The beautiful city of Toulouse in southwest France has an ancient and rich history. The architecture of the old town reflects the influences from Spain and Italy and a walking tour will reveal a wealth of beautiful sites, dynamic markets and terrace cafés to sit and while away the day. Jane Gifford goes tower spotting in Toulouse…
The 50 Towers of Toulouse
Spend time spotting the fifty towers of Toulouse old town – the taller your tower, the higher your social standing. Monuments here are certainly built to last, rising like fortresses above the medieval streets. The enormous 11th-12th Century Basilica of St-Sernin, with its lofty five-tiered tower, contains the relics of Saint Saturnin, patron Saint of Toulouse, gruesomely martyred by being tied to a bull. An essential stage on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, this is said to be the largest Romanesque structure in the Western World. I am certainly reminded of my own insignificance once inside. There is a flea market outside weekends 8am-12.30pm.
Notre Dame de la Daurade – on the banks of the Garonne near Pont Neuf – with its famous black Madonna, is far smaller and full of mystery. Another essential stop for pilgrims, its 6th Century façade was sadly ‘improved’ with today’s 18th Century neo-classical exterior. The Madonna has been treated to a new wardrobe designed by top French couturiers. Chunky Saint-Aubin is towerless but still worth a visit for another excellent market 7am-1pm Sundays, featuring an odd mix of live poultry and old books.
Strangely asymmetrical, the Cathédrale de St-Etienne is a mixture of all manner of architectural styles on 11th Century foundations, with a tall red-brick bell-tower and an off-centre rosary window dwarfing the entrance. It overlooks a broad square with a fountain surrounded by fine houses and medieval streets. The Couvent des Jacobins, my favourite, is a soaring 12th-13th Century Gothic structure best visited in the late afternoon when multi-coloured sunbeams stream through the windows. Seven enormous columns rise up to the vaulted ceiling. Stonework surrounding one column known as the ‘Toulouse Palm Tree’ is reflected in mirrors below. The windows are replacements. Lead from the originals was used by Napoleon for ammunition. Only the old rose window remains. The cloisters surround a peaceful green oasis with interesting carvings on the pillars. Try finding the pagan green-man.
Toulouse was simplified towards the end of the 19th Century by slicing through the meandering medieval streets with a grid of major shopping boulevards reminiscent of Paris. Rue de Metz runs East-West, Rue Alsace-Lorraine North-South. Once familiar with these main roads, plus Place du Capitole and Place Wilson, where a fountain plays around the 17th Century Occitan poet, Peire Goudol, the city-centre is easily manageable on foot. You could use the Métro but by walking you can really enjoy getting to know this lovely city of secrets and surprises.
Jane Gifford is a writer and photographer specialising in travel, garden, wildlife and environmental issues: janegifford.net
More information on Toulouse:
Weekend in Toulouse
Violet Festival Toulouse
Toulouse travel guide – practical details
Toulouse Tourist Office