TRAVEL: Tour of Toulouse

The fourth largest city in France is not only known for its architecture, history or shops. These days, Toulouse is the home of Airbus, maker of the A380, the biggest plane ever made, and has no less than three universities.

But if your intentions are to discover the real heart of this fascinating settlement in southern France, you have plenty of pleasures ahead.

Toulouse is located in the Haute-Garonne department in the Midi-Pyrenees region. It has a long and sometimes turbulent history. Its name dates back to the second century BC and the settlement was incorporated into the kingdom of France in 1271.

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Flying in to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, the fact that you're in the nicer part of Europe climatewise is made obvious by the number of outdoor domestic swimming pools you can see as the plane descends. Stamps of bright blue here, there and everywhere. Every house on some streets seemed to have one.

A traveller to any French city would expect great food, bustling markets and that exquisite mixture of old and new that makes the country so distinctive. It is all here in Toulouse, a place far nearer Spain than Paris.

All the street names are written in two languages. French, of course, but also Occitan (known as langue d'oc) which is spoken in southern France, the Occitan Valleys of Italy, Monaco, and Spain's Val d'Aran. The people of Toulouse see themselves as very different to those of the north.

I arrived in Toulouse in the middle of a warm summer day and, having spent most of the morning in airports and 30,000 feet up in a plane, felt peckish. I was directed to a restaurant called Le Bibent on Place du Capitole.

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What a place to have a meal! The food is great but the decor is astonishing. Paintings on the walls and ceiling, stupendous chandeliers, the feeling of eating in luxury in the late 19th-century. Le Bibent packs a punch on the eyes and the taste buds.

Then we ventured outside into the bright sunshine and the splendour of the Place du Capitole, a majestic square with the city hall on one edge and shops on the other three.

History isn't sidelined in Toulouse. In fact, old and new stand alongside each other and the city is clearly proud of its architecture. A prominent feature is the buildings with russet tiles and red-orange bricks.

I wandered round the Marche Victor Hugo, a French market in the finest tradition. The aroma of a multitude of cheeses in the air, fresh meats of all kinds, scores of cakes and other desserts - this place was a foodie's dream.

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Then I walked along the narrow, winding and often pedestrianised streets and discovered a plethora of individual boutiques, specialist shops, bookshops in close proximity to chocolatiers and the latest fashions near a shop specialising in woad products.

I eventually ended up by the city's river, La Garonne, and could see the old Pont Neuf bridge linking the main city with the area containing such attractions as the Galerie du Chateau d'Eau, the Musee de la Medecine and the modern art museum Les Abattoirs.

Next I visited the Couvent des Jacobins, a majestic religious building which is being refurbished to restore its full glory. Work originally began on the building in 1230 by the Dominican brethren known as the Jacobins but in Revolutionary times it became a storehouse for horses and weapons, causing extensive damage.

One interesting feature is a huge mirror allowing a visitor to see the amazing ceiling easily. The effect of looking into it is a weird one and gives the impression of hovering in space.

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There is so much to see in Toulouse that you need a week. There is the Crypte Archeologique, the  Basilique Saint-Sernin, the Jardin des Plantes, the list goes on. You could opt for a boat trip along La Garonne or the Canal du Midi.

Throughout the year there is a varied cultural and sporting calendar, such as the Rio Loco world music festival, the Toulouse les Orgues organ music festival and rugby matches at the Stade Toulousain.

Toulouse is easy to access by train, plane and automobile. Discover it for yourself.


You can find out more by contacting the Midi-Pyrenees Tourist Board at

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