Over Semana Santa (Holy Week, or the Spanish equivalent of an American Spring break), we flew from Madrid to Toulouse for a road trip around southern France. Before we picked up our rental car and set off on our grand adventure, though, we spent a day exploring France's fourth-largest city. To be honest, I'd never really heard of Toulouse before searching for flights during the planning stages of our trip, and figured since that was the case, well, there must not be much there. I can assure you, even after spending only about 24 hours in the city, I couldn't have been more wrong.
We flew in on a Thursday evening, and got a good start the next morning at the Victor Hugo market. From the outside it's not much to look at, but don't let that scare you away - inside, there's something to satisfy you any time of day (although be aware the market is only open from 6am - 2pm). We got our first taste of why we wanted to return to France in the first place: pastries.
D - See those little twisty pastries with the chocolate chips below? I can't remember what they're called but they are officially my new favorite French pastry. Imagine my surprise and delight, after thinking originally (and being totally excited) that I was just going to eat a thousand pain aux raisins. This was, of course, the first day of our French road trip, before we had developed, perhaps, a bit of pastry fatigue.
As we made our way to our next stop, we couldn't help but stop (over and over) to look in windows, wander down side streets, and gaze up at gorgeous buildings. We were a few hours into our trip and starting to wonder if we could relocate to Toulouse. France is just so charming. At the very least, we need to give Paris another chance and visit again someday soon.
The Musée des Augustins is a former Augustinian convent that now houses a fine arts museum. I can't say I've been in many churches/convents repurposed as a museum or other space, but I loved it! Especially the former church, which still houses a beautiful old organ, that now also holds paintings, sculptures, and temporary exhibitions. It was really unique, and maybe that's part of what made it stand out. The museum also has a cloister, like any good convent, complete with reclining chairs like you might see in a park, which seemed like a thoughtful touch - "Oh, you're tired from sightseeing and walking around the museum? Enjoy our comfy chairs while you take in our gorgeous cloister."
D - My favorite part of this museum was the room where they displayed the capitals of a bunch of ancient columns. It was decorated in such a cool way that it actually probably distracted from the capitals themselves, but it was a really awesome space. I also really enjoyed the bust of the man with the ridiculously good hair and mustache. I mean, look at those curls!
The River Garonne runs through town, with green spaces and pathways lining portions of the riverbank. It's not Toulouse's most important waterway though - more on that later.
D - We really enjoyed walking along the river. We always have a nice time strolling along a water's edge, though I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps water is a natural relaxer and muse for contemplation. Perhaps it's because I love looking at my reflection. My guess is that no one really knows. I think at this park we got a hint of the scarcity of other tourists we would encounter on our trip. Really, hardly anyone else was around at all! It was awesome and it would continue to be a reoccurring thing throughout our time in France.
The Capitole de Toulouse is the city's main square, and is where the town hall is located. Many buildings in Toulouse, including the town hall, are built from pinkish terracotta bricks which has resulted in the nickname "the Pink City." To me, the bricks didn't really look pink, but people often think I misidentify colors, so I guess this is another instance where I'm in the minority ;)
D - Toulouse is also where we realized that the French love shutters, and we really love them too! Since our trip, I've heard from one of my sources (yes, I have sources) that French communities have very strict rules about the shutters on old buildings to make sure they stay beautiful. Similar to how people in the States sometimes grumble about their home owners associations, I've heard that sometimes the French do the same thing regarding their shutters. I think you'll agree, though, that sacrificing personal preference and self-expression is well worth it in this case. A large part of the beauty of the French countryside, which we would soon learn, stems from the congruity and uniformity of its villages.
The Couvent des Jacobins is another church + convent combination, but this one is preserved and looks the same as it probably did when it was built in the 14th century. The light reflecting off of the stained glass in the main church is delightful, and we were some of the only visitors in the cloister - this time I sat for a while in a chair in the sun and I never wanted to leave. This was one of my favorite places in Toulouse.
D - Mine too! Just look at that gorgeous light!
We had lunch at S Com Saj, a Lebanese restaurant conveniently located in the heart of the city with a nice atmosphere, friendly staff, and tasty food. We each got a wrap and split a few sides that came with one of the sandwiches and had fun trying some new cuisine.
The Basilica of Saint-Sernin is one of Toulouse's two UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe, if not the world, and is a part of some routes of the Santiago de Compostela. I loved the low-hanging chandeliers, and the organ is supposed to be one of the most important is France - it is simple but in a beautiful way.
D - I'm not going to lie, I actually don't remember this place really at all. But hey, that's the beauty of taking pictures and blogging, right? Remembering things we might otherwise forget. Then again, if I wouldn't remember a place without pictures and a written record, is it actually worth remembering? You can count on me to always bring the deep, philosophical questions to the blog. For now, I'm happy to be reminded of the places we've visited and the things we've done!
We started walking in the general direction of the Canal du Midi, Toulouse's second UNESCO World Heritage site (although since the canal passes through multiple cities, it shares this one with others). We made it, but saw a park as we were about get on the canal path, and decided to check it out briefly (mostly because Danny was looking for a restroom). Turns out the park contained the Jardin Japonais, or the Japanese Garden, a place that I'd considered putting on our itinerary but thought was too out of the way. Since we'd ended up there anyways, we enjoyed the cherry blossom trees in full bloom before heading back to the canal.
D - You would not believe how hard it was to get a picture of this Japanese bridge without people on it. I know I said earlier that many of the places we visited were sparsely occupied, but this was definitely not one of those places. It was pretty ironic how frustrated I was getting about people getting in my photos, at this place that is supposed to inspire peace and tranquility. What can I say? Sometimes I lose perspective.
The Canal du Midi is a 241 km (~150 miles) long canal that, essentially (if I've understood correctly), connects a variety of rivers and canals to other rivers and canals which connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. However, the Canal du Midi itself, without all the connectors, just connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean, originally created as a way to serve the wheat trade. It's now one of the oldest canals in Europe that's still in operation (work began in the 1600s), which is one of the reasons it's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now it's mostly used by tourists and for recreation, although some people live on it, and we enjoyed walking along it - some stretches were quieter and prettier than others - but overall it was really lovely.
Our final hurrah in Toulouse was at a small place we'd walked by earlier for a light, early dinner of açai bowls. They were some of the prettiest (and, okay, smallest) ones we'd ever had, but the location would sure be hard to beat.
D - If you've never had an açai bowl, I would really recommend it! They can be a bit pricier than a Big Mac, but after you eat it you actually feel good. They are basically really thick fruit smoothies served with delicious, mostly healthy, toppings.
And with that, we walked back to to our hotel to get our luggage, took the tram back to the airport to rent our car for the next ten days, and got on the road!
Toulouse was definitely a pleasant surprise for me. I loved how walkable it was - there was no need to take public (or private) transit - nothing besides our own two feet was necessary. Medium-sized cities are fantastic when you're staying/living in a central location and can really do it all by foot. They're also nice because we felt like we saw almost everything we wanted to in a day. There's still one or two things I would have liked to have done but those things are far out of the center and just didn't make sense with the time we had. Toulouse offers plenty to see and do, options for food and accommodations, and has a young, youthful vibe with its large student population. So now you (and I) know - Toulouse is a perfect place for a day (or longer!) and as you'll see, a starting point for seeing southern France.