Le centre historique

The relative smallness of Europe is somehow surprising. It took only about 5 hours of high-speed (TGV) train travel (plus a 2h layover) to get from Brussels to Montpellier, on the south coast of France. High speed rail seems to me one of the most efficient ways to travel such distances. Unlike air travel, there’s no bottleneck of security checks, and no need to get to the station more than 15 minutes before departure, meaning it’s often faster as well. Also, it feels more humanly relatable, the scenery goes by quickly but you can at least observe and keep track of where you are. No jetlag. Often more space to move around.  

I arrived in Montpellier around 7pm. It was dark, and had been raining. I considered taking a cab to my rented apartment, but that felt like a cop-out. Anyway, the rain had let up.  So I strapped my suitcase onto my bike and set out with my Google map to find, first, the location to pick up the keys to the apartment, and then the accommodation itself. Like a sort of treasure hunt, it felt like a small victory when I completed each step successfully, finally arriving at a nondescript building in a residential neighbourhood, which nevertheless seemed clean, secure and quiet. The air was fragrant with some kind of eucalypt or blossoms, and although not warm, it was mild, and I didn’t need my down jacket or gloves. 

The next day I cycled into the historic city centre. One of the benefits of traveling with my bike is that I can stay several km outside the city centre quite easily. There was a tram in this case, but I didn’t need to worry about schedules and tickets. After Brussels, which I found cramped and a bit sooty, Montpellier felt lush and freshly washed, with a lot more trees and greenery. Space to breathe.  

So, what is this place, Montpellier? I won’t recap all its history (partly because I haven’t researched it in depth), but I think it’s helpful to know some basics. It was established as a trading centre in 985.  In 1165, a Rabbi described the city:

“This is a place well situated for commerce. It is about a parasang [6 kilometers] from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael, the land of Algarve, Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great, from all the land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia, and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence.”

Along with spices from the East came medicinal uses of plants, with three main influences – Jewish, Arabic and Christian – leading to the exchange and development of medical practice. The medical school was given official papal recognition in 1220 and is still in operation today, making it one of the world’s oldest. Learning this, I thought of my grandfather, Dr. Gordon Townsend. He was an orthopaedic surgeon, not a medical doctor, but I thought he would be interested, and so I stopped in for a look on his behalf. 

Montpellier School of Medicine
Inside the vaunted halls of the medical school

The medical school was famous for its openness in accepting students of any background. However, the first female doctor did not graduate from here until 1878. The busts of distinguished male professors populate the halls, and in an alcove behind one of them I discovered a faded newspaper photo of Agnes McLauren tucked in a corner. Her thesis was “Etude sur les flexions de l’Uterus”. She came to Montpellier as it was considered “scandalous” to study medicine in her home country of Scotland. She later practiced in India and France, mainly treating women and children, often free of charge. Coincidentally, just the other day I read an article about how lack of representation of women in the medical field, and as research subjects, leads to continued misdiagnosis, suffering and death of women to this day. Some things take a long time to change.  

Today, Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France with a population of just under 280,000, and is growing quite rapidly. This was evident in the large number of cranes and construction sites I saw. There are three universities in the area today, so it’s still an academic centre. 

The historic city centre has narrow, winding alleys lined with shops and restaurants, stone streets, small plazas and several large ones, churches, and a mix of architectural styles from medieval remnants to the 19th century.

The city restricted cars in the historic centre some decades ago. The effect is like taking a step back in time, and very calming. You can turn off the hyper-vigilant peripheral vision and let go of constant shoulder checking to take a step into the street, and instead immerse yourself in the immediate surroundings. The curving streets and sloping topography created a sense of discovery around each corner. Maybe the novelty of such places will wear off if I spend enough time in Europe, but this sort of human experience, once just part of daily life, is pretty much totally lacking in most of North America. 

Montpellier also has good transportation and bike infrastructure, along with interesting urban design – more on that in my next post.

All in all, the vibe here remains culturally diverse, historically rooted and yet forward looking.