For the young traveler, it is hard to imagine a more exciting destination than the city of Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France. In May of this year, I took the opportunity to travel to France to attend the International Extreme Sports Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe.

Held annually in Montpellier, the festival hosts 1,500 of the finest extreme sports athletes on Earth who compete in a range of sports, including BMX and mountain biking, wakeboarding, skateboarding and rollerblading. For this five-day festival, nearly 300,000 people from all over the world come to the city to catch a glimpse of the jaw-dropping flips and daredevil stunts that take place on the banks of the Lez River.

Already a lively place, owing to its large student population, Montpellier bursts with an atmosphere of festivity throughout the week, as young folks can be seen at all hours of the night engaged in merry-making. Founded over 1,000 years ago, the city has a long history of vibrant student life. One of the original college towns, it is home to the oldest, still active medical school in the Western world. And today, over a quarter of its population is enrolled in one of the city’s numerous universities.

The curious traveler will find no shortage of entertaining amusements. One can get lost in the labyrinthine web of the medieval streets that make up the historic center and discover an abundance of little restaurants and boutiques housed under the vaulted ceilings of 700-year-old buildings.

For the modern thrill seeker, a short tram ride takes you to the recently completed Odysseum. This vast complex features a multiplex cinema, an ice-skating rink, a planetarium and an arboretum with flora and fauna of the Amazon rainforest.

Just a short jaunt to the outskirts of the city one can visit the vineyard at Chateau de Flaugergues. The chateau is home to the Count de Colbert, a gentile elder man with furry eyebrows and a warm smile who passes his days entertaining wine lovers in the courtyard of an old converted farmhouse that now houses his wine stock.

The estate, which has been in his family for over 400 years, is filled with gardens of Persian, English and French styles. A perfectly manicured garden forms the entranceway to the main house where the count still lives. Only the first two stories are open to the public to tour.

The halls of the old house are filled with spirits from the past. The rooms contain the original furniture and family heirlooms from hundreds of years ago. Enormous velvet tapestries featuring biblical scenes in fine detail adorn the walls.

In one room the paintings of long-deceased family members are hung. To gaze into their eyes one feels the eerie sensation of their presence.

The long history of French culture is felt everywhere throughout the city, but it is perhaps best experienced in the food. I was aware of the mystique around French cuisine before my trip, but nothing could prepare me for the explosions of taste pleasure that erupted in my mouth from the first bite of a chocolate croissant to the last slice of foie gras. To eat a fine French meal is to be at the receiving end of thousands of years of refinement.

It is easy to observe that the enjoyment of fine wine and delicious food is a central part of the culture. So when in France one is advised to be courageous when ordering. I shall never forget my first experience of “assiette d’os moelle,” which translates crudely to “bone marrow.” It is cooked and served inside the backbone of a cow and presented with a small spoon with which to scoop out the marrow. Upon my first taste a warm feeling boiled up inside of me and a devilish grin appeared on my face. Unbelievably delicious!

Eating amazing food needn’t be pricy. A trip to any one of the outdoor markets around the city allows the budget traveler to eat well while offering insight into a culture, which reveres the culinary arts. A visit to the Halles Jacques Coeur market near the historic center is bound to dazzle you with its displays of exotic cheeses, fresh meats and fish, varieties of seasonal fruits and fresh baked goods, all of which can be purchased onsite.

One of the great pleasures of Montpellier is the ease of travel. The citywide tram service, TAM, can take you almost anywhere for a nominal fee. They even have a line that caters specifically to the nightclub circuit and runs all night. Pick up a ‘city card’ at the tourist office for free public transportation and other perks.

Just as good is the Vélomagg, a citywide program of public biking that offers rental bikes for a small fee. With over 150 kilometers of bike paths and 50 pick-up/drop-off stations, this method for getting around proves both practical and fun.

As much excitement as the city offers, an excursion to the surrounding countryside offers many of its own delights. Known as the Hérault, the countryside is home to small medieval towns nestled between beautiful mountains of prehistoric rock formations.

It turns out the French, with their passion for all things refined, have an equal enthusiasm for outdoor activities. To get the proper experience you could be in no better hands than the Aupalya ( agency, which specializes in personal tours of hiking trails, mountain climbing, biking and thrilling zip line rides. They even offer kayak tours along a meandering river through towns and forests. There’s only a few raging rapids, but falling in the water is the fun part!

It must be said that the best part of Montpellier and the surrounding area is the people, whose manners and friendliness contradict the reputation of their compatriots. Located just off the Mediterranean Sea the Languedoc-Roussillon region enjoys the offshore breezes of the Sirocco winds and a climate of sunshine year round. There is a sweetness to life here that is felt in the temperament of the people who are as warm and gracious as the weather.

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