Belleval’s Dream: the Botanical Gardens of Montpellier

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Botanical Gardens, Jardin des plantes de Montpellier, Montpellier, France

Right in the heart of Montpellier, a skip away from the Cathedral, are the peaceful University-managed botanical gardens.  Visiting in the summer, you get a mixed experience:  it’s sure nice getting out of the heat by hiding under the trees, but a lot of plants aren’t exactly at their most interesting at this time of year.

And, as usual with my luck, large sections were shut due to renovations.

Established in 1593, these are France’s oldest botanical gardens.  The work was undertaken by the doctor Pierre Richer de Belleval, who wanted to create his own version of the prestigious botanical gardens in Padua and was granted permission to do so by Henri IV.  A new faculty seat was established for him, and Belleval began teaching anatomy in winter, and dealing with the plants in summer.  Well, apparently he tried to avoid the anatomy part of the deal as much as possible, which didn’t make him popular with his colleagues.

Actually, he wasn’t popular anyway.  It didn’t help that he wasn’t from the area, nor was it great that he started his degree in Montpellier, but received it in Avignon, nor was the fact that he was Catholic, surrounded by Protestants… oh, and he was personal physician of the king.  And he obviously frequently reminded his colleagues of this, because Belleval tried to get out of teaching by using the fair excuse that he was supposed to be creating a garden for the king.

In 1602, the garden – called the King’s Garden – was opened.  Its primary purpose was to be educational.  The Medical Garden was particularly important for teaching at the university, but other curiosities were grown too – and drew in visitors from far and wide.  Just as it was really getting settled, the civil war, and the ensuing siege of 1622, destroyed the garden.  Belleval eagerly rebuilt – largely with his wife’s money – and he continued working until he died ten years later, at which point his not-so-horticulturally savvy nephew, Martin Richer de Belleval, took over, and sadly the gardens became neglected.

If you are interested in the ups and downs of the gardens after this point, then please do follow this link: it will take you to a lovely website run by a fan of the gardens, who has written a series of very readable and fascinating posts on their history.

My understanding is that much of what we see now is from the 19th century, which includes the Martins greenhouse (closed) which is from 1860.

Anyway, the gardens still have lots of weird and wonderful plants and trees, as well as the usual herbs and more common flowers you’d expect from gardens like these.  The overall experience is charming, and you really feel that you are exploring as you move between different types of planting.

So In Summary

For me, the gardens provided an extremely pleasant oasis in the summer heat.  Although they aren’t huge, they do offer a good amount of space to explore, whether you are a botany buff or a casual visitor, and they are so attractively laid out, you do want to potter along the various pathways.  Because they’re free to enter, you get students from the university next door sitting round studying, and when we visited there was a chap practising the bagpipe in a quiet corner.  Well, it wasn’t quiet with him playing.  That was a surreal experience, and got Sister Chickpea and me up dancing our version of a Scottish reel with clumsy abandon.

Good times.

Further Information

The gardens are free to enter, and to see their opening hours check out their website (French only):

How To Get There

Located close to the Cathedral, the gardens can be easily walked to from the old town of Montpellier.  However, a tram also stops right outside. For local transport information, check out the local transport site (French only) – the link will take you to a map which shows the lines and bus stops:

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