Montpellier is a prosperous city in southern France and the capital of the Hérault department. The city is situated on hilly ground, 10 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea on the River Lez. The original name of the city was “Monspessulanus”. This is said to have stood for Mont Pelé (the Naked Hill), named because the local vegetation was so sparse.
The city is mostly built on two hills, Montpellier and Montpelliéret. Therefore, some of its streets have significant altitude differences and can be steep. Many streets are also very narrow and ancient, which gives it an intimate and old-world feel. Montpellier’s highest point is the Place du Peyrou, at an altitude of 57 metres.
This is one of the few large cities in France which does not have a Roman heritage or a Greek foundation. Instead, the heritage is medieval.
In the early Middle Ages, the nearby coastal town of Maguelone was a significant settlement, but constant pirate raids forced the settlers further inland.
Montpellier was founded under a local feudal dynasty. The first evidence of inhabitation appears in a document circa 985 AD. The ruling dynasty created the city by building a surrounding wall around two small hamlets and adding a castle within the boundary. The later addition of two towers to the original city walls was around the year 1200. These towers are still standing and are part of Montpellier’s heritage.
The city became prominent in the 12th century. It became a thriving trading centre, with links across the Mediterranean Sea to the rest of the world. Traders and noblemen could enjoy a rich, Jewish and cultural way of life. The city continued to flourish with a tradition of tolerance to Muslims, Jews and Cathars alike.
During the 19th century, Montpellier developed into an industrial centre. During the 1960s, the population grew dramatically after several French-Algerians resettled after Algeria gained independence from France. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city gained attention because of its major redevelopment projects.
It has been one of the fastest-growing cities in France in the past 25 years. In 2014, over half a million people lived in the area surrounding the city. More than 30% of the population are students attending one of the many local universities.