Thumbing its nose at Paris
Right: Bar la Maison, on Rue Gabriel Péri. Photograph: Jean François Tripelon-Jarry/AF ALL LIT UP Hôpital La Grave and St Pierre Bridge. Photograph: Eric Bascoul/Atout France
Convinced of its superiority over the French capital, Toulouse has a Space City, delicious down-home cuisine, top-notch museums and a young, relaxed atmosphere, writes PETER CLUSKEY
THE SOUTHERN French city of Toulouse is to Paris as Cork is to Dublin: it scoffs at the alleged sophistication of the distant capital, dines out on tales of its rebelliousness and cultural foibles and, at bottom, is convinced of its superiority.
And maybe it’s right. Toulouse was a stronghold of Occitania, where the Occitan language was spoken as far back as the 10th century. Today it’s economically independent as the heart of Europe’s aerospace industry. And its university is one of the oldest on record, dating to 1229.
Add the facts that its accent is much more twangy than that of chic Parisians, and that its gastronomy, though delicious, is much more down-home and rustic, and there’s no doubt about it: twinning talks with Cork should open immediately.
In sporting terms, there’s the common obsession with rugby. Toulouse has a highly respected rugby union team, Stade Toulousain, 17 times French national champions and three times winners of the Heineken Cup. It’s inland, though, so, unlike in Cork, sailing is out.
If that slightly left-field comparison has left you curious to know more about Toulouse – assuming you’ve already been to Cork – I can assure you, as one who’s lived in both places and has sampled tripe and drisheen and meaty Toulouse sausage with equal enthusiasm, that La Ville Rose doesn’t disappoint. In fact, that’s one of the things you’ll need to know: it’s known as La Ville Rose – the Pink City – because of the metal content in the local clay, which gives bricks used in its architecture a warm glow ranging from dark pink to red.
Another thing you’ll need to know about is Toulouse’s space credentials, which you’ll see promoted the minute you land at Toulouse Blagnac airport. It’s the home of Airbus; of Thales Alenia Space, Europe’s biggest satellite manufacturer; of the Galileo positioning system; and of Toulouse Space Centre, the European Space Agency’s most important base.
Why is all this relevant to a tourist? Because the city’s most popular attraction is the Cité de l’Espace – you’ve guessed it, Space City – a theme park on the eastern outskirts that opened in 1997 and attracts about 500,000 visitors a year. This is the real thing, with life-size models of the Ariane 5 rocket, the Mir space station and the Soyuz modules.
The aerospace connection is also the reason Toulouse has the highest student population in France after Paris. A remarkable 97,000 students give the city a young and relaxed feel – and no doubt add to its reputation for high-quality graffiti.
But the heart of Toulouse is Place du Capitole, the pedestrianised main square, dominated by City Hall, the seat of government here since the 1100s, with a supporting cast of restaurants and cafes where the local movers and shakers like to see and be seen on the terraces.
Toulouse has a metro system – a driverless one – but most of the main attractions are in the centre. Stroll from Place du Capitole down Rue du Taur and you’ll find the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of the world’s finest Romanesque churches.
A stone’s throw away you’ll find the Musée des Augustins, with its wonderful collection of medieval sculptures rescued from churches ransacked during the French Revolution.
But one of the city’s best-kept secrets is Les Abattoirs, on Allées Charles-de-Fitte, arguably the best contemporary-art museum in France, the pièce de résistance of whose 2,000 works is Picasso’s huge canvas La Dépouille du Minotaure en Costume d’Arlequin.
For shopping, head to Rue La Fayette, Rue d’Alsace-Lorraine and the fantastic covered market on Place Victor Hugo. Relax afterwards with a stroll along the River Garonne or the Canal du Midi, which runs all the way to the Mediterranean.
All of which should prepare you for dinner at Restaurant Gastronomique Michel Sarran, on Boulevard Armand Duportal, recently promoted from one to two Michelin stars. Don’t miss it. This is France, after all.
Where to stay, where to eat and where to go in the city
5 places to stay
Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra.
1 Place du Capitole, 00-33-5-61218266, grand-hotel-opera.com. A converted 17th-century convent in the heart of Toulouse, this four-star hotel combines traditional elegance with modern amenity. Doubles are normally about €250, but there are frequent weekend deals and special offers at about €120 per room per night.
Hôtel Le Grand Balcon.
8 Rue Romiguières, 00-33-5-34254409, grandbalconhotel.com. Glamorous 1930s four-star hotel designed by Jean-Philippe Nuel with five accommodation categories – Cosy, Classique, Privilège, Deluxe and Suite – from about €155 for a Cosy room to €350-€400 for a suite.
Pullman Toulouse Centre. 84 Allées Jean Jaurès, 00-33-5-61102310, pullmanhotels.com. Well located in the centre, the Pullman is stylish and comfortable. It’s busy during the week; at weekends it’s quieter and the rates are lower. Rooms start at about €105.
The Saint Claire. 29 Place Nicolas Bachelier, 00-33-5-34405888, stclairehotel.fr. A quiet, comfortable, nicely furnished three-star on a side street near Allées Jean Jaurès. Weekend rates are between €69 and €99 per room, including breakfast.
Hotel Ours Blanc Wilson.
2 Rue Victor Hugo, 00-33-5-61216240, hotel-oursblanc.com. One of three Ours Blanc hotels in the centre, the Wilson is a typical French two-star, clean and comfortable but basic, serving a good breakfast of croissants, coffee and more. A standard double starts at about €75, rising to about €87 for a slightly better room.
5 places to eat
Restaurant Michel Sarran.
21 Boulevard Armand Duportal, 00-33-5-61123232, michel-sarran.com. You’ll be greeted at this low-key two Michelin-starred restaurant by Michel’s wife, Françoise. If it’s lunchtime and she suggests the menu saveurs, be advised!
La Villa Tropezienne.
8-10 Place Victor Hugo, 00-33-5-61225858, les-coulisses.com. A tribute to St Tropez, complete with the resort’s motto, Ad Usque Fidelis(Faithful to the End) – in neon lights. Don’t be put off, though: it’s chic and the food is great. It’s combined with Bar les Coulisses; hence the web address.
Le Sept. 7 Place Saint Sernin, 00-33-5-62300530, 7placesaintsernin.com. Its terrace has views over the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, and its Catalan chef, Benoît Cantalloube, makes sure the great food matches the great setting.
Le Bon Vivre. 15 bis Place Wilson, 00-33-5-61230717, lebonvivre.com. An atmospheric bistro with vaulted ceilings and superb local cooking, specialising in its own foie gras, for those who don’t take exception to this most controversial delicacy of southwestern France.
Le Colombier. 14 Rue de Bayard, 00-33-5-61624005, restaurant-lecolombier.com. This beautiful little restaurant, going strong since 1873, is the place to have the perfect cassoulet. Watch out for the mural of Rabelais’s Gargantua.
5 places to go
Place du Capitole. 00-33-5-61223412, . This two-hectare cvisites-virtuelles.show around.fr/france-360/visite- virtuelle-toulouse-place- capitole.htmity square is still the nerve centre of Toulouse every bit as much as it was in the Middle Ages. The distinctive terracotta brick was originally chosen by the city fathers as a cheaper alternative to white stone. It’s as beautiful in the evening floodlights as it is in the southern sun.
Covered Market. Place Victor Hugo, 00-33-5-61110222, marchevictorhugo.fr. With more than 90 stalls offering regional delights, this is Toulouse’s largest and most prestigious market. If you’re prepared for the excess- baggage charge, stock up on the region’s finest produce, or enjoy the day’s best offerings at one of seven tiny restaurants on the first floor. Open from 6am to 1pm daily except Monday.
Les Abattoirs. 76 Allées Charles-de-Fitte, 00-33-5-62485800, lesabattoirs.org. Set in a renovated abattoir built in 1828, this is one of the most impressive collections of modern art in France. Make sure not to miss the Picasso canvas La Dépouille du Minotaure en Costume d’Arlequin.
Musée des Augustins. 21 Rue de Metz, 00-33-5-61222182, augustins.org. The museum’s collection of Romanesque sculpture is one of the richest in the world. Make sure you see the paintings by Delacroix and by Toulouse-Lautrec, who was from Albi, less than an hour away.
Cité de l’Espace.
Avenue Jean Gonord, 00-33-5-62715600, cite-espace.com. This really is for adults and children alike. It’s your chance to see life-size models of the Ariane 5 rocket, the Soyuz modules and the Mir space station. Book in advance, because it can be very busy.
You can combine the best view of Toulouse with a spot of retail therapy at the Nouvelles Galeries department store, on Rue Lapeyrouse, which has a viewing gallery on the fifth floor. There are boutiques aplenty on
Rue La Fayette and Rue d’Alsace-Lorraine, as well as on one of the prettiest streets, Rue Croix-Baragnon.
Club UBU. 16 Rue Saint Rome, 00-33-5-61232675, ubu-club.com. UBU has
been part of the Toulouse entertainment scene for more than 50 years. The ambience is good humoured, cosy and chic, the music is retro and the cuisine is traditional toulousaine. Dress smartly.
La Librairie-café Terra Nova.
18 Rue Gambetta, 00-33-5-61211747, librairie-terranova.fr. This cool cafe is also a bookshop, gallery and music store. Sink into a well-worn comfy leather armchair and select from a menu of international teas and coffees – with music and art works to match.
What to avoid
Mondays. Well, everyone’s a little averse to them, but in Toulouse the museums, markets and many of the best restaurants are closed on Mondays – even the usually dependable Cité de l’Espace is closed regularly on off-season Mondays.
A good night out
Les Halles aux Grains. Place Dupuy, 00-33-5-61631313, onct.mairie-toulouse.fr/en/halle-aux-grains.php. This former market, which used to be used for trading grain, is now home to the prestigious Orchestre National du Capitole. It features guest soloists and conductors from all over the world.
Get in the mood
Relax with the wonderful DVD Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, in which the chef travels through France by barge and visits Jean Marie Castet’s stall in the city’s covered market to buy Toulouse sausage, a key ingredient in cassoulet, the local winter speciality.Go there
The official site is toulouse.fr, but it’s only in French. For the lowdown in English, toulouse-tourisme.com is bright and informative, and there’s more on toulousedefrance.com.