Tucked into the shadow of the Pyrenees in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, Toulouse is one of France’s best-kept secrets.
Actually, it’s not such a secret: more than 100,000 students flock annually to the city’s august universities, bringing a vibrant cosmopolitanism to these medieval squares and cobblestone alleys. But while it seems every globetrotting American has been to Paris, very few have set foot in France’s fourth-largest city.
If they had, they would have discovered the sunny, relaxed pleasures of Southern France — local cassoulets and confits, artisanal boutiques tucked into Gothic arches, outdoor cafés lively with conversation. In the Mediterranean sun, Toulouse’s brick buildings glow a rosy shade of pink, giving the city the appellation “La Ville Rose” (The Pink City).
Rich with history, Toulouse is nonetheless a decidedly modern town. Besides the youthful energy of its students, artists and fashion designers, Toulouse is ground zero for the French aerospace industry. The mighty Airbus aircraft company is headquartered here; aviation fans will enjoy a guided tour of the Airbus production headquarters (see the information listed below).
Long before its first flight, Toulouse was a city of bridges and deep religious traditions. The picturesque Pont Neuf is just one of several spans across the Garonne River, which winds romantically through the city. If you have time, consider taking a boat cruise and take in the city views; Bateaux Toulousains offers popular river cruises. On warm afternoons, couples and families stroll the network of riverside quays and watch boats glide down canals.
Historic Toulouse lies on the east side of the Garonne. An enjoyable day could be spent sipping coffee on cafés along these boulevards, exploring boutiques tucked into narrow alleys, and people watching in Toulouse’s many pigeon-filled plazas. Shoppers will find Toulouse’s wares especially tempting, with local pottery and gourmet food products topping the list.
Nearly every plaza has a lovely old church, which is no coincidence: Toulouse is a prime stop along the Camino de Santiago — the Way of Saint James, a Catholic pilgrimage route that has lately attained faddish status lately among spiritual seekers of various persuasions. Jews also form a prominent community in this city of about 800,000, with several synagogues and a network of Jewish schools.
Kosher eaters will find Toulouse a challenge, though the city is a delight for unrestricted gourmets. True to the spirit of French regionalism, its restaurants are thick with the local specialties of goose and duck, confits and pates, Catalan butifarra sausages and cheese from the Pyrenees. The Chabad house at 17, Rue Alsale Lorraine, can help with suggestions for kosher eating.
The Basilica of St. Sernin, on the eponymous plaza near the central Place Capitole, has been a Camino way station for the last 1,000 years. Built in the 11th century, this magnificent edifice is the largest Romanesque church in all of Europe. Tour its majestic interiors, and if it’s a Sunday, while away a few hours at the lively open-air market on the square outside.
Modern art and age-old architecture come together at the Jacobins Church and Convent (L’Ensemble Conventuel des Jacobins de Toulouse). This 13th-century monastery’s Gothic arches, distinctive “palm-tree”-style vault and quiet cloisters speak to the city’s Catholic roots. On view in the gallery through April 6 is “Spanish Artists in Exile,” more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists who fled the Franco regime in 1939. Toulouse and Catalan France were a prime destination for the exiles, many of whom continued to be productive in their adopted refuge.
Cross the river, and fast-forward a few centuries, to a graceful modern building in signature Toulouse pink. This is Les Abbatoirs, a refreshing collection of contemporary art with a European emphasis. The second half of the 20th century is the focus here, with some first-rate works by the likes of Picasso, Duchamp and Rauschenberg.
The performing arts are also first-rate in Toulouse. Music festivals take place throughout the year, and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse attracts world-class soloists to its frequent concerts under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev. Stravinsky, Ginastera and De Falla are among the highlights this spring.
From March 9 to 14, Toulouse will host its ninth annual Flamenco Festival. The world’s most exciting flamenco event brings together the finest dancers, singers and musicians from around the world.
You can fly directly to Toulouse, or connect through Paris with numerous major and discount carriers; other options are the high-speed train from Paris, about a five-hour ride, and slower but scenic trains from Barcelona. And given its location near the Pyrenees winter resorts, Toulouse makes an excellent home base for skiers looking to combine culture with a little late-season snow.
www.festival-flamenco-toulouse.com Les Abbatoirs:
Orchestre National du Capitole:
Airbus factory tours arranged by Taxiway: +33 (0) 534 39 4200 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Garonne River cruises with Bateaux Toulousains: www.bateaux-toulousains.com
Jacobins Church and Gallery: