As a gateway to South Western France, most people pass through Toulouse on their way to the Pyrenees or Languedoc without pausing, but it’s worth spending a few days here exploring the city.
© Rupert Parker
It’s a painless journey from the airport into town, as there’s a brand new tram which leaves from just outside the terminal and connects you to the metro network. Toulouse is known as the Pink City, as most of its buildings are brick, and the historic centre is sandwiched between the GaronnerRiver, to the west, and the Canal du Midi in the east. It’s pedestrian friendly, with many streets closed to cars, and nothing is more than a 20-minute stroll.
To get a flavour of the history, it’s worth wandering the narrow alleys, keeping your eyes pointed upwards, to take in centuries of architectural styles. For more focus there’s a handy guide from the tourist office, called Discovery Itineraries and each of the five walks takes you past places of interest. Of course there’s an Art and History tour, but I like Green Toulouse which takes you past the Canal du Midi, through the Botanical gardens and ends up at the Natural History Museum.
This is a city designed for the outside, so restaurant and bars populate the squares, ideal for people-watching or just taking a refreshing cold drink. Indeed, there’s a nightly ritual here where aperitifs are consumed between six and nine and then everyone drifts to the restaurants. As you’d expect duck and all its offshoots are a mainstay of the menus and best of all the frites are always homemade – even better they advertise that they’ll refill your plate if you want more. If you’ve had your fill of confit, foie gras and magret de canard then there are a huge number of Indian restaurants, fortunately none of them offering Duck Tikka. Lebanese and Turkish cafés also make their presence felt, and the standard is remarkably high.
Art lovers can browse the Toulouse Lautrecs in the Musee des Augustins, a converted 14th-century monastery, or wander across the river to sample modern art housed aptly in Les Abattoirs, previously the public slaughterhouse. Saint Étienne cathedral is well worth a look, but the strangest sight is the Black Madonna in Notre Dame de la Dourade Basilica. Her ornate dress changes, depending on the religious season, and, in previous times, pregnant women could borrow her belt, a charm supposedly ensuring a painless delivery. Most spectacular is the UNESCO site of Saint Sernin, one of the largest Romanesque churches in Europe, a major stop on the Way of St. James pilgrimage route.
© Rupert Parker
Toulouse is where Airbus assembles its planes and there are guided visits to the assembly line for the mighty Airbus 380. It’s a bit of a trek involving metro, tram and then a 20-minute walk, but well worth it. You start at the new Aeroscopia Flight Museum and you’re bussed across to the giant hanger where the planes are put together. They arrive here in bits but it only takes around eight days to assemble them using over 19 thousand rivets. From the viewing platform I see five planes in various states of construction and the list price, without engines or internal décor is a cool 428 million dollars. Oh, and you’ll have to wait two years for delivery.
The museum has a couple of Concordes, one of which you can go inside, last used by former President Giscard d’Estaing, and decked out accordingly. Next to it are an Airbus A330B and a reconstructed Bleriot monoplane. There are also fighter planes including a MIG-15, F-1046 Starfighter and a German Messerschmitt BF-109, all restored to their previous state. Most impressive is the large wide-bodied Super Guppy cargo plane, whose huge nose swings open to allow it to transport oversize freight. All these planes have been collected by a group of former airbus employees and you can spot the rest of their collection just across the road, exposed to the elements and desperately looking for a home.
Back in the centre, the Capitole, with its distinctive neo-classical façade, houses City Hall and dominates the square of the same name. The major shopping streets, home to all major brands, lead off to the south, with narrow alleys leading to tiny squares with their own clutch of cafes and restaurants. It’s worth visiting Galeries Lafayette and climbing to the top floor where there’s a great view over the rooftops. If you’re in town on Saturday morning there’s an interesting flea market around Saint Sernin, where you can pick up all sorts of bargains, before enjoying a leisurely lunch.
Toulouse is definitely a place to linger, and it’s a shame that most people only see the airport, so next time you’re passing through allow a few extra days to soak up the atmosphere.
© Rupert Parker