Toulouse, or la ville rose (the pink city) as it’s known because of the red brick pseudo-Roman style buildings, is a fantastic city with a great cosmopolitan vibe. It’s the fourth largest city in France with over 400,000 inhabitants, behind Paris, Marseille and Lyon, and it’s wealthy past is evident with over 50 magnificent hotels and private mansions (hôtels particuliers) dotted around the city a constant reminder. However, it doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of tourists of other French hotspots, and I have no idea why! It’s such a great city for all sorts of reasons. Despite it’s ancient Roman history, Toulouse is now best known as a centre for aviation and spaceflight with over 35,000 people from the city employed in the civil aviation and space industries.
Sarah’s camera, which mysteriously broke in Lucerne several weeks ago (I may have had something to with that, but let’s keep it just between us), was finally ready to be collected in Toulouse after being sent to be repaired, so we decided to use the opportunity to spend the day exploring the city as well. Sarah was very excited to get her camera back, she loves taking pictures and couldn’t wait to put it to work again. When we picked up the camera Sarah’s joy soon turned to sadness when she realised she’d left the battery at home, so wouldn’t be able to use it despite the fact it was fixed and ready to go. So once again I stepped into the breach to be the Travelling Apples’ official photographer with my trusty iPhone 5.
Les Carmes, Rue De Metz and Pont Neuf
Toulouse is a great city for travellers because everything worth seeing is pretty much within walking distance. We parked a little out of the city centre before making our way along the tree lined Allées Forain-François Verdier, then turned left at the Monument aux Morts onto Rue de Metz. Just after turning the corner, on a small side street on the left, the huge St-Etienne Cathedral appears out of nowhere. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a 12th century cathedral, massive, grand and dominates the area. We poked our head in for a look and it was impressive, but we’ve both seen the inside of heaps of massive, grand cathedrals, so we were soon on our way again.
We stuck to the back streets in this area rather than stay on the main Rue de Metz. The Les Carmes district is probably the most beautiful area of Toulouse, its 16th century buildings with pastel coloured shutters and heavy wooden doors lining cobblestone streets a symbol of former and current wealth. We snaked our way past the Musée des Augustins, an art museum that used to be a monastery church, through the pedestrianised shopping streets, before walking into the courtyard of the Hôtel d’Assézat, an old private mansion that is one of most popular attractions in the city.
We popped back out onto Rue de Metz and crossed the only old bridge in the city, Pont Neuf. It was built between 1544 and 1626, but to be honest it isn’t that impressive, just like the city on that side of the river. There’s a nice big park called the Prairie des Filtres running beside La Garonne (Garonne River) to relax in, and a couple of decent old buildings like the Musées de la Médecine and Hôpital de la Grave, but if you gave this side of the river a wide berth you wouldn’t miss much. We stopped at a square where Jack had a run around on the play equipment before crossing Pont St-Pierre on our way back into the city centre.
As you cross any bridge from one side of the river to the other, it’s clear where the money was during previous centuries. The western side of the river is by no means ugly, but most of the city is on the east and it’s quite beautiful. We crossed Pont St-Pierre and made our way straight up Rue Valade, which becomes Rue Albert Lautmann, until we reached Basilique St-Sernin. It’s one of France’s best preserved Romanesque buildings, and has a huge spire and octagonal tower. It’s a very nice area to wander about in, and as usual we popped our head in for a minute or two, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the inside of this church and St-Etienne Cathedral. I’m sure others will be able to point out plenty of differences to me, but to me it’s all the same really.
Place du Capitole
From the Basilique we made our way straight down Rue du Taur to the city’s main attraction, Place du Capitole, the main square. It’s a very impressive, large town square lined by some great looking buildings. The City Hall, or Capitole, is 128 metres wide and was built in the 1750’s. It’s as beautiful as any building in the city and impressive simply due to its grand size. Inside is the Théâtre du Capitole, one of France’s most prestigious opera venues, so if you fancy a night of culture and musical arts this is the place. The walk through Capitole is actually very beautiful and well worth a look. The opposite side of the square is lined with rather expensive restaurants, perfect for sitting and people watching if you’ve got a few Euros to spare. Winding their way in all directions off the square are busy laneways, perfect for shopping or discovering other smaller squares to stop for a quieter, less expensive refreshment. We actually bought Jack a plastic ride-on car to amuse himself at one of the toy stores alongside the square. We’re going to be housesitting near Châtellerault for four months over the winter, so we thought it would be nice to get him some toys for our stay.
This place seems to be the epicentre of all events for Toulouse, as both times we’ve visited the city there was something going on that covered the whole area. On our first, quick visit to the city it was some sort of food and wine festival, while this time there was a pre-marathon event happening with heaps of stalls related to the race for brands to promote their products to the assembled crowds. In one way it’s great for the city because it’s buzzing and there’s always something going on, but trying to get a photo that captures the beauty of the square is virtually impossible!
Jardin Des Plantes and Grand Rond
It was getting late in the afternoon by this stage so we started to zig-zag our way back to the car through the pedestrianised streets in the city centre via the beautiful 13th century Le Couvent des Jacobins, back along the streets of Les Carmes and up Rue Alfred Duméeril to Jardin Des Plantes. The 200-year-old botanical garden is a great place to take kids, as there are playgrounds designed for all developmental stages, pony rides, and dodgem car, while we also saw roosters wandering around free searching for food. There’s also plenty of food and refreshment outlets, as well as places to sit down and relax after a hard day of pounding the pavement.
We stayed a while so Jack could have a play around before we made our way across the footbridge over Square Boulingrin (the road around the huge roundabout), into Grand Rond, the City Park in the middle of said roundabout. This park was built in the middle of the roundabout because it contained four hectares of space, with construction taking place from 1752-54. It’s a lovely park to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, with plenty of statues about for the keen observer, but there’s not much to do for the kids so we weren’t there long before making the short stroll to our car.
Toulouse is awesome
Overall we loved Toulouse, and passed our ‘would we live here’ test with flying colours. It reminded us bit of Melbourne with plenty of events going on all the time, great shopping and restaurants, and a real buzz about the city. It’s close to some magnificent national parks to the south, the Mediterranean to the east and whole host of quaint, charming little villages within a short car trip. You really can’t go wrong spending a week or two in this area of France, enjoying everything the Midi-Pyrenees has to offer.