I went to Toulouse because the flight was cheap. I had a long weekend in mid-May—thanks to the local fiesta—and nothing planned; so I checked Skyscanner for the cheapest flights available. Toulouse was the clear winner. Off to France I went.
One reason the flight was cheap is because Toulouse is so close to Spain, about two hours by car from the Pyrenees. Perhaps another reason is that the city is the center of Europe’s aerospace industry. Why this should be, I cannot say, but Toulouse hosts the headquarters of several prominent companies and is at the center of the so-called Aerospace Valley in southern France. The fourth-largest city in the country, Toulouse is also an administrative center, being the capital of Occitanie. This region of France has historically been quite linguistically diverse, incorporating French speakers, Catalan speakers, and also Occitan speakers (sometimes called langue d’oc). It is a city with a past and a future.
A metro helpfully connects the airport to the city center, making the journey into town painless and even pleasant. Getting to and from the airport can sometimes be a headache—either expensive, convoluted, or both—so it is a relief when the authorities remove this obstacle. From there I still had quite a walk, however, since in the interest of cheapness—my guiding angel—I booked an Airbnb far outside of the center. Admittedly, I could have taken a bus; but the weather was nice and I felt like seeing the town.
The walk led me up an attractive avenue, under a triumphal arch, and into a little park, where there is a charming fountain featuring the dashing Pèire Godolin, an Occitan poet from the sixteenth century. From here I still had a long ways to go, passing through the city center, over the lovely Garonne River, and then over a little canal. Proceeding on this way, I could see why Toulouse is called “The Pink City” by the French, since so many buildings use distinctive, pinkish bricks.
Upon arrival, I discovered that my host did not speak a word of English. As my French is similarly nonexistent, I expected conversation to be pretty stale. But with the aid of Google translate he invited me to have dinner with him and his sister. I accepted, and spent the meal eating, drinking, and smiling, while the two of them talked. It was surprisingly enjoyable. He even invited me for dinner the next day, which proceeded in a similar fashion. My initial discomfort from being unable to communicate turned into real delight in the food and company, and shame for not being able to properly express my thanks for such generosity.
When I woke up the next day, my host was in the living room watching TV. Emmanuel Macron was taking part in the inauguration ceremonies. To the world’s relief, he had just beaten Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, stemming the tide of right-wing populism. Though ignorant of his politics, I was happy to see the young man stepping up to France’s highest office. My host seemed ambivalent; he did not like Le Pen, but he wasn’t too keen on Macron either.
I first visited the city’s most iconic monument, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. This is a massive hulk of a building; indeed it is the biggest Romanesque building in the world. For many reasons, Romanesque architectural methods are not as conducive to tall buildings as Gothic techniques. The barrel vault and the rounded arch do not distribute weight as efficiently as their Gothic counterparts; and no flying buttresses help to support the weight of the walls. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin rivals any gothic cathedral in its dimensions. The bell-tower is especially impressive, standing 64 meters (over 200 feet) above the ground, on five levels of arches. Perhaps the church was built on such a large scale is because of the many pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago, of which Toulouse was an important stop; indeed its historic connection with that pilgrimage is why the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Toulouse’s cathedral is a far less majestic structure. Formed from the unification of two incomplete churches, everything about the structure is irregular. The floorplan does not follow the usual cruciform since the two axes are out of alignment. Styles juxtapose, sometimes discordantly, both inside and outside the cathedral; and the visitor is left a little puzzled. Much more pleasing is the Church of the Jacobites. Its influential design uses brick walls and central columns, which branch out like palm trees into the ribbed vaulting, to support the tall roof. Its gaping stained-glass windows provide the space with an ethereal glow. For a price the visitor can visit the peaceful cloisters next door. Though I did not know it at the time, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous theologian, are located here.
One thing I soon noticed—and then cursed—is that food in France is notably more expensive than it is in Spain. This is true in Toulouse, even though it is so close to the border, and even though many of the ingredients in the supermarkets come from Spain. I suppose taxes must be the explanation. Indeed, it was not very far from here, at Le Boulou, where angry French vinters (perhaps inspired after having read A Tale of Two Cities) stopped trucks transporting Spanish wine and spilled it onto the highway. Spain has very low taxes on wine, and fewer restrictions regarding the production of it, which is why it is so much cheaper. The Gallic wine makers considered the competition unfair, and did what all oppressed French people do: make the streets run red. In any case, for those looking for an affordable but elegant French meal, the Restaurant Le May is the best choice that I found in Toulouse.
If you have not eaten too much, you can pass the time by walking through the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s attractive central park. Another pleasant walk is along the city’s Canal de Brienne, attractively shaded with rows of trees.
Perhaps the nicest walking area along the Garonne River, observing the pretty brick buildings and their watery reflections. I spent some time sitting on the park by the water, trying to get through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History; and I am happy to report that the pleasant surroundings helped to offset the boredom induced by the book’s dry tone. From the riverside you can also observe the city’s attractive Pont Neuf, or “new bridge”—which is not very new, considering it was built 500 years ago. One thing from the riverside that particularly sticks out in my memory is a public toilet that completely washed itself after every use. Once the door was shut, it would lock, and swishing and spraying sounds could be heard on the other side. After about three minutes it would unlock, and the visitor could step into a sterilized and slightly wet bathroom. The future is here.
The benefits of visiting a city that is not a major tourist destination is that you see more snatches of daily life. Walking along one day, I stumbled upon a kind of public exercises routine, with a woman on stage guiding a crowd of people through calisthenics. Such things remind me of those silly eighties dancercise videos—either that, or the scene in 1984 when Wilson has to do coordinated exercises with the telescreen. Later that day, as I walked in a park along the river, I noticed that someone had set up loudspeakers and couples were engaged in ballroom dance. Without a partner, I did not join in. At dinner with my host, as he was in the kitchen preparing lasagna, one of his friends started on a passionate declaration of her love of electronic music, and promptly turned on her music to full volume. This was fine with me, since I could barely understand what anyone said anyway.
Though I had plenty of time in Toulouse, I did not exhaust everything there is to see. My major regret is not going to the Hôtel d’Assézat, a beautiful Renaissance palace that houses the Bemberg Foundation. This is an art gallery formed from the private collection of Georges Bemberg, a wealthy so-and-so who had a fine eye in addition to a deep purse. Among the works on display are some by Titian, Tintoretto, Picasso, Braque, and Signac. If I am ever in the neighborhood again I will be sure to visit.
But I did visit one museum that far exceeded my expectations: the Musée des Augustins. Its name comes from the building’s history as an Augustine monastery. The secularizing turmoils of the French Revolution put an end to that; and shortly thereafter, in 1801, it became a museum, displaying a collection that mostly came from confiscated monasteries. While this was undoubtedly unfortunate for the monks, it has benefitted the tourist, since now there is a large museum in a historical building in the heart of the city.
The museum itself is attractive for its gothic architecture and its cloisters wrapping around green gardens. Its extensive collection consists of both sculpture and painting. Personally I found the former to be more impressive, especially the Romanesque works on display. Indeed, I would rank the Musée des Augustins along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, for the quality and quantity of Romanesque sculpture. The Occitan and Catalan region is particularly rich in this style, it seems.
My favorite room in the museum is the one exhibiting Romanesque capitals. Each one stands on a pillar, at eye level; and over each a glass light hangs down. I spent about twenty minutes in the room, examining each one, savoring the powerful simplicity of the sculptures. Western art most closely approached Mesopotamian during this time, with stylized figures and symbolic poses, each one a blend of decoration, poetry, and architecture. There are intricate patterns made from vegetable and animal motifs; there are religious figures, like the apostles and the Virgin; and there are scenes from life—people eating, playing instruments, rowing a boat. On these capitals an entire way of life and worldview seems to be inscribed.
There are some fine gothic sculptures on display as well. My favorite is the long row of gargoyle dogs, standing along a hallway, who seem to be howling into infinity. In another room is a collection of surprisingly lifelike figures, who are dressed in typical Medieval European clothes, even though they are supposed to represent Biblical personages. In a wide room, which I believe used to hold a church, there are dozens of works on display—tombs, busts, and bronze casts. Here the Virgin sits with Christ, there St. Michael is smiting Satan, and over here Mercury is delivering a message.
After such an embarrassment of riches, I hardly expected to find such an enormous painting gallery. As in the Louvre, the paintings cover the walls up the ceilings, meaning that many are far above eye-level. This makes for an impressive first-glance, but detracts from the experience of the art. Though the collection is extensive, and includes works from Dutch, Italian, and Spanish painters, what most sticks out in my memory are the many neoclassical French paintings to be found. Typically I find these paintings charming but forgettable; though some rise beyond this, such as Jean-André Rixens’s Death of Cleopatra.
This wraps up my visit to Toulouse. The next day I woke up very early, walked through town—over the canal, through the park, down the lane—back to the metro stop to take me back to the airport. As I watched the French countryside recede from the plane window, feeling happy and satisfied, I decided that Toulouse would still be worth visiting even if the flights weren’t quite so cheap.