With more than 300 days of sunshine, along with mountains, vineyards and beaches on its doorstep, Montpellier is full of activities to keep even the most discerning travellers inspired. From wine tours and axe throwing to spending a day in ‘prison’, there’s no shortage of things to do in this glorious city.
Though it enjoys smaller tourist numbers than its neighbours further east on the Côte d’Azur, Montpellier lacks nothing when it comes to things to do. This vibrant university city boasts both a Mediterranean climate and picturesque surroundings, making it the perfect backdrop to discovering the region’s wines, learning how to make delicate desserts and getting a bird’s-eye view from a glider plane.
What better way to see Montpellier and its surrounding region than from up above in a glider plane? Montpellier Gliding Club (Les Planeurs du Pic Saint-Loup) offer a 30-minute initiation flight for €90 (£80), which will see you soaring between altitudes of 1,350 and 3,000 metres (4,430 and 9,840 feet) and taking in the Grotte des Demoiselles cave, the Cirque de Navacelles canyon and the Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert abbey and village. The two-seat gliders have a tandem configuration with the pilot at the back, letting you feel like you’re in control – the initiation flight even allows the passenger to take control of the joystick to make turns themselves.
If you like the idea of flying but don’t have a head for heights, try the Twist’air free-fall simulator at the Odysseum outdoor shopping mall. Suitable for adults and children, Twist’air is similar to a wind tunnel – an instructor teaches you how to hover in the air, giving you the same sensation as a real skydive. Two adult discovery flights will set you back €55 (£48.50).
The Languedoc-Roussillon region, or Pays d’Oc, is responsible for more than a third of France’s total wine production, meaning that it would be almost rude not to go on a wine tour when in Montpellier. The city’s tourist office organises a range of wine-centred day trips: from exploring the vineyards in a 4×4 and hikes around Pic Saint-Loup mountain to cheese and wine or pairing courses and an introduction to white wine and oyster farming.
Laetitia Léger, development coordinator of the agricultural trade union Coordination Rurale (CR), highlights that the three main grape varieties around Pic Saint-Loup are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. Each July, Domaine de l’Hortus organises an outdoor food, music and wine festival called Hortus Live, selecting 10 winegrowers to showcase their portfolio. Past participants include Mas Gourdou, Château de Lascaux, Domaine Pech-Tort and La Chouette du Chai.
If wine isn’t your thing, turn your hand to beer at La BAF (Brasserie Associative de Figuerolles) – a home-brewing association made up of volunteers (the Baffeurs) who run free workshops, tastings (AperoBaf) and concerts. Anyone can join the association and you can even create your own recipe. The 135 unique recipes created to date include Bernadette gooseberry beer, La Combaf IPA and La BAF des Marmottes blonde beer with génépi herbal liqueur.
More athletic visitors to Montpellier in April may like to take part in France’s craziest fancy dress race. La Ruée des Fadas is an 8-12 km (5-7.5 mi) obstacle course created by Jérôme Bérard in Lattes, on the outskirts of Montpellier, and now held in all four corners of France. The course consists of 35 obstacles: mud baths, a climbing wall, underground tunnels, foam cannons, archery, rope swings and water slides, to name just a few. Entrants have to be over 16 years of age, but there is no minimum or maximum number of participants per team. The race is accessible to all levels, with the goal simply to have fun and raise money for a good cause – reservations can be made in advance online or paid on the day, and for every ticket sold the organisers donate €1 (£0.90) to charity.
Montpellier’s Prison Island experience is based on the French TV series Fort Boyard, where teams are put to the test to solve clues in order to escape a faux prison. Teammates are given tactical, technical and physical challenges to complete against the clock. The better you perform during a challenge, the more points you score. In the corridors, screens allow you to follow your score in real time and compare your progress with the other teams in jail. The venue in Mauguio is only the second one to open in France after Lille, and costs €17 (£15) for 60 minutes.
Ever fancied dressing up like a Viking and learning how to throw an axe? Now you can, thanks to Florent Maréchal, owner of Lance Ta Hache (Throw Your Axe). Having returned from Canada where he stumbled across axe throwing at Rage in Montreal, Maréchal decided to bring the concept back to Montpellier in Castelnau-le-Lez (tram stop La Galine on line #2), where it has become a runaway hit. Staff give guests safety instructions and training beforehand and then teach them how to throw an axe at a target in a box cage. There are three axes to choose from: the Tomahawk, the Zombie Hunter and the Bertha. The objective is like a game of darts – to score as many points as possible in five throws.
“After two or three throws, you get caught up in the game. It becomes addictive,” says Maréchal. A session for up to three people costs €51 (£45).
Instead of salivating over delicious desserts in the bakery window, why not attend a patisserie class and learn how to make your own? If you’re a macaron fiend, learn the art of macaron making with a two-hour lesson at Maison Roux on rue du Cheval Vert (€120 (£106) for two people) or L’Atelier d’Eléonore on Boulevard des Arceaux (€80 (£70.50), with the price per person reduced for larger groups). For other delectable pastries, head to a class at L’Atelier de l’Epicure on rue Durand (€65 (£57.25)), Passion Délices on Avenue de l’Europe (€50 (£44)) or Vanille ou Chocolat on rue de las Sorbes (€35 (£31)).
Tristan Auffray, co-founder of Maxxi Beignet, employs 100 staff who sell ice cream, coffee, doughnuts and chou chou (toffee peanuts) on the beach – their recognisable red carts have become a staple of beach days around Montpellier. “I’ve got a sweet tooth, so it’s hard to stay in shape when deciding on toppings for my doughnuts, but my favourites are Tropézienne–style, based on the tarte de Saint-Tropez dessert pastry (filled brioche); the doughnuts sold on La Grande-Motte Beach; and those found at Loulou Beignet, in Palavas.”
Bring together physical wellness and culture by taking part in a pilates class surrounded by artworks. The Musée Fabre – which holds an extensive collection of art from the 15th century onwards – hosts a one-hour pilates class once a month (except during school holidays) with Marie Pargneaux of Esprit Pilates. “I have been a pilates teacher for five years. I trained in contemporary dance and studied cultural mediation at university, which gave me the idea of organising pilates sessions in cultural spaces, bridging the gap between the movement of the body and art,” says Pargneaux.
For a rare glimpse into life in Montpellier during the 13th century, visit the remnants of a Medieval synagogue and its ceremonial bath (mikvah) on rue de la Barralerie. The listed historical monument is accessible only by guided tour with the tourist office but offers a rare glimpse into what life was like in the town and the role the Jewish community has played in the development of Montpellier. The mikvah is situated in the heart of what was once the Jewish quarter, and is one of the best preserved in Europe. To get here, take tramline #1 or #2 to Comédie.