Locals lovingly call it ‘The Pink City’. Actually, the ubiquitous bricks of Toulouse’s classic facades are more like orange in colour but, hey, let’s not quibble, they make this an undeniably handsome city, imbued with a real sense of importance – making it more like a mini-capital than a provincial outpost.
Yes, the neatly aligned grid pattern of the streets was laid down way back in Roman times and there are all those sublime 17 and 18t Century edifices but Toulouse is cutting-edge modern too.
France’s fourth largest city is, it should be noted, the home of Airbus and hordes of other hi-tech companies too. Galileo, the global positioning system, is headquartered there, along with enough other key aviation and IT businesses to earn the nickname ‘Aerospace Alley’.
Toulouse is home to Europe’s largest cancer research facility and to the largest space centre on this side of the Atlantic. It’s also one of Europe’s most vibrant shopping cities, with a mix of trendy boutiques, fashionable big stores and ultra-modern malls where overloaded credit cards seem to ignite spontaneously.
Besides hordes of professionals and entrepreneurs, this vibrant metropolis also has a huge student body – around 119,000 of them, or nearly 10 per cent of the total population.
Not surprisingly then, it has a pulsating nightlife scene, with plenty of action up to and well beyond midnight – a striking contrast to so many big French conurbations where if more than a dozen people are out together on a Friday night the authorities are likely to send out the riot police. For Toulouse, think New York with a heavy French accent.
For the night owls among us, our press trip to celebrate the launch of BMI Regional’s new route from Birmingham – a sensible, modern, human-scale airport that, for those from Northern Ireland, obviates the need of passing through the hell-hole that is Heathrow – was perfectly timed, coinciding as it did with France’s annual all-night Fête de la Musique. This annual summer free festival of music of the people, by the people, for the people, started in Paris in 1982 and now takes place in towns and cities not only across the Republic but in 110 countries around the globe.
In Toulouse it’s a massive, manic June event, with musicians, amateur and professional, talented and tuneless, playing all manner of music – rock, pop, classical, blues, reggae, country, folk, heavy metal, third world – not only in clubs and pubs, halls and churches across the city but, most importantly, out on the streets. The overall din of it all is unbelievable but totally enervating.
It was my misfortune that I had a techno band blaring outside my hotel room window till nine next morning but our excellent late night sampling of the unctuous Toulouse cassoulet – a mouth-watering stew of beans, pork, sausage, black pudding and duck confit – had been accompanied by a wonderful New Orleans-style marching band, tuba and all, while next door a colourful Brazilian outfit was blaring out the hypnotic rhythms of the samba.
Our restaurant had proven a savvy choice – the outstanding Le J’Go Toulouse (www.leigo.com/presentation-resto_bistrot.html) showcasing Denis Meliet’s take on modern French bistro dining, with a nod towards traditional SW French peasant cooking – hence that wonderful cassoulet.
Let the good times roll
We didn't linger too long over our double espresso coffees and large Armagnac brandies though because the streets were calling. With crowds of Cup Final proportions and density, you had no option but to get swept along with the ebb and flow of a horde that might have been raucous but never seemed threatening. French or foreign, sophisticated music buff or just someone who likes to boogie, we were all united in the intention, as that marching band would put it, to “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler” (“Let The Good Times Roll”).
Of course, there were sore heads among us when we hit the breakfast buffet next morning – croissants and strong black coffee being the order of the day – but you can’t keep a city like Toulouse waiting and we were promptly at roll call for a guided tour of a place that, despite being part of the Midi Pyrénées department, is built on a billiard table flat plain, besides the broad River Garonne, and is therefore eminently walkable. It also has two very modern, spic and span underground railway lines.
There were plenty of highlights to see as we stumbled from coffee stop to hair of the dog libation to street snacks at the atmospheric 121-year old Victor Hugo covered market, with its 100-plus active stalls – a great place for foodies to discover the local cheeses, charcuterie, wines, herbs and the freshest fruit and veg.
Housing the present city hall and an opera house, the imposing Capitole is famous for its dramatic facade, with its eight pink marble columns, as well as the Henri IV-era courtyard and ornate Salle des Illustres.
A masterpiece of the Romanesque style, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin has been lavishly renovated over the past 30 years, revealing the full glory of its mediaeval frescoes and murals.
Another of the city’s noteworthy religious buildings is the Jacobins Convent, founded in 1216 and built entirely from bricks.
An important secular building, the grandiose Hôtel d’Assézat houses the Fondation Bemberg, a richly endowed permanent collection of paintings, bronzes and objets d’art assembled in the 17 Century by a local trader who made his fortune from dealing in woad, a plant extract used, the schoolboy within me remembers, by the ancient Brits for body painting and by the mediaeval French for dying fabrics – of which more later.
Finally, and to complete our all too short wiz round downtown, we visited the Musée des Augustins fine art museum with its remarkable collections of Roman sculptures and Gothic and 19 Century era works of art, which left us time for a leisurely stroll to our dinner venue – the classy white-on-white basement, tucked away in the narrow Descent de la Halle des Poissons passageway, close to the river, that houses one of the city’s gastronomic gems – Le Py-R (www.pyr.com). With its imaginative take on modern French cuisine and an exemplary wine list, this intimately romantic venue is headed by young chef Pierre Lambinon, a highly creative protégée of the Alain Ducasse school.
After a leisurely meal, in good company, with entertaining conversation, it was still early enough to warrant a leisurely stroll back to the Citez Hotel, taking in the delights of the new Plan Lumiere scheme which shows Toulouse really in the pink as subtle lights pick out its finest buildings in a soft glow.
The boutique four-star Citez (www.citezhotel.com) has 56 elegant modern rooms, with quality amenities, including free wi-fi and ADSL, superior quality bedding and a central location fronting onto bustling Wilson Square.
Entertaining and educational
Next morning it was up early for a flying visit to the brilliant Cité de l’Espace (www.cite-espace.com) theme park, which spreads across five fun, entertainment and educational hectares and currently attracts more than 270,000 visitors a year with its ‘how space works’ attractions – many of them hands-on.
The park’s big draw this summer has been the ‘Discover Mars’ IMAX experience, which has an English audioguide. Incidentally, English language signage is prominent throughout the park.
Nearby, the acclaimed culinary skills of Jean-Christophe Lassalle drew us to the Le Chai Saint-Sauveur restaurant (www.chai-saint-Sauveur.fr) for lunch.
There was one final stop to make: yes, back to the woad, or pastel, as the dye is called in French.
Sandrine Banessi, the visionary founder, owner and factotum of the new Terre de Pastel (www.terredepastel.com) shop, spa and mini-museum complex was waiting to welcome us into her world of blue. Facial and body treatments in the 700 sq metre spa – the largest in Midi Pyrénées – feature a pool, a solarium, Turkish bath, sauna, Jacuzzi, sensation showers, seven treatment booths, a gym and a herbal tea shop, while the delightful museum tells the story of the plant and its use to create that wonderful, subtle colour we all know as pastel blue.
An on-site 80-seater restaurant and delicatessen promotes local gastronomic products and offers a tempting traditional sweet trolley with table service. Also on offer is a wine list devoted exclusively to the wines of South West France.
Too soon, it was time to go. From the hotel it was just a 15-minute drive to Blagnac Airport via the regular Flybus shuttle service for our flight back to Birmingham and onward connection to Belfast.
Crowned ‘The World’s Most Punctual Airline’ for eight years in a row, BMI Regional (www.bmiregional.com) now operates more than 450 flights a week throughout the UK and the rest of Europe, with flights coasting from £59 each way.
The Birmingham-Toulouse service operates daily except Saturday. All flights include complimentary on-board food and drink, 20 kg free hold baggage allowance and 30-minute check-in.