Six things you must do in… Toulouse
Known as La Ville Rose, or The Pink City, because of the proliferation of redbrick buildings, Toulouse, centre of the European aerospace industry, is one of France’s most attractive destinations. Gareth Huw Davies spent a weekend there and found elegant, ancient wonders, modern marvels and superb eating.
1- Hidden gem
The Hotel Garonne (00 33 5 34 31 94 80, www.hotelgaronne.com) nestles below the ancient bridge over the river, just off the city centre. It’s tiny and intimate – reception doubles as the bar and I counted a mere 30 steps from the front desk to our room, recently redecorated in warm red and beige and dominated by a big oval mirror. Ten strides over the narrow street is the hotel’s own Restaurant le 19 (00 33 5 34 31 94 84), all wooden panels and terracotta bricks under a curved ceiling.
2- Squaring up
Toulouse’s Place du Capitole easily passes the ‘great city squares of Europe’ test. There’s a vast, car-free space for strolling and people-watching and one of those immense old civic buildings (in this case, the Town Hall and opera house combined) that the French do so well as a backdrop.
Find a table at one of the many cafes and order pre-dinner drinks. Then call back for a nightcap, when the square is decoratively lit up, as are many of the city’s public buildings and bridges. If you want to eat on the square, try the Grand Cafe de l’Opera, a glossy brasserie said to serve the best oysters in town.
3- Eat with the locals
We were surrounded by regulars at Le Bon Vivre on Place Wilson (00 33 5 61 23 07 17, www.lebonvivre.com) – the sign of a good French restaurant.
The day’s favourite was the enormous cassoulet in an earthenware bowl, their generous version of this regional dish, which they make with duck and pork. The set-price lunch is unbelievably cheap at £9-£12.
Next evening, we sat at a pavement table outside La Braisiere (00 33 5 61 52 37 13, www.labraisiere.fr) for more excellent, straightforward French food – a wide range of grills from a wood oven. The bill was £40 for two (including ice cream in honey).
4- Trek to the stars
We saw the stellar ambition of Cité de l’Espace (www.cite-espace. com), Europe’s best space museum, from afar. Rising out of the Toulouse suburbs is the 150ft-high life-size version of the Ariane 5 rocket.
Among a constellation of exhibits are a full-size model of the Russian satellite Sputnik launched in 1957, a big chunk of Moon rock and genuine sections of the Russian Mir craft and the Space Station.
There are enough intelligent displays and hands-on exhibitions to fill a day. But a minute is long enough in the gyroscope, in which you are hurled upside-down and back-to-front for the 360-degree spin-dryer treatment.
Then sit back and gaze at the universe in the state-of-the-art planetarium. Admission: adults £14, children £10.
5- Plane magnifique
Until the Airbus A380 starts regular flights, the company’s HQ at Blagnac in suburban Toulouse (00 33 5 34 39 42 00, www.taxway.fr) is the best place to see the world’s largest airliner (the wings, by the way, are made in North Wales). It’s 210ft long and as high as an eight-storey building.
They start the 90-minute A380 tour with an overview of the programme, then drive you around the runways to see the outside testing areas and the production facility in an immense hangar.
Visitors may even catch these astonishing 500-plus-seat monsters taking off or landing on proving flights. But beware – they apply a strict no-photographs rule. You have to carry your passport for identification and must book ahead.
Admission: adults £10.50, children £8.30.
6- Vision in pink
It started as a medieval economy measure – red brick instead of more expensive white stone. Fortunately, Toulouse stuck with its distinctive colour code and gave its compact old heart, largely intact since the 1400s, a different and seductive decor.
We wandered the narrow streets, where the Smart Car is the vehicle of choice (it’s the only one that fits) and took in the splendid highlights.
The 11th Century Basilica of St Sernin, the largest (300ft long) and finest Romanesque church in Europe, contains the tomb of St Thomas Aquinas. The art gallery Hôtel d’Assézat has landscapes by Pierre Bonnard, famous for his intense colours.
Everywhere are the 50 towers of Toulouse. The best is above Bernuy Mansion, home of the baron who grew rich trading woad – the blue dye which Julius Caesar saw the ancient Britons wearing.
So feel free to visit Toulouse but don’t forget to book a luggage storage to enjoy !