We spent the last long weekend (Pentecost holiday) in Toulouse down in the south of France. By coincidence I had been reading that Corey Flynn, (hooker for the Canterbury Crusaders and All Black rugby teams) is moving to Toulouse to play rugby there next season. I think he will feel right at home. When I arrived it was hot and sunny (and stayed that way all weekend) and the strong warm wind blowing made me think straightaway of a Canterbury nor’ wester. The city had a decidedly relaxed, Antipodean vibe about it; plenty of blokes wearing shorts and T-shirts with sandals or jandals (aka flip-flops or thongs, pronounced “tongs” in French) so my dearly beloved was not the odd-man-out in his curry coloured shorts as he often is in Paris.
Even the colours of the Stade Toulousain rugby team are red and black – just like mighty Canterbury.
Toulouse is, and has been in past times a wealthy provincial city and it seemed to me to be noticeably modern whilst still having the appearance of a traditional French city. It’s the 4th largest city in France and is the centre of the European aerospace industry. Airbus have their HQ here and build many of their planes here (some are made in Germany too). The largest cancer research centre in Europe is located here and a number of universities.
Historically Toulouse had earned its wealth through the Pastel trade. Pastel is the French word for woad; the plant source of blue dye. In the 15th century pastel had its hey day but by the mid 16th century, with the availability of large supplies of indigo from India, the pastel market had collapsed despite the protectionist efforts of European merchants and law makers who forbade the use of the nasty, wicked Indian dye! The impact of the woad wealth is still obvious in the architecture in Toulouse. The well to do citizens built beautiful brick mansions with typical fancy wrought iron decoration in woad blue, and city buildings and structures like the Pont Neuf were also made using the pinky-red brick. The brick is still there, the blue decorative work is probably not original woad pigmented paint but you get the right impression.
Pastel is making a comeback now; the leaves are harvested, mascerated and treated to extract the natural dye, and oil for use in skincare products is extracted from the seeds of the plant. I visited a very pretty boutique in the town selling the skincare products and another with pastel skincare, fabric and art material products.
Toulouse is also famous for the Canal du Midi. This canal, started in 1666 and finished in 1681 was constructed for the benefit of trade to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea by linking the different waterways; the Gironde Estuary (near Bordeaux on the Atlantic), the Garonne river and the Canal du Midi which then flows into the Etang du Thau on the Mediterranean. (Later the Garonne Lateral Canal was added to improve the link between the Garonne river and Canal du Midi).
We took a short boat trip on the Canal du Midi, gliding just out past the Intespace and Airbus plants, with a highlight on this section being that we got to travel over the canal-motorway bridge. Yes, we were on the boat, travelling the canal that went over the motorway; cars whizzing by underneath us and all that water. Weird.
As well as all that modern and historical innovation on show we visited interesting and important historical and religious monuments; Les Jacobins, where the remains of St Thomas Aquinas are held, the Basilica of Saint Sernin, and the Hotel de Ville in the Capitol Square. We were lucky enough to go to a free Concert de Pentecote (a programme of organ music played by Michel Bouvard) in the Basilique Saint Sernin. After a day out exploring in the 30-degree sunshine, sitting in the beautiful cool Basilica listening to expertly played music fill the air was pure pleasure. St Sernin is the largest Romanesque (11th century) church in Europe and is a stopping point on the christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Of course with all that tourist activity we had to make time for rest, recuperation and refuelling. There are several pleasant open air spaces in the central city clustered with bar-cafes and restaurants but the perfect spot in my view: Place Saint Georges. The central square, which incidentally used to be a place where public executions took place (egad!), is surrounded by cafes that buzz with activity all day and through the evening, then unfurl slowly like a new leaves next morning when the square is quiet. Over the course of the weekend we enjoyed tapas and drinks while watching the tango dancing display in the square one evening, we ate the famous Toulousain sausages, savoury crepes for lunch and traditional French breakfast of flakey croissants and fresh orange jus.
Not a bad weekend eh!