Toulouse grows on you, rather agreeably. It was formerly the capital of a vast region united by the Occitan dialect, and this tradition still prevails, notably in street names, which are bilingual, and the way it proudly defends its Occitan ancestry.
Any expectations of city grandeur are soon dispelled as you explore this ancient sprawl of narrow streets and squares, grand and small, on the banks of the Garonne. A southern city, within site of the Pyrenees, and the fourth city of France, Toulouse is open to influences from Spain and, architecturally at least, Italy, too. Marketing PR proclaims that the quality of life and economic dynamism attract more than 18,000 new people each year, seduced by the region and its European metropolis capital, which successfully couples development with an easy-going lifestyle.
There is an energy about the city that seems boundless, a simmering vibrancy and mildly frenetic atmosphere that can leave you breathless. Much of that is to do with the annual influx of over 100,000 university students – the third largest such gathering in France, after Paris and Lyon – which unavoidably brings a certain joie-de-who-cares to the city. Equally, it brings impromptu street entertainment in the form of musicians, fire-jugglers, trick cyclists and bizarrely dressed individuals bent on some idiosyncratic mission beyond the ken of most onlookers.
This remarkable city is a paradox: nothing changes, and yet there is constant change. The core heritage lies in its architecture, its life-giving association with the Garonne and that more recent watercourse, the Canal du Midi, which traverses it, and in its many sub-districts, each with tangible individuality. And yet new state-of-the-art hotels – like the Citiz – appear, to take the place of ageing venues, and extensive renovation is under way in the district of Carmes. Elsewhere, it seems, someone is constantly investing time in thinking up new ideas that promote the city, not least, in 2010, the artistic installations along the Canal du Midi that celebrated the life of canal-designer Pierre Paul Riquet, who lies buried beneath an unimposing slab in the cathedral of St Étienne, and never quite lived long enough to see his beloved inspiration reach the sea.
Just an hour’s flight from Paris, and around one-and-a-half hour’s drive from the Mediterranean or the Pyrenean ski resorts, the city, with a core population of 445,000 (1.1 million in the wider metropolitan area), has much to attract those who are happy living in cities, not least its 160 parks, gardens and squares, 79 sports grounds, 1,000 hectares of leisure areas, 1€ per day cycle hire, and regular food and craft markets. This is the capital of France’s largest region, Midi-Pyrenees, and it shows. There is no sycophantic nodding in the direction of Paris or Lyon, just a business-like enthusiasm, always in touch with reality.
Walking is the best way to see the city, especially the charming area of narrow streets (ruelles intimes) in the St Etienne district around the Place des Carmes (see Walking Tour). Pedestrianisation of the city centre is moving apace, but you can also choose to hop on the free electric shuttle service, the Tisséo, if you want to explore the city centre less energetically.
If you can stay in Toulouse for only a few hours, be sure to start by visiting the splendid monuments that have made the city famous. Toulouse has over 600 acres of historical sites, the most extensive in France. If you can, try to include a night tour so that you can explore the magical lighting background of the “Plan Lumière” illuminations!
Like most cities, Toulouse has its quota of ‘must see’ buildings, and those in this energetic place really are worth seeking out. Central to the city is the Capitole, a huge, ornate building named after the ‘capitouls’, or consuls, who once ran the city. Today, it still houses the administrative machinery of city government, amid galleries of fine art in the form of wall paintings and statues; it’s all splendidly roccoco, and not surprisingly in demand for weddings even if that demand sometimes assumes the semblance of a matrimonial assembly line.
In front of the Capitole, the huge square – lined with rather plainly designed red-brick buildings in order not to detract from the magnificence of the main building – is the site of three markets each week, typically bustling affairs. Not far away, the Basilica Saint-Sernin is a seriously impressive building with styles reminiscent of the abbey-church at Conques in Aveyron. By contrast the church of the Jacobins has a most surprising and simple construction, accomplished in a number of stages. Its stained glass windows are quite modern, bright and colourful, bringing muted radiance to the interior. And tucked away through a door lie the cloisters, a place of peace and quiet. Here, during the autumn months the splendid acoustics are put to good effect during the Piano aux Jacobins festival.
Not far from the centre of things the Pierre d'Assézat mansion is a magnificent 17th-century town mansion built by Nicolas Bachelier for Pierre d'Assézat who made his fortune from woad, a plant used in dyeing. The building houses the Fondation Bemberg, a private museum with a very interesting permanent collection of paintings, bronzes and objets d'art.
As well as the Garonne, the city has its share of another ancient aquatic thoroughfare, the Canal du Midi, which links the Med and the Atlantic. Designed by Béziers-born Pierre-Paul Riquet the canal is today classified as a World Heritage Site. Built under Louis XIV, it is the oldest operational canal in Europe, and provides a chance to see the city from a boat tour, or to use its banks for cycling or walking.
Just outside the centre lies the Cité de l'Espace. Total immersion is guaranteed in the centre's two auditoriums equipped with the latest in modern sound and image technology. The IMAX cinema (with its giant screen and 3D glasses provided) and Planetarium (360° circular screen and astronomic simulator) mean that visitors are no longer merely spectators of the skies, but find themselves actually IN Space!
Within the grounds themselves, you'll find an unusual range of lifesize spacecraft. Climb on board the Soyuz 1st generation spacecraft and an exact replica of Mir, the famous space station in which many Russian cosmonauts have been trained.
Of course, there is so much more to see and appreciate; it is a very vibrant and enterprising city, constantly updating itself. No matter how many times you visit, there's always something new.
départemental de tourisme de la Haute-Garonne
14 rue Bayard, BP71509, 31015 TOULOUSE.
Tel: 05 61 99 44 00
CITY TOURIST OFFICE
Square du Général de Gaulle - Donjon du Capitole - BP 38001, 31080 TOULOUSE.
Tel: 0892 180 180 (from within France); 05 40 13 15 31 (from outside France)