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How to spend a rosy 48 hours in Toulouse

Cathy Adams lived in Toulouse for a year and finds it just as vibrant a decade on

By
14 January 2022

Colourful’ is usually the last, lazy adjective I’d choose to describe a city, but with Toulouse it fits rather well. This pink city in South West France is characterised by the salmon-terracotta of the medieval bricks lining the old quarter; in the shaft of light that bounces off the cobbled stone floor of a secret mansion courtyard; in the colour of your cheeks after the late-afternoon wine (also pink) you drink by the Garonne River.

You could overlay the same adjectives to this city itself. I first arrived in La Ville Rose as an enthusiastic but imperious 21-year-old to spend a year teaching in a school somewhere in the pastoral hills to the west of the city. I like to think that the hard edges of my personality were rounded off in the nine months I called this intoxicating city home.

Metaphorically, Toulouse occupies a particular part of French mentality. It’s not edgy and efficient like Paris, posh like Bordeaux or sexy-glam like Nice. If anything, Toulousains have more of that red-blooded Spanishness (the gilets jaunes are still going strong here - but in a very organised 2-5pm on Saturday) and they prefer to turn up to dinner after 9pm.

On just landing after a decade away, I’m wondering what’s changed over a carafe of roséon the pavement of Le Florida, one of the cafes fringing the anchoring Place du Capitole.

Whether late at night or early in the morning, this grand square is the best place to start in Toulouse - it's edged with bistros, cafes, shops and the 18th-century Capitole building, which inside houses the spectacular Theatre du Capitole. At sundown, the building glows so salmon it looks like it’s on fire.

Walk under the arcade opposite the Capitole and painted above is Raymond Moretti’s Air and Space paintings: an illustrated timeline of the history of Toulouse. It begins with the story of Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who was pulled through the city by a bull; through air and space discovery (Airbus is based here); to the last painting that has mirrored blobs to reflect the last part of the story: you.

Antoine Collas

Saturday morning dawns bleachingly bright - another special thing about Toulouse is that it gets more than 2,000 hours of sunshine a year - and bolstered by a breakfast of fresh French bread and yoghurt at Hotel Villa du Taur, I’m on a mission to see if I love this pink city as an adult rather than a booze-addled language assistant.

South of the Capitole, the city fans out ininto the tangling alleyways of the Old Quarter, bursting with boulangeries, artisan shops, cafes and tiny bookstores. There’s design store L’Interprete, a cycling-slash-coffee-shop Happyness and several science fiction comic stores. Rue Cujas is full of vintage finds, and there are a couple of branches of Comptoir des Cotonniers, the brand founded in Toulouse.

It’s early, but I head to Place Saint Pierre, where I used to come as a hell-raising student, to see if the bar that served a metre of Pastis for spare change is still here. It is - but Chez Tonton won’t open until much later. Likewise for La Couleur de la Culotte, which, as legend goes, gives you a free drink if you flash your underwear.

Mercifully this relaxed square has some more grown-up options for a sundowner beer, like Le Bar Basque with its colourful outdoor furniture. I set off along Quai Saint Pierre, with the Hopital de la Grave, instantly recognisable for its green dome atop pink bricks, across the river. It’s surrounded by the now hip neighbourhood Saint Cyprien, and its waterfront walkway is the ideal stage for a sunny afternoon stroll.

First stop is the 13th-century Jacobin Church. It’s the biggest church in Toulouse, but also the most frustrating - its wide terracotta bricks aren’t easy to find anywhere, meaning it’s a nightmare to renovate. It’s easy to forgive the Dominicans, who built it, when I step inside and stand underneath its moorish arches to admire the blue and red light gently coming through the stained glass.

Onto the Fondation Bemberg, the grandest of the city’s 16th-century hidden mansions. Once a private house, it’s today a posh art gallery that has Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso among its collection.

The modern Toulouse centres on industry, and its star student is Airbus. Even now, most visitors are here for business - handy, because hotel rates are cheaper at weekends than weekdays.

Pixabay

I never explored La Rue Gramat, a graffiti-spattered street tucked behind the Basilica Saint-Sernin in the old town. And I was too broke to have dinner at the 70s-themed, bingo-hall-carpeted restaurant Ma Biche Sur La Toit atop the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre, with a swaggering rooftop bar - although at 32, I appreciate it far more.

Some things haven’t changed. I’m still eating small plates at the whitewashed Victor Hugo market. What looks like a boring car park from the outside is a lively food market inside, selling French saucisson, cheese, flowers, vegetables. It’s hugged by four bars on each corner, serving small coupes of wine or petite beers with plates of meat and cheese and bread, whatever the time of the day.

A decade has done little to dent Toulouse’s red-blooded joie de vivre.

Details: Toulouse easyJet flies to Toulouse from Gatwick from £32.99pp one-way. Rooms at Hotel La Villa du Taur start from €94 per night (villadutaur.com). For more information on booking a holiday to Toulouse, toulouse-visit.com