Toulouse, la vie en rose

Je viens du sud. I come from the South. This summer, I went back where everything started, my hometown, Toulouse, or as it is known all over France, la Ville Rose, (the Pink City,) because of its magnificent red brick buildings. The 4th largest city in France, with the third largest student population, Toulouse is young, vibrant, and dynamic: a European hub for the aerospace industry, it is host to many companies’ headquarters, including Airbus industries, the Galileo positioning system, the Spot satellite system, Intel, and more.

But there are other reasons why I so enjoyed my hometown after all these years. And I believe they are the same reasons you would enjoy visiting Toulouse, too.

#1. Toulouse is eminently walkable – and bikeable, her protected historical center compact, with many pedestrian-only streets. A stroller’s paradise.

Even on a busy Saturday afternoon, crowds remain manageable. One never feels cramped here. People visit museums casually, without the endless lines and chaos found this time of year in other places in France, and Europe. Toulouse, as a true Southern Belle, marches (strolls?) to the sound of her own drum.

Place de la Bourse

#2: Toulouse is a feast for the eyes. 

The architecture is spectacular, from old medieval buildings to the massive and elegant private mansions built in the 16th century by affluent local merchants. Everywhere you look, pink bricks. Toulouse lives la Vie en Rose 365 days a year.

Hôtel d’Assezat – Fondation Bemberg
Moving can be a perilous affair!

#3: Toulouse is unmistakably Southern.

Ancient platanes (plane trees) line her streets, squares, and waterways, providing dappled shade in the summer heat. Pastel blue wood shutters adorn most façades, and keep homes cool. Toulouse skies come in many shades of blue: C’est le sud (This is southern France.)

The Canal du Midi, a civil engineering masterpiece, was built in the 17th century
and links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
Somewhere on Toulouse’s Left Bank.
Friends meet Place Wilson

#4: Toulouse has world-class museums and two Unesco World Heritage sites.

In this city, art, history and culture are part of daily life. So many churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, testimonies of a deeply religious past. A long time ago, pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela stopped and prayed in Toulouse‘s iconic Saint-Sernain basilica, the largest romanesque church in Europe (11th century.)  Les Augustins, a 14th century monastery complete with a church and spectacular cloister, was turned into the local Museum of Fine Arts, and boasts prized collections from European masters.

St Sernain basilica, and its unique octogonal church tower
Les Augustins: A cloister… and lounge chairs. 
Inside les Augustins: Paintings from European masters (15th through 19th century)
Les Augustins: Special exhibit by artist Jorge Pardo showcasing
the museum’s prized romanesque capitals collection
My personal favorite: A unique display of medieval gargoyles… standing vertically for once.

#5. A river runs through it. 

All great cities are surrounded by water. Toulouse is no exception. The Canal du midi (pictured above,) is a local landmark. But her most famous waterway is the mighty Garonne river. Her most renowned bridge, le Pont Neuf (built 1544-1626) is also her oldest. It has survived all of the Garonne’s destructive floods. On sunny days, les quais (the river banks) attract Toulousains and visitors, a delightful place to enjoy the city.

Le Pont Neuf

#6. Toulouse has fantastic food.

This is southwestern France, where duck reigns supreme. Visitors and locals sample cassoulet, the hearty meat-studded specialty (it originated in the neighboring town of Castelnaudary,) or magret de canard (duck breast cooked in wine sauce and served with sautéed potatoes.) Fresh produce abounds at local markets. Boulangeries and pâtisseries display their tempting wares (this is France, after all.)

Magret de canard
Marché des Carmes

 #7. Toulouse has great shopping. 

Toulouse is not picky: From designer brands to international chain stores, from elegant boutiques to cheaper apparel stores, she has it all. My favorite boutiques remain what they have always been: fleuristes (florists) and papèteries (stationery stores.)

“Vert-Rose” (Green-Pink)
How perfect for the “Pink City…”
“Mes Aïeux” (My Ancestors) specializes in old postcards.
I had a blast there!

#8. Les Toulousains.

The people of Toulouse. My people, still. I delighted in listening to their southern accent, often elected “France’s most charming accent,” in national polls. I enjoyed chatting with them in boutiques and at restaurants. Unlike Parisians, they smile in the subway and start conversations with strangers. You might say they are more relaxed, and why shouldn’t they be? They live in a beautiful city that has not yet suffered the impact of mass tourism. The French are in on the secret, however: Toulouse is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. As I watched les Toulousains for a few days, I can understand why. They know how to enjoy life, their city, and the fabulous restaurants. Many French people do, but there is something special in the air, here. Something irresistible. I will be back, Toulouse.

Somewhere in les Carmes neighborhood 
Brasseries,  Place du Capitole

A bientôt.

A French Girl goes home
Toulouse, July 2014


All photos by French Girl in Seattle.

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Travel information: 

Toulouse is easily accessible by air (Blagnac airport,) or by TGV (high speed train,) a 5.5 hour train ride from Paris (Gare Toulouse Matabiau.)
The city has an excellent public transportation system: Buses, a modern subway, and a tramway. There is a free bike rental system (Vélo Toulouse.)
Mediterranean beaches are less than 2 hours away. There is great skiing in the Pyrenees south of Toulouse, less than 2 hours away.
The Toulouse Tourist office is here.

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