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Michelle: La Vieux Montpellier

January 20, 2011


There’s a certain charm to old cities. Flowers on the balcony, pastel colored shutters, coblestone streets, I love it all. Despite the thrill of travelling through time every time I leave the apartment, there is no avoiding the fact that old cities are often dirty cities. The gutter runs down the middle of the street, there seems to be an endless amount of graffiti and bien sur, il y a beaucoup de crottin sur la rue, beaucoup de crottin. Someone told me that the government is making great efforts to clean up all the dog poop on the street by instituting fines, but this seems to be to no avail as I narrowly missed countless piles while taking a guided tour of the city yesterday. But I guess I’ll just have to live with it. After all, it’s a small sacrifice for getting to walk past a 17th century aqueduct everyday.

Yesterday was a guided tour of the city in French. I can only write what I remember/understood so this is a test of my French right now.

Something that surprised me is that people say Montpellier is “young.” After all, this city only dates back to the 10th century. Other cities nearby, such as Nimes, were founded well before the common era.

We started at La Place de la Comedie, la centre-ville. This is the second downtown of Montpellier and it has greatly expanded since its origin. In a few years la centre-ville will move again to be next to the Sea. The landmark of this area is a fountain/statue called Les Trois Graces (The Three Graces). The three women on top depict the three muses from mythology, Aglea (splendor), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Thalia (good cheer).

One of the first buildings to be in this area has statues of two young boys representing the industries of Montpellier. The one on the left holds grapes to signify the wine production in the area. The wine from this area is Vin de Muscat. It’s a dry wine but still has a very fruity flavor. I recommend it. The boy on the right holds the serpent and staff symbolizing medicine. I’ll say more about that in a couple paragraphs.

Montpellier has the oldest medical school in France. Today it trains doctors and surgeons. However, when it was founded, surgeons and doctors were not in the same class. Doctors were academics who cured disease. In contrast, surgeons, were no more that human butchers. After a cadaver was done being dissected, it was hoisted up into the top tower. This dried out the body and prevented it from producing the stench associated with death.

Saint Roche is the patron saint of Montpellier. See his church below. In the second picture, you can see St. Roche and his dog on the red banner in the painting of a building facade (yes, that’s a painting on a wall, not an actual building facade). St. Roche is always depicted with his dog. There is a phrase in French, ils sont comme St. Roche et son chien (they are like St. Roche and his dog).It means that two people are inseparable. However, that phrase begs the question, who is St. Roche and who is his dog?

Perhaps though the most famous landmark in Montpellier is the Arc de Tripmphe. No, it’s not the same as the one in Paris. For one, it’s gold. Also it commemorates a different triumph. The inscription on the leg is in Latin but it roughly translates to: “Louis the Great (Louis XIV), whose 62 year reign brought peace on land and sea after a forty year war”

Below are pictures from the top of the Arc. After climbing 90 steps, we reached one of the (if not the) highest points of the city. I can almost see my house from there.

Rue Foche (the Champs Elysées of Montpellier)
Place de Peyrou

As I said, Montpellier has the oldest Medical school in Europe. When it was founded, it was the first and only medical school in Europe to accept Jewish students. In the last picture, you can see that many of the names of the first doctors are Jewish. This building was used for instruction up until the early 1900s. Now, students are taught at the Université Montpellier I.

Montpellier was (and I think is) home to a large Jewish population. There is a Jewish bath house used in the Middle Ages. It is connected to a natural spring so the water circulates and changes naturally. According to orthodox Judaism, Jewish women in Montpellier had to come here and bathe at least once a month to wash away their sins. Men only had to come once in their life and they would be clean. Often they would do this before a major life event such as marriage. It’s kind of cold in the bath house but it can be heated with torches. Because the water is considered holy, it is not allowed to be heated. That keeps the water at a chilly 15°C (60°F).

Although the tour was nice because it gave us exclusive access to some points in the city, such as the Jewish bath house and the top of the Arc, it was by no means comprehensive. In the next four and a half months, I’m sure I will discover some of the city’s gems not on the tour.

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