On a well know UK expats forum someone recently asked about the best places where to move in southern France. One member somehow emphatically replied “Montpellier, Montpellier, Montpellier !”.
Is actually Montpellier the trendy town to move in? Known as a vibrant city where students can fully exploit their partying capabilities Lo Clapàs as it is dubbed in occitan (the rocky mound) is more than that.
With around 280,000 inhabitants it is the 8th most populous town in France and one of these few French cities with more than 100,000 dwellers that saw their population steadily growing since 1945. As its late mayor Georges Frêche once described it, la Surdouée (the Wonder-kid) has a lot of fancying sides for house hunters looking for sea & sun without missing culture and entertainment. It has also some dark sides.
Living with the sea
Montpellier’s first attraction for tourists and house hunters is the vicinity of the Mediterranean sea. The nearest beaches are about 10 km away form the city center and just a little more than 5km from southernest Port-Marianne district. There are well developed resorts with bars and restaurants like Palavas or Carnon and more secluded places like Petit Travers and Grand Travers (between Carnon and La Grande Motte) for those in search of quieter places surrounded by nature. The easiest and most convenient way to reach the seashore is the tramway (Line 3), while driving often turns into a nightmare, especially during the summer season.
In fact tramway Line 3 is a critical axis for beach addicts and families with teenagers who don’t want to turn into “beach volley moms”.
Sea goes with sun. The Montpelliérains as the city’s inhabitants are called enjoy an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes of bright sun every day, well ahead of France’s average of 4 hours 45 minutes. No need to explain that the city is a magnet for north European pensioners.
But, with the sun comes the heat and with average maximum temperatures nearing 30°C-86°F in July and August Montpellier is a hot place. It may even become a serious issue for people suffering from excessive heat. When the sea warms up and damp warm winds blows into the city, the felt air temperature is hardly bearable.
If sunnny days are plenty, rain is an exceptional phenomenon there with only 60 rain days per year. Nevertheless, the region regularly experience “cevenol episods” when clouds are blocked by the Cévennes mountains making rain pour over the city for a brief period of time. This leads to regular autumn floodings, especially in the districts bordering the Lez river.
Wind at last, a well known nuisance for the region (cf. Living with the winds) is not resented the same way in Montpellier, protected from Mistral and North wind by the same Cévennes mountains.
Despite the region’s mild winters, a good thermal insulation is required to avoid an excessive use of air conditonning. Cooling a badly insulated house in Montpellier can rapidly become more expensive than heating one in a cold place like Aberdeen. This is especially important for XXth century properties built before the Diagnostics de performance énergétiques-DPE were introduced (2006). These French equivalent to EPC assess a property consumption class for heating AND cooling it. If the property is ranked less than C, expect heavy cooling costs as temperature in Montpellier can reach the 40°C -104°F.
Living young in Montpellier
One inhabitant out of five in Montpellier is a student while one out of two is less than 30 years old. There are two universities in Montpellier and a number of colleges, including the world second oldest Faculty of Medicine, founded 1220.
More than 70,000 students are said to live, study, shop and party in Montpellier. As a consequence, the local dress code is rather casual but with style.
Although universities are mostly located in the northern districts, the city atmosphere is largely dependant on this population. In addition to a thrilling and noisy night life around the famous Place de la Comédie, the younger part of the population and the additional summer dwellers have made Montpellier a great city for exhibitions and festivals. Among the most famous are the Montpellier festival of modern dance, the Printemps des Comédiens (Actors’ Spring Festival) and the Comédie du Livre (a book festival on the place de la Comédie).
The cultural and festive life is concentrated in the Quartier de l’Ecusson, the partly medieval city center. This charming area with its centuries old mansions is a tricky honey pot for house hunters who forget that life is just not a never ending party. A night viewing during the season is strongly recommended in order to identify the quietest and tidiest areas where old stones lovers can still find classy properties with no elevator but very high ceilings in a friendly environment.
Note that the city center is only accessible by car for dwellers with a valid parking authorization. Montpellier is reputed for its trafic jams among the worst in France. As shown on the picture below, Montpellier’s city center is surrounded by “black spots” and only the Nort West of the city is immune from trafic congestion. Disregard of its motorists for elementary driving and parking rules as well as courtesy only make things worse.
Consequently, as most private companies are established in that central area, moving to Montpellier for business reason expose to a serious amount of stress.
La vie de quartier (district life)
The city of Montpellier is divided into 7 districts (quartiers):
Montpellier-Centre including Écusson, place de la Comédie and the railway station, where all four tramway lines cross. Surrounding the quartier de l’Écusson nice lively corners offer an array of choices for house hunters, from period houses in Saint-Roch area, little villas with nice gardens in les Aubes, trendy lofts around the Arceaux or plenty of green spaces near Pitot.
Croix-d’Argent, located in the South West of the city is a rapidly developing district, for those eager to buy a modern condo.
Les Cévennes. A lower-middle class district with no distinctive aspect. The Petit Bard area, which is part of the district, is considered a socially disadvantaged area.
Mosson. Once the poorest district in town and quite far from the centre, this district is slowly changing with its connection to two of the city tramway.
Hôpitaux-Facultés. Home to universities and public offices, this residential area is a bit too quiet for socialites
Port-Marianne. Despite its name the booming new district is not a harbour. With plenty of new modern residential buildings and shopping malls easily accessible through three tramway lines, it is a lively area only 5 km away from the sea.
Prés d’Arènes. This residential area is very near to the A9 motorway, which makes it the door to Montpellier.
If north Europeans recently discovered Montpellier’s upsides, they were not the first. The city has been a magnet for almost 20 years while the student population was on a steady rise. This pushed property prices and rents upside. Although Montpellier is not as expensive as cities in Provence such as Aix en Provence, Marseille or Nice, with an average price of 3100 € per m2 it is certainly the most costly city around the Golfe du Lion (the western part of the French Mediterranean coast).
Another issue facing the city is a high rate of unemployement, an acute worry for the numerous young people living permanently in the city. Around 20% of the population is jobless and consequently this situation has worrying consequences on security. In the city centre gangs of young unemployed are often seen roaming, in a wary coexistence with a consequent number of tramps with their dogs, attracted by the fine weather and the opportunity to beg tourists.
Therefore, for UK people in need of a job to support their new life in France, Montpellier is not a good choice.
The other issue that cannot be put under the carpet is immigration. More than 15 % of the Montpelliérains were born with another nationality, that is more than twice above national average. Although the late region Midi-Pyrénées (now Midi-Pyrénées – Languedoc-Roussillon) was known for its balance between European migrants, among them a lot of North Europeans pensioners, and migrants from Africa, mostly from Morocco there is a statistically aknowledged and visible concentration of migrants from Maghreb in the city of Montpellier. This situation has fueled the extreme right vote and in the 2015 regional elections with 23 % of the Montpellier constituents voting for the Front National.
Montpellier or not Montpellier ?
Montpellier certainly deserves its good reputation amid European house hunters looking for a Mediterranean way of life. Montpellier offers sea, sun, fine architecture, outdoor entertainment and a large choice of places to visit, bars and restaurants.
But unlike other cities surrounding the Mediterranean its is a victim of its success. Overcrowded and having difficulties to cope with the social and ethnic diversity of its population, Montpellier is getting more and more clustered with students and the wealthy bourgeoisie progressively pushing families and less advantaged population towards the city outskirts.
Foreign house hunters should thus expect fierce competition as Montpellier welcomes more than 300 new inhabitants each month. Due to the complexity of the social geography as summarily exposed before, they should be ready to spend a sufficient amount of time visiting the city at day and at night, walking and driving along its streets. They may get a stroke and yell “Montpellier, Montpellier, Montpellier” or just run away, as Lo Clapas is certainly not the heaven some advertise but a vibrant town full of French southern spirit, dullness exact opposite.