One thing that keeps this region from nodding off in its vats of duck fat and wine is this big pink dynamo on the Garonne. Toulouse, nicknamed La Ville Rose for its millions of pink bricks, has 1,360,000 and counting inhabitants, more than 110,000 university students, a well-preserved historic centre with the world’s biggest Romanesque church, and most of the EU’s aeronautics, space and related high-tech industries.
Instead of France’s fourth city, Toulouse should have been the capital of a twanging, Occitan-speaking nation called Languedoc, but it was knocked out of the big leagues in the 1220s by the popes and the kings of France and their henchman Simon de Montfort. Eight centuries later, Toulouse is rediscovering its mojo as the capital of Occitanie, a grand région stretching from the Dordogne to the Rhône, encompassing nearly all of the former territories of the once mighty Counts of Toulouse.
Spain extends her cape here, distilling enough passion to make Toulouse une ville d’émotion, emotion that spills over when its beloved rugby side, the Stade Toulousain, takes to the field. The city’s motto is Per Tolosa totjorn mai (‘For Toulouse, always more’). Always more sprawl and traffic jams, but also always more for visitors to see and do, showing off its air and space technology at the Cité d’Espace and Aeroscopia – along with the cunning steampunk marvels to ride in the Halle de la Machine.
What to see and do in Toulouse
Place du Capitole
Toulouse’s front parlour dates from 1850, after a 200-year-long campaign to rid it of excess buildings. As a permanent memorial to the southern kingdom of nevermore, the centre of the pavement is marked by an enormous Cross of Languedoc, complete with symbols of the Zodiac added in 1993, by Raymond Moretti, who also decorated the ceilings of the square’s porticoes with scenes from the city’s history. This same golden cross on a red background hangs proudly from Toulouse’s city hall, the Capitole, or capitolium as it reads on the façade, bowing to a 16th-century story claiming that ancient Rome got its Capitol idea from Toulouse’s temple of Capitoline Jupiter.
The portal on the right belongs to the Théâtre du Capitole, while over the central door eight pink marble columns represent the eight Capitouls. Pedestrians can cut through the magnificent gateway into the inner Cour Henri IV, with a statue of said king, who in 1602 gave his permission for the construction of the courtyard. Henri would have said non! had he known what was going to happen on this spot 30 years later, thanks to the jealous rivalries and schemes of his two neurotic sons, Louis XIII and Gaston d’Orléans (‘Monsieur’ for short), and the prime minister and arch-puppeteer Cardinal Richelieu.
The grand stair leads to the delightful public rooms, decorated between the mid 19th century and into the 1920s with monumental picture book illustrations of the history of Toulouse. The vast Salle des Illustres is lined with paintings of Toulouse’s moments of glory, including the stupendous Pope Urban II Entering Toulouse in 1095 to Summon Raymond IV to the First Crusade by Benjamin Constant and the Victory over Simon de Montfort by Laurens, complete with the Apotheosis of the Woman Who Killed Simon de Montfort on the ceiling, honouring the city’s anonymous heroine.
Musée des Augustins
Housed in a 14th-century Augustinian convent, this treasure chest of art owes its founding to Alexandre Dumège, the self-taught medieval-art-loving son of a Dutch actor. During the Revolution, as the Ville Rose went about gaily smashing up its fabulous architectural heritage as ordered in 1790 by the Convention, ‘to leave standing no monument that hinted of slavery’, Dumège defiantly and singlehandedly rescued most of the contents of this museum, then opened its doors in 1794.
The Romanesque and Gothic sculptures, especially the capitals from long-gone cloisters, steal the show. The most beautiful come from St-Étienne – a delicate, almost fluid scene of the dance of Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist. There are scenes from a 14th-century retable, the Group of Three Persons, One of Whom is Strangled by a Monster, and a crooning choir of gargoyles; there’s a sarcophagus with a web-footed bird carved in the side, believed to belong to the Visigoth Queen Ranachilde – la reine Pédauque, the goose-foot, who was said to paddle around Toulouse in aqueducts. There are reliefs by Nicolas Bachelier, and portraits of Capitouls; one of their oldest prerogatives was the droit d’image – the right to have their portraits painted, a rare honour in the 13th and 14th centuries. There’s an extremely unpleasant Apollo Flaying Marsyas by Guido Reni, and paintings are by Van Dyck, Rubens, Murillo, Rigaud, Simon Vouet, Delacroix, Ingres, Manet, Morisot, Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Just west of Place du Capitole stands the great Dominican mother church, Les Jacobins, one of the masterpieces of southern French Gothic. The Spanish priest Domingo de Guzmán or Dominic had tried to convert the Cathars before the Albigensian Crusade, although the persuasive powers of one man, even a saint, proved negligible in the face of an intellectual revolt against the openly corrupt clergy. By 1206 Domingo had converted enough women to found a convent, which became the germ of his Order of Preaching Friars, established in Toulouse in 1215. Confirmed by the pope in 1216, the new Dominican order quickly found adherents across Europe.
The church is the perfect expression of the 13th-century reaction to Rome’s love of luxury. Gargoyles are the only exterior sculpture in this immense but harmonious brick pile of buttresses, alternating with Flamboyant windows; its octagonal bell tower of brick and stone crowned with baby towers is a landmark of the Toulouse skyline. The interior is breathtakingly light and spacious, consisting of twin naves divided by seven huge columns, at 28m the tallest in any Gothic church, anywhere, criss-crossed by a fantastic interweaving of ribs in the vault, reaching an epiphany in the massive Flamboyant palmier in the apse. The painted decoration dates from the 13th to the 16th century, but only the glass of the rose windows on the west side is original. The 19th-century gilded reliquary shrine of St Thomas Aquinas was returned to the high altar in 1974.
Hôtel de Bernuy
This was one of the city’s most splendid residences, built in 1504 by a pastel merchant from Burgos, Don Juan de Bernuy, a Spanish Jew who became a citizen – and Capitoul – of Toulouse. Although Gothic on the outside, architect Loys Privat designed an eclectic courtyard, a mix of Gothic, Plateresque and Loire château, topped by a lofty tower rivalling those of all the other pastel nabobs. De Bernuy had a chance to repay France for the fortune he made when François Ier was captured at the battle of Pavia by Charles V and imprisoned in Madrid; the king fell gravely ill, but no-one could afford the ransom of 1,200,000 gold écus demanded by the emperor – until de Bernuy bailed him out.
In his distress the king had promised an ex-voto to St Sernin if he survived, and in the ambulatory there you can see the black marble statue he donated when he came in 1533 to thank the saint and de Bernuy. Not long after de Bernuy’s time, the Jesuits took over his mansion and made it into a college, now the prestigious Lycée Pierre de Fermat, named after its star pupil.
Basilique de St-Sernin
Sernin’s tomb at Notre-Dame-du-Taur attracted so many pilgrims and Christians who desired to be buried near him that in 403 AD a martyrium was built 300m to the north. The saint’s remains were relocated here; Charlemagne, who always seemed to travel with a trunk of sacred bones, donated a pile, and it wasn’t long before tombs lined the length of Rue du Taur. In 1075, just as the Compostela pilgrimage was picking up steam, it was decided by the canons of St Sernin that they needed something far grander to deal with the pious throngs. The construction of a new basilica was of such import that in 1096 Pope Urban II consecrated its marble altar while recruiting Count Raymond IV as the leader of the First Crusade.
In 1220, St-Sernin was finished. At 115m long, with a 46m transept, it’s the largest surviving Romanesque church in the world (only Cluny, destroyed in the Revolution, was bigger). It was begun at the same time, and has the same plan as the basilica of St James at Compostela, designed to accommodate crowds of pilgrims: a cross, ending in a majestic semi-circular apse with five radiating chapels. In the 19th century the abbey and cloister were demolished, and in 1860 Viollet-le-Duc was summoned to restore the basilica. He spent 20 years on the project – and botched the roof so badly that a century later it was in danger of collapse, hence a pricey ‘de-restoration’ project to undo Viollet-le-Duc’s mischief. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
Getting to Toulouse
Toulouse’s international airport at Blagnac, 10km northwest of the centre, is one of the busiest in France.
Toulouse’s main station is Matabiau. Trains from Paris-Austerlitz by way of Gourdon, Souillac, Cahors and Montauban take 6 hours 30 minutes; TGVs from Paris-Montparnasse do the same in 5 hours – by way of Bordeaux. Slow trains to Bordeaux take 2 hours 30 minutes and stop in Montauban, Castelsarrasin, Moissac, Agen and Aiguillon.