Historic regional centre
www.toulouse-tourisme.com. An outpost of the Visigoths, and later the Franks, Toulouse enjoyed an independent and prosperous passage through the Middle Ages under the rule of the Frankish Counts of Toulouse (who christened a bewildering number of their sons Raymond).
Aeronautics is the city’s present stock in trade. Author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and other pioneer aviators operated a mail service to Africa from Toulouse in the 1920s; today, Aerospatiale builds airbuses and rocket parts for satellite launchers. Toulouse is also a market for wine, cereals and fruit harvested on the rich Garonne Plain, and its university is one of the largest in the country.
Known as the ‘ville rose’ for its rosy red-brick buildings, Toulouse deserves to be savoured. A good place to start is the main square, place du Capitoule, where cafés jostle for space beneath cool arcades facing the 18thC facade of the Hôtel de Ville. Overflowing with booksellers and antiques dealers, rue du Taur leads to the Basilique Saint-Sernin, the largest Romanesque church in France and a superb example of Midi architecture. Dedicated to Saint-Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, this colossal pilgrim church is crowned by an elegant octagonal belfry which rises in five tiers pierced by rounded Romanesque and pointed Gothic arches. Below, the exquisite 12thC carvings of the Porte Miégeville illustrate biblical tales. The interior exudes an extraordinary aura of strength and simplicity. Double aisles supported on pink brick and dove-grey piers flank the soaring nave with its arched galleries. It is worth the fee to gain access to the ambulatory for the marvellous capitals in the transept, the 11thC marble reliefs near the entrance to the crypt, and the 16thC choirstalls.
Across place Saint-Sernin, a former 16thC college building has been transformed into the Musée Saint-Raymond (www.saintraymond.toulouse.fr), housing the city’s archaeological collections. Roman sculpture, glass and pottery are displayed alongside ceremonial and religious artefacts and a significant coin collection (closed Tue).
Toulouse delights in another ecclesiastical treasure in the Couvent des Jacobins, off rue Lakanal (closed Sun am). Founded in 1230 by the Dominicans, whose namesake preached against the Cathars in Saint-Sernin, it presents a daunting precipice of red brick towering above the Parvis des Jacobins. The suprise is the sparsely elegant interior, a simple double nave divided by seven delicate pillars which flower into vaulted ribs. The last pillar pushes out an exuberant flourish of 22 polychrome branches like a mighty palm tree. An Italianate cloister encloses a neat pattern of miniature box hedges and has a lovely view of the octagonal belfry.
A roundabout route to the next ‘must see’ could take in two of the finest Renaissance hôtels particuliers, the Hôtel de Bernuy, rue Gambetta (now a high school), and the Hôtel d’Assézat, rue de Metz, housing the Fondation Bemberg’s fine art collection. Further east on rue de Metz, the Musée des Augustins (www.augustins.org) contains a treasury of superb Romanesque sculpture rescued from former churches and religious foundations such as the 12thC Prieuré de la Daurade. Strikingly displayed on modern plinths, intricately carved scenes of monsters and merchants, storm-tossed galleys, beasts and the beatified provide hours of entertainment. There are stone sarcophagi (some dating back to Roman times) decorated with coats-of-arms, swags of vine and carved figures on display in the sacristy; a van Dyck and a Vannuci in the church; and a so-so fine art collection with a couple of lovely, sketchy works by Toulouse-Lautrec in the l9thC section. (Closed Sun am, Tue.)
Other Toulousian museums include the broad-ranging applied arts and crafts collections of the Musée Paul-Dupuy, 13 rue de la Pleau, and the somewhat turgid Musée du Vieux-Toulouse, 7 rue du May.
Take a break at a café in place Wilson or place Saint-Georges for a ring-side view of the action in the chic shopping district; department stores line rue d’Alsace-Lorraine. For picnic ingredients, explore the vast Marché Couvert, by Parking Victor-Hugo: stall after stall groaning with fresh fruit, glossy vegetables, cheeses, charcuterie, fresh bread and much more.
Driving in Toulouse is to be avoided. The town centre is a nightmare of narrow one-way streets, pedestrian thoroughfares and inadequate parking. It is best to leave cars in the Parking Jean-Jaurès, between the rail station and inner city ring boulevard.
See also Languedoc-Roussilon, Albigeois Region and Roussillon.