Toulouse may not immediately come to mind as a destination for a short break, but this exciting, vibrant and historic city is less than a 90-minute flight from the UK and is well served from all over France by the rail network.
The vibrant city of Toulouse
Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, well known as the home of the European Space industry and of airbus. The city is known as La Ville Rose (“the pink city”). There are no stone quarries nearby so rich local clay is used to make pinkish terracotta bricks which many buildings are made of. In the early morning or late afternoon sunshine they are a photographer’s dream.
Making for a great base, the Grand Hotel de l’Opera, is slap bang in the middle of the city on the vast Place du Capitole. It is one of the classic mansions of the city and boasts two restaurants, both sharing the same courtyard. Les Jardins de L’Opera is the gastronomic home of Michelin starred chef Stephane Tournie. The more affordable Brasserie de L’Opera run by chef Gratien Castro is terrific.
Sitting here with a glass of Pastis, nibbling on amuse bouches, half a dozen plump escargot swimming in garlic butter and steak frites, makes for a very French, very relaxing lunch.
Take a tour of Toulouse
Place Charles de Gaulle is a good starting point for a visit to the city to find out what’s on. Pick up a one-day Toulouse Pass Tourisme at the tourist office. The pass gives you free entry to the museums and reduced rates at many of the city’s attractions. It also includes free travel on public transport, metro, bus, tram and airport shuttle bus. And, it includes a guided tour of the city and a free cruise along the River Garonne.
The walking tour of Toulouse starts from the tourist office housed in the historic Donjon du Capitole. This much-loved building houses the Hotel de Ville, the Theatre Nationale Orchestra and Opera House. It is well worth a visit to see the dramatic wall murals depicting the seasons of Toulouse.
You can’t help but notice that all over the city are two symbols, a twelve-pointed cross and the scallop shell. The cross is The Occitan Cross also known as the cross of Languedoc, it is the symbol of Occitania and appears everywhere. The place du Capitole has a huge brass one set in the floor, designed by Raymond Moretti in 1995, each point is a symbol of the zodiac
A short stroll through streets lined with buildings of pink bricks brings you to the basilica of Saint-Sernin. This was an important stop on the Way of St James, one of the routes of Santiago de Compostela. This explains the appearance of the many scallop shell symbols in Toulouse (pilgrim’s motif).
Next stop is the massive Jacobins Convent. To be fair it is not the most beautiful building from the outside. Don’t let this put you off because this severe brick built block is extraordinarily light inside with massive pillars and palm-tree-like ribs reaching huge heights. The cloisters are a welcome cool place to rest up from the heat of the city.
There is so much more to see on this walk but rather than listen to me – go there and follow in my footsteps, you won’t be disappointed.
Eating out and staying in Toulouse
Place St Georges is one of the locals’ favourite squares in the city, ringed with cafés and restaurants. It is the perfect place to spend a relaxing evening watching the world go about its business. You couldn’t do much better than head to Monsieur Georges for a tasty dinner. The duck profiteroles are divine, washed down with a glass of perfectly chilled rosé.
There are lots of hotels in Toulouse to suit all budgets. Many hotels get full during the week out of season with business folks visiting the aerospace and aviation industries but being empty at weekends, they offer some great deals.
Toulouse is the sort of place where you can leave your maps and guide books, GPS and phone in your hotel room. Just dive into the city and got lost in its streets. There are shops to suit all tastes, great cafés and restaurants to fit all budgets. The food markets are excellent and there’s even a man-made beach on the banks of the Garonne. There really is something for everyone in this fabulous city.
Don’t forget to leave room in your suitcase to take home some Toulouse specialities – saucissons, tins of cassoulets and other French gourmet delights.
Peter Jones is a photographer and freelance writer