Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France. Located in the southwest of France, within a few hours of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterreanean Sea and the Spanish border. Rich in architecture, history, heritage… and colour.
Jane Gifford looks at the town the locals call La Ville Rose with a nod to its blue past…
La Ville Rose Toulouse
All the tables outside the cafés on Place Saint-Georges are full. This is the place to be towards the end of a winter’s day in Toulouse. Four hours ago I was driving through sleet to Bristol airport. Now the last rays of sun are glancing across the rooftops and there’s a party atmosphere in the air. The streets are vibrant. Young people on bicycles swerve through the crowds, carrying musical instruments on their backs and a passenger on the crossbar.
Toulouse, ‘la Ville Rose’, glows red in the evening light. The city is built of bricks stained red by iron found in the clay from the flood-plain of the Garonne. The view is stunning from the sixteenth Century Pont Neuf (New Bridge), which spans the river with seven elegant arches. Toulouse was the cultural centre of medieval France. Its prestigious university was founded way back in 1229. The old language still survives. Signs here are in both French and Occitan. Because Toulouse had little industry, it escaped major destruction during WWII, preserving its rosy maze of cobbled medieval streets and colossal red-brick monuments. Today the city has gained a reputation for ground-breaking high tech research and development. Both Concorde and Airbus were built here.
Being here, soaking up the atmosphere certainly makes me feel “in the pink”.
La Ville Bleue Toulouse
It was blue that made Toulouse wealthy. Varying shades of the colour are everywhere on shutters, on lamp-posts, doors, windows and ornamental ironwork. It’s a subtle blue-grey that perfectly complements the ancient red brickwork. Trade in pastel (woad, the yellow-flowered plant whose leaves yield a blue dye) allowed Toulouse merchants to amass vast fortunes. The mansion of Pierre d’Assézat, a fabulously wealthy 16th Century pastellier is first glimpsed through a gated arch, giving little away of the Renaissance-style courtyard beyond, a sumptuous mix of ornamental pillars, stone lions, palms, elaborate staircases and stone-mullioned windows. Inside is the Fondation Bemberg, a private art collection open to the public, which includes many French masterworks from the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries.
Around the corner on a narrow cobbled street brimming with atmosphere – rue de la Bourse – another arch leads directly into 15th Century Hôtel Pierre Delfau and the shop ‘La Fleurée de Pastel’. Under high vaulted ceilings, you’ll find all that the modern imagination has made of woad. A blue heaven of hand-made designer clothing, heavy cotton lace, swatches of silks, jewellery, inks and water-colours. Women be warned. You could spend a fortune here. Woad’s curative properties are long known. Sample the contemporary range of cosmetics produced by Graine de Pastel.
Jane Gifford is a writer and photographer specialising in travel, garden, wildlife and environmental issues: janegifford.net