December 2005 issue

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Long overshadowed by the better known regions of Provence and the Côte d'Azur, Montpellier is now making its mark on the language travel map. Gillian Evans finds out why.

Despite the academic attractions of Montpellier’s 13th-century university and medical school, it has taken the city some time to rival other areas in the south of France – including Nice, Antibes, Marseille and the region of Provence – as a serious language travel destination. Over the last 10 years or so, Montpellier has become increasingly popular on the language travel scene, which has given rise to the establishment of a number of language schools. This, according to Virginie Courau at Accent Français, is no bad thing as there is “high competition among all schools to offer more efficient courses and better services”.

But that’s not the only reason growing numbers of language travellers choose to study in Montpellier each year. “With 300 sunny days a year, everybody can enjoy café terraces, street musicians performing around the pedestrian area, daily markets with typical Provence colours and the easy way of life of the south of France,” asserts Courau.

Indeed, as a study destination, it could be said that Montpellier has it all. “Montpellier is a very attractive destination for all age levels,” confirms Stefan Adenet-Kaven, Director of Institut Linguistique Adenet. “It is situated in the sunny south of France, has wonderful beaches just outside the city, is a typical student city – with 25 per cent of the 260,000 inhabitants being students – and has a stunning historical centre.” Another distinct advantage of Montpellier, according to Adenet-Kaven, is that the cost of living is cheaper than the French capital, Paris, and other major cities on the Cote d’Azur.

Despite its historic attributes – it is a city of quaint twisting medieval streets and pretty squares – Montpellier is one of the most progressive cities in the south of France with a modern tram system. “Montpellier is a dynamic town, cultural and economic centre of the vast Languedoc-Roussillon wine-growing region, with modern and extensive facilities for students and tourists alike,” states Barry Haywood, International Director at Eurolingua Institute. There is also a modern side to the city’s architecture. “We have the famous Antigone [area] (1), designed by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill,” says Haywood. “And lovely spaces, fountains and architecture leading from the multi-level Polygone commercial centre (2) down to the River Lez (3).”

Montpellier’s relaxed Mediterranean way of life has endowed the city with a lively outdoor scene, with cafés, bars and restaurants lining every square in the city. According to Courau, this gives students plenty of opportunity for sitting around “farniente” (literally “idling about”), which, she explains, is “a very Latin way to have a break on our sunny terraces”.

Ienke Keijzer at the Institut César Langues points out that the city’s pavement cafés are also a great place to observe French people. “There are nice places to sit and watch how the French people live and listen to their conversations – a very effective way to learn,” she says. Adenet-Kaven adds, “Our students enjoy all the student bars around Place Jean Jaurès (4), just a couple of minutes from our school. This lively square is the meeting point of local French students and our students - it is easy to make new friends. We even organise regular evenings out there with our teachers.”

Another popular student hangout, according to Anne Debard at AICF Alliance Internationale Conseil Formation, is the Place de la Comédie (5), a large oblong square with a fountain at its centre, the ornate 19th-century opera theatre (6) at one end and the attractive tree-lined Esplanade at the other. Apart from its most famous squares, Montpellier has many other options for “tasting” the city’s atmosphere. Jacques Soussana at Apre Institut Culturel Français says, “Other plazas are just as romantic with their gardens and cafés. Place de la Canourgue (7) is my favourite, and so is Place Sainte Anne (8) where the City Musical School is located, just close to a [popular] Irish pub.”

As well as bars and nightclubs, there are also other choices for evening entertainment. Courau mentions live music shows at Place Jean Jaurès and debates at one of the many café à theme, a speciality of Montpellier. “More than 20 cafés organise year round evenings where everyone can participate and meet with writers and artists of various fields to debate about society and cultural issues in a very open-minded and friendly atmosphere,” she says.

And, as if all that were not enough, there are plenty of other activities on offer. Haywood says, “Hardly a week passes without some kind of festival, show, market or exhibition.” Soussana continues, “Most events take place in the summer and their diversity meets everybody’s tastes: classical

Agent viewpoint

“Montpellier benefits from a fantastic sunny climate – you can sit outside in a t-shirt in February. There are beautiful beaches nearby and the region offers a wide range of interesting spots like Nîmes or the Camargue. As a popular university town, it attracts many French students, which makes Montpellier the youngest city of France. This is a great advantage for international students – it is easy to mix [with] and meet [French people] and practise French.”
Michael Eck, STA Travel, Switzerland

“I think our clients in general like the south of France more than other regions in France. Montpellier especially has two big advantages – it’s close to the Mediterranean Sea and it’s a lively university city. In comparison with other destinations in France, students say that the people are very open-minded in Montpellier. Overall, I think Montpellier is a fantastic destination as you can combine learning a language in a very nice city with a lot of other things, for example, swimming, horse riding, cultural activities, wine courses and shopping.”
Torsten Pankok, Carpe Diem Sprachreisen, Germany

“Japanese students like the south of France, but for example, in Nice, there are lots of Japanese people. So, students who would like to study in a city in the south of France with a mix of nationalities choose Montpellier. They enjoy sightseeing, and during their stay in Montpellier they have easy access to Arles, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Students are usually surprised at the number of college students in Montpellier and the academic atmosphere there.”
Masahiro Shinkawa, Nexsis, Japan  

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