MONTPELLIER: CROSSING BORDERS, MAKING CONNECTIONS

Our home in Gran Alacant lies in what was once the southern part of the lands of the ancient crown of Aragon. Aragon also included the famous County of Barcelona which is said to have lent the kingdom its famous emblem of four red stripes on a gold background. In early mediaeval times the territory of the kings of Aragon stretched north along the Mediterranean coast and over the Pyrenees mountains into what is now France. In March we visited friends in the beautiful French city of Montpellier and were surprised to find a few remaining links between the Spanish and French lands of the Kings of Aragon.

By the way, we took advantage of the fact that it is now possible to travel cheaply by high speed train between the cities of Spain and France. All that was needed was a change of train in Madrid to pick up an express over the border and into the heart of the region of France known as Occitania, famous for troubadours and Cathars!

The ancient city of Montpellier contains the largest preserved mediaeval city in France. It is a maze of winding streets filled with ancient buildings, cafes and restaurants. Most of the buildings have later facades but upon entering one immediately notices the fine stone ribbed vaults forming the ceilings of many of the shops and bars, a clue to their ancient origins.

It is this early mediaeval period that provides the link between Montpellier and our southern Spanish home. In 1208 Montpellier was the birthplace of one of the most important Spanish kings; James the 1st of Aragon, known as “the Conqueror”. James is the reason why Valencian is spoken as the native language of our area because it was he who conquered the muslim city of Valencia and the lands south along the Spanish mediterranean coast. After some toing and froing between the kings of Aragon and Castile most of our province of Alicante became the southernmost part of the crown of Aragon, speaking the Catalan/Valencian language. Montpellier also had direct relevance to this process because the military problems encountered by James’ father in his French lands directly led to the Kings of Aragon turning their attention southwards to expand into the muslim territories of southern Spain.

Over a period of little more than 100 years the focus of the Kings of Aragon shifted from Occitania to our neighbourhood. The City of Montpellier eventually became part of the subsidiary Aragonese Kingdom of Majorca until it was finally sold by the King of Majorca to the French crown in 1349 thereby severing the last major sovereign link between the Iberian kings and their French feudal lands. It is tempting to wonder whether the kings of Aragon would have pushed as far south as Alicante if they had not encountered such problems holding onto their power in Southern France. However, the outlines of what would become the countries of France and Spain were being drawn with the Pyrenees as the dividing line. Spanish kings turned their ambitions southwards, thus ending the shared mediaeval trans-pyrenean world that had existed since the time of Charlamagne.

It would be almost 450 years before another famous Spaniard made a significant mark on the city of Montpellier. In the late 1970s the city authorities planned an ambitious urban renewal project, the architect they employed was the famous Catalan postmodernist architect Ricardo Boffil. We have previously written about his early work in Calpe (March 2021) but his Montpellier project, Antigone, is on a much bigger scale. Using classical architectural language and styles Boffil created one of Europe’s most striking 1980s urban environments, which successfully brought back life to the site of former factories and military installations. The Antigone project covers 36 hectares and took over 10 years to complete, becoming in the process a new signature part of Montpellier to rival the ancient Aragonese mediaeval city centre once ruled by the same kings who had ruled Boffil’s home city of Barcelona. Ricardo Boffil’s central philosophy was that the civilisation of the Mediterranean consisted of cultural links between the different peoples and civilizations that ringed the sea. The monumental deconstructed classicism of his Montpellier project confronts the visitor with questions about style, meaning, provenance and appropriation; it is a perfect postmodern storm and we loved it!

A visit to Montpellier challenges the history we think we know about the identity of our countries and even the style of our own architecture. We recommend everyone to hop on a train and go explore the former lands of the Kings of Aragon!


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