside!)


Fourth stop: the Medieval Mikvé of Montpellier. You know, just your typical perfectly-preserved thirteenth-century Jewish ritual bath house. (But actually -- it's one of the best-preserved Jewish bathhouses in Europe.) Although the site is a little creepy and the mikvé itself is a little on the small/poorly-lit side, the existence of the bathhouse in Montpellier is a really cool reminder of the unique multicultural history of Montpellier: As far back as the 13th century, the city was a thriving cosmopolitan center with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim inhabitants -- in fact, according to our tour guide, Jewish influence in the city was one of the main reasons why the Faculté de Médecine was built!

The mikvé, used by Jewish women to regain ritual purity.
Fifth stop: la Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs. Built in the 12th century, destroyed during the Wars of Religion, and rebuilt in the 1600s, this church has quite the story! It's called the chapel of the "pénitents blancs" (or White Penitents) because it's the seat of a lay Catholic organized called la Confrérie des Pénitents blancs. You've probably seen pictures of them before and been (rightly) shocked -- their ceremonial white robes that look a heck of a lot like something with a much less positive connotation. The chapel itself is even more interesting: decorated in a baroque style, it's more ornate than any church I've ever seen!

Sixth stop: la Chapelle et Pharmacie de l'Ouevre de la Miséricorde. Sadly, it was closed to the public when we arrived. Moving right along to...

Stop number seven: l'Eglise du Couvent des Dominicains. Again, one of the most unique churches I've ever seen. It was a big church, but -- in contrast to the last chapel -- was almost completely bare. The only color came from some modern art behind the altar and the (very abstract) stained glass windows!

Eighth stop: le Musée du Vieux Montpellier. Also closed to the public by the time we arrived. An even worse disappointment than the last, because we had to climb a flight of stairs before realizing.

Stop Eight was technically supposed to be our last stop on the Patrimoine Train, but luckily for all of us (except my poor aching feet), the fun didn't stop there! Molly and I made a pit stop at an adorable toy store in the middle of centre-ville to take a break from the deluge of medieval history.


Like I said, Molly and I planned to stop after the medieval history museum. But unfortunately, life works in mysterious ways and in France that means that even when you think you have seen every church, you will run into at least three more.

Which brings me to our ninth stop: a baroque basilica called la Basilique Notre-Dame des Tables. Although this church was constructed in the 1700s, its roots lie with a much more ancient church that was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Wars of Religion. In fact, the current church gets its name from the tradition of moneychangers and merchants who would set up tables just outside the church to peddle to pilgrims on their way to Spain. (A fun fact that I have shared with no fewer than four people since I learned it. Whoops.)


Tenth stop: la Maison des Choeurs - Chapelle Saint-Charles. A former church, this building is now used for choir concerts. It was weird, walking around such an old church and seeing how it had been transformed -- even though the statues, altar, and stained glass windows are still in place! I guess it's nice that the church itself has been preserved, but it's kind of sad how it's been secularized.

Also, please notice how even after seven hours and ten sites, I was still excited about the patrimoine! (I told Molly today that I think the key to my personality lies in my ability to be simultaneously very whiney and unbelievably peppy.)

Our eleventh stop was an absolute accident. We stumbled upon l'Eglise Saint-Roch de Montpellier on our way home ... and I forced Molly to follow me inside. (Sorry, bud!) Although we were pretty patrimoined out by that time, I'm glad we stopped! The church is lovely on the inside -- full of bright light and beautiful statues and possibly some relics of Saint Roch? Either way, definitely a cool final visit.

The Elisabeth Express resumed its patrimoine mission again this morning, after a well-deserved rest and a super hearty breakfast! We met some friends at Place de la Comedie before taking the tram to the southeast side of town. A 20-minute walk later, we arrived at our twelfth patrimoine destination -- le Château de Flaugergue.

I'd never heard of the chateau before this weekend, but the way the Journées du Patrimoine booklet described the building and its "remarkable" gardens, it sounded like a must-see! I've since learned that the chateau was built in 1696 and was one of the region's first folies. (A "folly" or folie is a highly decorative building that doesn't serve much real purpose.) Apparently, the region around Montpellier is full of these overly ornate homes, built by nobles or rich bourgeois during the Ancien Régime.

We got a tour of the chateau from the current owner, the Comte Henri de Colbert. The property has been in his family for a couple hundred years and the home is full of paintings of his ancestors, some of whom I'm pretty sure were like BFFs with Napoleon and fought in the American Revolutionary War or something. (Some details were lost in translation.)

After the tour, we had the chance to explore the grounds, which are divided into several different gardens. The main garden was restored by the current owner and combines French, Italian, and Iranian influences in an attempt to mimic the style that was popular when the chateau was constructed. I don't know about all that, but I can tell you that it sure is pretty!

Although the inside of the chateau was very impressive, we all found it pretty ostentatious. Although I guess when you come from an aristocratic French family, putting all your antique swords and paintings on display is sort of like hanging art on the fridge? Haha!

Still, my favorite part of the whole thing was the color of the building's shutters -- they were this pale blue that matched perfectly with the flowers planted in the front of the house! I could take or leave the rest of the chateau, but the shutters and the flowers ... they were pretty chouette. I'll definitely have to make a note to remember this color scheme when I grow up and have to decorate my chateau! (:

Happy camper!


  1. My feet are aching just following you along in this narrative! I'm so proud of you, whiny or peppy, for getting out there and being curious!


  2. Those were beautiful pictures!!