Ideally situated in the heart of Southern France, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, the cosmopolitan and enthusiastic “Ville Rose” joyously mixes heritage and lifestyle, great cultural events and festival pleasures. Toulouse is an absolute must for everyone wanting to explore France. At once both modern and proud of the legacy of its past, open and radiant, you are bound to be seduced by the incomparable Toulousain lifestyle, coupled with the wealth of its cultural heritage. Even if you are not as lucky as me, who has my sister and her family living nearby, your stay in Toulouse will certainly be a time of great pleasure.
Toulouse, France’s fourth biggest city, is bubbling over with life. There’s nothing like a stroll around the historic centre, walking alongside the Garonne and the Canal du Midi, or stopping in one of the many cafés whose terraces spill out onto the streets. All over the city, the ambience is friendly, tinged with the well-meaning familiarity that I find particularly for the people of South France.
Toulouse is also a major shopping destination. All the major internationally-renowned brands in fashion, design, leather goods and jewellery are represented in Toulouse. The city neighbourhoods also live by the rhythm of the open-air and covered markets. Here you’ll find local products from the Midi-Pyrenees, which is one of the South-West’s most important gastronomic regions – producing wine, foie gras, cheeses, charcuterie, and of course cassoulet – the Toulousain dish par excellence.
2,000 years of Toulousain history have left the city scattered with a first-rate heritage that is representative of the Southern French style at various moments in history.
The Saint-Sernin basilica, a jewel of 11th and 12th century Roman art, is an important stage on the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage. It is home to the grave of Saint Saturnin, first bishop of Toulouse in the 3rd century. The Jacobins convent buildings are visited for their Southern-French gothic architecture including the amazing “palm-tree”, a pillar from which twenty-two branches stem.
At the heart of the antique dealer’s quarter, the Saint Etienne cathedral bears witness to the evolution of several styles of sacred architecture. The city is also very rich in Renaissance townhouses: hôtel de Bernuy, hôtel d’Assézat, hôtel de Pierre… Not to forget the Capitole, currently the City Hall, with its magnificently decorated historic rooms and the immense ‘place’ with its Occitan cross. Sneaking a peek under a porch can sometimes reveal stunning gardens and façades. 19th century industrial buildings renovated as cultural venues prolong the tradition of brick – such as the Galerie du Château d’Eau, the Musée des Abattoirs or the Bazacle – a permanent exhibition space on the banks of the Garonne.
The city at the Garonne river is on the site of an ancient Roman settlement; even today many of the smaller streets follow their Roman counterparts and many of the red brick buildings are of a pseudo-Roman style. These buildings are also what give Toulouse its nickname La ville rose (The pink city).
Toulouse is a big city, but the historical centre is quite small, so you can walk to most beautiful and famous destinations in the inner city quite comfortably. This is definitely the best way to explore the city. My niece and her boyfriend took me exploring the city when I last visited, and I was so impressed, even though I’ve been there before, I left the city with a passionate print in my heart.
I find that Toulouse is one of the most alternative French cities – maybe due to its huge student population and its historical past with half a million Spanish republican/communist/anarchists ‘rebels’ that settled in the region after they failed to rebel against Franco and escaped through the Pyrenees during the ‘Retirada’ in 1939. I don’t know this for sure, but I sensed a rebellion attitude from great graffiti like this:
And of course, during my first visit to The Pink City over twenty years ago I bought a print that has been following me around since, and which I see as one of my art treasures: The print of the Seated Dancer in pink tights by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec. I know that this artist did not live in Toulouse as one might assume because of his name, but for me, the artist and the city reflects my passion for art and traveling.