Upon arriving in Montpellier, hire a car or bike and take in everything this thriving university city has to offer. Enjoy hearty dishes of beans, mutton, pork or duck, and wash it all down with some local wine. Before heading home, pick up a cast-iron cassoulet dish.
By
Kirsty Manning-Wilcox

5 Jul 2013 - 10:40 AM  UPDATED 24 Sep 2013 - 9:36 AM

Bonjour from Montpellier
Montpellier is just 11 km from the Mediterranean in the heart of the Languedoc­–Roussillon region in the centre of southern France.

Why go?
Montpellier is a large, thriving university city, with more than 80,000 students, so it has a pumping bar, café and live music scene. The city site is more than 1,000 years old, hence the mix of old buildings and town squares alongside cutting edge architecture. The bustle, architecture, affordable fashion, strong arts culture and abundance of food venues make Montpellier a fabulous city to visit compared to some of the nearby sleepy tourist towns.

Must eat
Languedoc cuisine is heavier than in neighbouring Provence, as we move into a region with a penchant for gamey flavours. The Languedoc’s signature dish is cassoulet. This classic stew is best eaten in winter as it is a heavy dish of haricot beans, mutton, pork sausages and confit of duck or goose. Confit is where the duck or goose is cooked and preserved in its own fat. Wild boar is popular in autumn through to spring, as are black truffles and mushrooms. Head to the undercover market Les Halles Castellane for fresh produce. Goat’s cheeses are popular in the Languedoc, the most famous being the soft-rind Pélardon.

Seafood, of course, is still very popular, with salmon fillets and fish stews prevalent in many local bistros. If French cuisine is getting too much, Montpellier is one of the few places where international cuisine like sushi is readily available. One of the most-awarded (and most expensive) restaurants and boutique hotels in Montpellier is Le Jardin des Sens. The Mediterranean-style sensory garden surrounding the chic modern glass and steel restaurant is worth every cent. The menu showcases the best local produce and wine, and the prix fixe lunch menu is fab value.

Must drink
The wine region surrounding Montpellier is referred to as Coteaux du Languedoc and wines are predominantly carignan – with blends of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre. This blend makes big, red tannic wines with high acid and a rounded finish. There has been quite a struggle over the past few decades in the Hérault area in particular for winemakers to hold onto their patch on the mountainsides. Vines were ripped out for commercial orchards in the 1970s, and more recently there has been a push from giant American winemakers like Mondavi wanting to corporatise Languedoc vineyards. This clash was immortalised in the 2004 documentary Mondovino, where Aimé Guibert, the founder of Daumas Gassac (oft referred to as “Lafite of the South”), fought to retain his patch.

Best food souvenir
A cast-iron cassoulet dish.

Getting there and around
There are flights to Montpellier airport from the UK and most European cities and there is a 10-minute shuttle bus to the city. The Eurostar is seven hours from London, the TGV five from Paris and around three hours from Barcelona. Montpellier has a sophisticated bus, tram and even hourly car-hire systems. Bike-hire locations are everywhere, as befitting a large student population.

Recommended reading
Cuisine en Duo by Jacques and Laurent Pourcel.