48 hours in Toulouse
- Credit: Archant
With its cultural heritage, delicious food, sunny weather and numerous attractions, Toulouse in south-west France is the perfect destination for a weekend city break
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 the ville 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, Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra, 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.
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.
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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.
Getting there: Toulouse-Blagnac airport, 10km north-west of the city centre, is served by several UK airlines
Touist information: Toulouse tourist office