My New Favorite City in France
The scale. The architecture. The people. The colors. The pale red brick against the bright blue sky. It's hard not to fall in love.
Any friend of mine who asks me what to do in one of my favorite cities gets a whole Google Doc of places to see and things to experience.
Weirdly, if you demanded the same of me about my latest obsession—Toulouse, in the south of France—I would be at a bit of a loss.
Not because there aren’t great things to see or places to eat and so on, but because the thing I fell in love with in this city, the thing that made it a shoo-in for our fantastic series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World, is that as corny as it sounds, it’s the city itself!
I was in Toulouse in July for a tour focusing on France’s other cities, i.e., not Paris. The three my tour focused on were Montpellier, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, and while I found Montpellier perfectly charming (it’s very pretty and near sandy beaches) and Bordeaux captivating for an architecture lover (it’s like a mini pre-Haussmann Paris), it was Toulouse that I fell head over heels for.
The scale. The architecture. The people. The colors. The pale red brick against the bright blue sky. The wealth and cleanliness of Munich mixed with a historic Renaissance vibe of Florence. Amsterdam with color accents of the south of France. It had always been on the periphery of my French consciousness but without that singular iconic sight, I never felt the desire to visit.
But perhaps most telling is that while rushing to the train station after my two days there were up, I already knew I was going to come back next spring to explore further.
It’s known as La Ville Rose (The Pink City) because of the pink-ish bricks used in its architecture, but it was the color blue that made the city rich. After a fire destroyed most of the wood-built city in 1463, Toulouse was reborn thanks to a plant with an ugly name—woad—and rebuilt with its now famous bricks. For hundreds of years, blue pastel from the plant was the source of Toulouse’s fortunes; fortunes that can be seen in perhaps my favorite destinations throughout the city--its private Renaissance-era mansions with their pissing contest-esque towers. (This wealth would end with the rise of indigo.) It was also a regional political capital (after centuries of being a regional power independent of the French crown).
A remnant of its independence is that the street signs are both in French and Occitan, which was the Romance language spoken in this region until the early 20th century. Oh, and I guess that independence could also be reflected in their insistence that the flakey rectangular pastry lined with two strips of chocolate that you know as pain au chocolat is not actually called a pain au chocolat but is in fact a chocolatine.
While it was no longer the mega-wealthy city that pastel financed during the Renaissance, Toulouse always remained a prominent city. However, in the 20th century, it became the center of Europe’s aerospace industry, both as the headquarters for Airbus. That kind of institutional wealth has kept the city, well, nice. Six-hundred-year-old buildings tend to look fabulous when rich people are maintaining them. As do historic city centers.
Walking its streets, one can’t help but feel that despite all the dynamiting of urban landscapes and urban planning philosophy in the 20th century, this is how a city should feel. The narrow streets filled with one impossibly cute shop after impossibly cute shop. Restaurants where you wish you had an inheritance to squander drinking away the afternoon with your equally louche circle of friends. Buildings all three or four stories high, squares filled with people, and a riverside with a grassy park alive at night with denizens lounging and drinking in a way we don’t trust ourselves with as Americans.
I have mixed feelings about food markets, not because I have anything against any particular one but mainly because every town with a tourism board on the planet wants to tell you about theirs. That being said, one of the highlights of Toulouse is undoubtedly the Marché Victor Hugo and a tour of it run by Jessica Hammer of Taste of Toulouse.
A couple of the stops in and around the market were so fantastic that if you’re only in the city a few hours, make a beeline.
The first is Papaix et Fils, local producers of foie gras that was melt-in-the-mouth delicious (part of why I’d recommend putting yourself in Hammer’s hands is I think she handles the red-hot topic of foie gras ethics deftly). Around the corner was Maison Garcia, where we sourced charcuterie for the lunch, and I must say the uncouth American in me felt less Clampett-like with a little nugget of information about how the saucisson sec we sampled was much stronger in taste because it was from a female pig. (We also had a goose rillette from there, which I could have just gorged on.)
The star attraction, though, was Xavier Fromagerie. I love cheese, but here you’ll find a cheese counter more overwhelming and intimidating than a luxury fashion store. I’ll leave it to Hammer to convince you to expand what you might have thought you could enjoy, but I am now a massive fan of cheeses I would never dared to try otherwise.
And while I said Toulouse doesn’t have that singular attraction, it certainly has many wonderful sights. (I want to return both to soak in the atmosphere of this city at a more leisurely pace but also to further explore its sights). I did visit la Cité de l'espace, an indoor-outdoor museum devoted to outer space just outside the city. It was some of the most nerdy fun I’ve had lately.
And the installations at La Halle de la Machine (giant machines used in theatrical settings in city streets around the world) are incredible feats of imagination. Although, I do have to admit I found the Giant Minotaur très sexual!
On our final night in Toulouse, after dinner at the riverside Brasserie des Beaux Arts we walked the streets in search of ice cream. Algeria had just won an important soccer match, and so occasionally a car or motorcycle would go zooming past, horns beeping or music blaring in celebration. We eventually headed down to the riverside, partially to escape a steamy day that had cooled into only a somewhat-steamy night. And while it’s no knock on my journalist companions that night, as I looked down on the grassy lawn by the riverside covered in French people lolling about, all I wished was that I still had the charcuterie, cheese, and sparkling wine from the market tour earlier in the day and a few close friends to share it all with.