There are places in Europe that I have been dozens of times to and then there are these blank spots on the map. Like Toulouse in France. During my recent short-haul rotation, I was lucky enough to spend one night in this cute city in the South of France, about 590 kilometers by plane from Paris. Even though I only had a few hours left of the afternoon and I was still devastated from getting up at 2:45am in the morning, I took the chance and walked “La Ville Rose“. And boy was it worth it!
Archaeological evidence dates human settlement in the area back to the 8th century BC. Tolosa, at it was named in the early stages of civilization, belonged to Gaul. It is believed to have been among the wealthiest and most important cities within the empire during pre-Roman times. And it is one of the few French cities which original name has almost been unchanged over the centuries.
About 106 BC, Tolosa was under siege and belonged to the Roman Empire, forming the capital of the Gallia Narbonensis province. Over the next millennium, there were lots of changes in the occupying forces. From the Visigoths to the Arabs to the Aquitans, they all left their influences in architecture and lifestyle which still show these days and contribute to the rich history that Toulouse can look back onto.
In 1271, the reign over Toulouse was passed to the King of France while the city remained more or less independent. During the Renaissance (1450 until 1550), it was one of the richest cities within the Kingdom of France. One of the reasons was the pastel plant that grew south-eastern of Toulouse and that was used to produce the popular blue color.
Today, Toulouse is world-famous for manufacturing the Airbus and ATR aircrafts as well as being the headquarter for the EADS, the European air and space industry. It was also the production site for the legendary supersonic passenger plane Concorde, as well the founding place for France´s national airline Air France.
But apart from playing obviously quite an important role in France´s industry today, Toulouse is simply pretty. While being presently the fourth largest city in the country, it still has kept lots of its ancient small village charm and style and makes it perfect to be discovered either by foot or by bike.
I had round about four hours to explore the area which was stuffed with cute little outdoor cafés, contemporary and stylish boutiques and lots of shops selling artesian chocolates and other fabrications from the area. I was also not aware of the fact, that Toulouse was a very important station for pilgrims walking the Camino Francés (Way of St. James) from Arles to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Here are my six favorite spots that should absolutely be on your to-do-list when visiting the city. Wherever you have just a few hours to spare or a whole weekend.
St. Etienne Cathedral
She is the seat of the Archbishop of Toulouse and a national monument of France. The construction is very special as it consists of two uncompleted churches and different architectural styles which can well be seen from the out as well as the inside. Particularly the flamboyant nave is worth seeing. Large parts of the church are believed to date back to the early 13th century with beautiful remains of stained-glass windows and wall paintings.
Via the Garonne River and the embedding canals, Toulouse is both connected to the Atlantic Ocean as well as to the Mediterranean. Many bridges connect both sides of the city and the river shores have been well transformed into a beautiful recreational area for the residents. Life takes place outside in Toulouse, so it can be a great idea to have a picnic here or watch the sunset with a bottle of wine along. Or simply to take a romantic promenade along the Garonne.
Like mentioned before, Toulouse is fabulous to be explored by foot. Small alleyways and back streets lead to one little romantic square to the other. Get inspired by the many diverse architectural styles and take a trip back in time while walking and discovering. Have a café auf lait or some wine in one of the many street coffee shops along with a regional cassoulet while watching the lively street scenes or window shop through the endless numbers of unique boutiques and shops selling contemporary art, fashion and designs.
Capitole City Hall
Located right downtown, the city hall is believed to have been erected right on the exact borders between the Roman and the medieval parts of Toulouse. This was to symbolize the local government´s neutralism in terms of politics back then. The Place du Capitole, as the major square is called, covers over five acres and is considered to be the true center of Toulouse. The Languedoc cross, a bronze sculpture embedded in the square´s ground, still functions as a sun cross these days and the building´s main attractions are the Great Staircase, the Salle Gervais and the Salle des Illustres which can be visited free of charge. The interiors are decorated lavishly with beautiful wall paintings by famous artist Paul-Jean Gervais. Particularly the Salle des Illustres, which is presently still used for official receptions and wedding ceremonies, is jaw-dropping!
Couvent de Jacobins Monastery
The Convent of the Jacobins is a Romanesque masterpiece with an architectural uniqueness befitting Toulouse’s controversial history. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Basilica hardly resembles anything else built in the same period, and many of its artistic touches seem to anticipate future designs. The single carillon bell-tower is located at the crossing point of the basilica, rather than near the entrance. The bell-tower also bears more of a resemblance to an oriental pagoda than the twin square towers commonly used in France at the time.
The Convent of the Jacobins features the cells, choir and refectory of a typical monastery as well as a superb cloister garden. The religious highlight of the convent is the Tomb of Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the body was, in fact, divided up at the time of the French Revolution. The portion that was left in Toulouse was burned, and what is now buried here are his cremated remains.
While the church itself is open to the public, access to the adjacent monastery garden comes at a fee of 4€ per person. It is well worth it though for taking a well-deserved rest in this refuge of tranquility.
A masterpiece of Romanesque art, the Saint-Sernin basilica has had significant renovation work done on it over the past 30 years : recovery of the bell tower, extrication of the mural paintings of the 12th Century, revival of the alter from 1096, the crypts and the displays of the treasure trove (with its exceptional works). An important pilgrimage stop on the Way of Saint James, “Routes of Santiago de Compostela”. The treasure trove of the basilica is located in the ambulatory and in the crypts of the building.
It is an impressive piece of architecture from both the outside and inside. I was particularly impressed by the high altar and the ceiling paintings above. There seemed to be tours of the gallery above available, but unfortunately I did not have the time to inquire about it.