TOULOUSE BREAK

The cul­tural her­itage and con­tem­po­rary buzz of the ville rose will soon have vis­i­tors feel­ing in the pink, as Mary No­vakovich dis­cov­ers

France - - Contents -

En­joy the stun­ning ar­chi­tec­ture and lively so­cial scene in the ville rose.

Toulouse lures you to France’s south-west with the prom­ise of riches. There is the rich­ness of its cui­sine – think of all that cas­soulet and duck. And there is the splen­dour of th evil le rose’s ter­ra­cotta-coloured ar­chi­tec­ture and Re­nais­sance hô­tels par­ti­c­uliers. But what this laid-back city on the River Garonne doesn’t par­tic­u­larly do is crow – or crow loudly enough – about the rich­ness of its cul­ture.

Over a mel­low au­tumn week­end, I was dis­cov­er­ing Toulouse for the first time. Step­ping out­side my ho­tel into Place du Capi­tole, the city’s el­e­gant main square, I was trans­fixed by the grandeur of the Capi­tole build­ing it­self. Be­hind its mag­nif­i­cent 18th-cen­tury fa­cade of pink bricks and col­umns is a de­light­ful mish­mash of his­tory – not to men­tion the rel­a­tively rare oc­cur­rence of a city hall that shares its space with an opera house and a the­atre. The Henri IV court­yard leads to gal­leries crammed with 19th-cen­tury art and the elab­o­rate fres­coed ceil­ing of the Salle des Il­lus­tres.

Nip­ping around the cor­ner to Rue d’al­sace Lor­raine, I walked down the main shop­ping street to find a ter­ra­cotta-hued monastery that has been given a ma­jor spruce-up since its 14th-cen­tury be­gin­nings. Be­hind the Gothic ex­te­rior is the Musée des Au­gustins, which has been the city’s chief fine-arts mu­seum since the 18th cen­tury. Its vaulted chapels and me­dieval in­te­ri­ors make an en­chant­ing set­ting for paint­ings and sculp­tures from the 14th to the early 20th cen­turies, with ev­ery­one from Van Dyck to Toulouse-lautrec rep­re­sented. I was drawn to the clois­ters sur­round­ing

the me­dieval gar­dens, where gar­goyles added a spooky note to the oth­er­wise serene at­mos­phere.

If tran­quil­lity reigned in the clois­ters, it was a dif­fer­ent story in the even­ing. As stu­dents make up a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion, there is a lively yet civilised buzz in the city, es­pe­cially in the nar­row streets of the Quartier des Carmes. I could see hints of Spain that had made their way across the Pyrénées and into the ta­pas bars along Rue des Fi­latiers. Even­tu­ally, I found Le Bistrot des Carmes, a tiny restau­rant crammed with vin­tage au­to­mo­tive para­pher­na­lia and serv­ing un­pre­ten­tious, de­li­cious south­ern French food with great warmth and friend­li­ness. It im­me­di­ately went on my list of ‘Great lit­tle neigh­bour­hood bistros I wish I could find in ev­ery French city’.

More food plea­sures were in store the fol­low­ing morn­ing with a visit to the Vic­tor Hugo cov­ered mar­ket. All the in­gre­di­ents to make the re­gion’s top spe­cial­i­ties were there: Toulouse sausages, gi­ant jars of cas­soulet, duck, geese, char­cu­terie and ev­ery other ed­i­ble an­i­mal. Then there were the cheeses: Ro­que­fort, Laguiole, Bleu des Causses. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stall with a gar­gan­tuan vat of freshly made aligot – Avey­ron’s cheesy, gar­licky, mashed potato con­tri­bu­tion to the Oc­c­i­tanie re­gion’s cui­sine.

But I was sav­ing my­self for lunch, which at the Marché Vic­tor Hugo is a fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. On the first-floor mez­za­nine, there is a row of five lunchtime cafés that get pro­duce from the mar­ket and keep their menus sim­ple. I chose Le Louchebem, a cheer­fully chaotic place with long shared ta­bles and no reser­va­tions. Soon af­ter mid­day, I was swoon­ing over a gen­er­ous dish of cas­soulet amid the gen­eral hub­bub punc­tu­ated by the distinc­tive toulou­sain twang, and fes­tooned with rugby shirts re­call­ing the city’s other ob­ses­sion. Un­usual ceil­ing

Af­ter­wards, I was in for a visual feast as I fol­lowed count­less pil­grims along the Chemin de Saint-jac­ques into the Basilique Saint-sernin. This splen­didly pre­served Ro­manesque church with its soar­ing vaulted ceil­ing is on the Unesco World Her­itage list, and de­servedly so. Less than ten min­utes’ walk away is the equally awe-in­spir­ing 13th-cen­tury Cou­vent des Ja­cobins, which has the un­usual sight of a ribbed ceil­ing in the shape of a palm tree.

My walk back to Place du Capi­tole took me straight into hip­ster cen­tral, specif­i­cally the cool cafés and shops of Rue Sainte-ur­sule. Proof that Toulouse does quirky as well as high art, the street has such odd­i­ties as Street­shop, where

tag­gers get their graf­fiti paint, and Geek Store, which fea­tures waf­fle mak­ers in the shape of the Star Wars Death Star. But then, re­mem­ber­ing that Toulouse is the home of aero­nau­tics, I wasn’t sur­prised at these flights of imag­i­na­tion. My only dis­ap­point­ment was not hav­ing the time to visit the Cité de l’espace, the vast space mu­seum on the edge of town that is turn­ing 20 this year.

Toulouse still had a few trea­sures up its sleeve for my fi­nal day, start­ing with the Fon­da­tion Bem­berg. This art col­lec­tion housed in the grand 16th-cen­tury Hô­tel d’as­sézat was an un­ex­pected treat, fea­tur­ing an Im­pres­sion­ism gallery and in­te­ri­ors straight out of a Vene­tian palazzo.

A quick jour­ney on the métro took me across the River Garonne to Les Abat­toirs, where cut­ting-edge con­tem­po­rary art has found a spa­cious home in an enor­mous for­mer abat­toir and its sur­round­ing gar­dens. My walk back along the river re­vealed how the city has been trans­form­ing its river­side into one long plea­sure gar­den.

As dusk was fall­ing, I could see the lights weav­ing their magic on the 16th-cen­tury arches of Pont Neuf. Toulouse more than de­liv­ered on its prom­ise, and left me want­ing more.

The 18th-cen­tury fa­cade of the Capi­tole build­ing in Toulouse

FROM TOP: The ceil­ing of the Salle des Il­lus­tres in the Capi­tole; A street cor­ner in the Quartier des Carmes; A dish of cas­soulet at Le Louchebem in the Marché Vic­tor Hugo

ABOVE: The el­e­gant me­dieval clois­ters of the Cou­vent des Ja­cobins

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