Having endured the footsteps of some of history’s most imposing figures (including Nostradamus) during its 1000-year-old existence, the cobblestone streets of Montpellier’s medieval quarter are the bearers of many a secret. Basking in the glow of the Mediterranean sun on the southeast coast of France, these days the city’s slow pace of life and temperate seaside climate have made it an enclave for the creatively inclined, its streets filled with a lively energy fuelled by a strong culture of music, dance, art and general joie de vivre.
The echo of my footsteps against the ancient cobblestones bounces about the walls of the narrow street in the heart of Montpellier’s medieval quarter. The ancient neighbourhood is an undulating cluster of winding, slender laneways, clandestine plazas, and secret gardens known only to those who live around their periphery.
A gentle trickle of a fountain soon joins the rhythm of my footsteps. It’s 10:00 am but the streets are virtually empty; in true Mediterranean style, it seems the town’s denizens truly appreciate the virtues of a leisurely sleep-in. The inherently slow pace of life is infectious. My wandering soon becomes a gentle mosey as I stop to peek through hidden archways, trail my fingertips along crumbling walls and marvel at the swirls of the Baroque architecture that coexist amiably with stoic medieval structures. With no particular place to be, I allow myself to get lost, strolling aimlessly while enjoying the pinch of the autumn chill against my cheeks, as an ochre palette of leaves flutters delicately to the ground.
Soon life begins to stir from within the venerable walls and I am roused from my daydream by the sonorous lilt of a cello emanating from a window above me. As I stroll further, I soon realise that an infectious musical spirit pulses throughout the city. A suited man sporting a jaunty cravat wanders past me singing happily to himself (and anyone in earshot). Another fedora-clad gent whistles a carefree ditty as he pedals his rattling old bicycle along the uneven street. A slender young dancer, well-worn ballet shoes slung casually from her shoulder, glides gracefully along to a dulcet melody in her imagination.
A few hours later, passing clouds begin to mute the sparkle of the Mediterranean sun and I take refuge from the pique of the chill in a little brocante, or vintage furniture shop. Filled to the brim with preloved treasures of all sorts, from old baking utensils, to weathered tomes and a weary Underwood typewriter, the petite enclave is akin to stumbling upon the menagerie of possessions belonging to an aesthetically astute great aunt.
A tiny room off to the side manifests as an intimate cafe space – a sundry cluster of tables, chairs and banquettes, bathing in the glow of elegant chandeliers that once hung above the soirees of someone equally as genteel. Edith Piaf croons from hidden speakers tucked away behind the collection of weathered homewares, making the entire setting irresistibly French. I take the opportunity to indulge in a spot of epicurean respite, tucking into an almond and chocolate tart made all the more decadent by lashings of raspberry coulis.
Later I wander back to my apartment as the late afternoon glow peeks from behind the clouds. A grand flock of birds embarks on a graceful aerial routine, soaring and twirling in perfect unison against the setting sun. I pass a group of dapper old gents playfully cajoling each other over a game of petanque and glasses of pastis. They doff their flat caps gallantly in my direction, wishing me a bon après-midi before returning to their friendly bout of boules.
I arrive at the imposing front door of my building, an ageing beauty that is part of what was once a 17th-century convent, and later used as a prison during Napoleon’s reign, but now enjoys a more pleasant existence as the home of Montpellier’s dance company. I plod up the steep, spiral staircase – my weary legs thankful that my abode is on the first floor – and revel in the cosy burst of warm air as I open the door. A few minutes later, as the kettle boils contentedly, I nudge open the tall windows that look out over the streetscape below. The compact girth of the street means I have a perfect view into my neighbour’s kitchen across the way and we exchange pleasantries from our respective sides of the street.
My hands wrapped around my steaming cup of tea, I settle into the large nook of the windowsill, perched above the goings on below. As I take in the charming details of my tiny French dwelling, I imagine the countless people who might have taken a similar perch on this windowsill during its centuries of existence. Thoughts of the conversations, the dreams, the memories and yearnings that have taken place within these walls are a strange comfort. I feel honoured to be playing a small role of my own in the story. Settling back into the window frame, I savour the moment, closing my eyes as the gentle caress of a piano echoes through the street.