For the warmth of the early Mediterranean spring and the light which sharpens the focus of France’s most seductive city. Elegant, sensual and insurgent, Montpellier has been cultured for 1,000 years, with undertows of irony leavening the whole. And if you fancy some excitement, take in the International Festival of Extreme Sports – skateboarding, rollerblading, BMX, wakeboarding and much else – from May 8-13 (fise.fr). Fly there with easyJet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick.
Palatial maison d’hôte Baudon de Mauny (1), hidden behind an inconspicuous door in the old town, has vast rooms and excellent breakfasts (doubles from £108). Bang central, the three-star Hotel d’Aragon (2) comes on like a modestly noble town-house. It’s suitable for the civilised (hotel-aragon.fr; doubles from £86).
City map – Montpellier
Start at the Comédie (3). The vast, car-free square is theatre to the sunlit surge of southern life, overseen by 18th and 19th century grandeur. Then plunge into the medieval centre. Bourgeois mansions give way to techno-bars, ethnic jewellers and conspiratorial streets where students – Rabelais and Auguste Comte among them – have scurried since the 13th-century.
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The Fabre museum (4) is one of France’s finest. Until June 3, the Muses et Grisettes exhibition focuses on Montpellier women through the ages (museefabre.montpellier3m.fr).
Unlock a bike from a Vélomagg cycle station – it’s simple; look on tam-voyages.com – and pedal the six-mile cycleway past lagoons and flamingos, to seaside Palavas. This is your time for sun and sand.
The Rue de l’Ancien Courrier (5) offers affordable fashion, while towards the Rue de l’Aiguillerie (6), retail gets markedly more funky. Pomme Reinette, the old-time toy shop, will have children of the Forties through to the Eighties weeping with nostalgia for temps perdu.
Best wine bars are Glouglou (7) at 27 Rue Pila St Gély, the loungier Verre à Soi (8) at 17 Rue St Guilhem (both have good by-the-glass ranges) and Enfants Rouges (9) at 3 Plan Duché.
Presently top of my Montpellier list is Les T’ocqués (10), a husband and wife outfit of charm, invention and low prices. Tucked into a small old town street, it’s hard, but rewarding, to find. Do book (0033 467 634286); two courses €24/£21; three €29.
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Off the map
Montpellier has the oldest continuously operating medical school in the world, and its anatomy museum is conceivably the most gruesomely illuminating. Cling to the notion that this is educational, but it’s still tough for the faint-hearted. Available only on a guided tour (€14, montpellier-france.com).