Autumnal city breaks are one of my favourite kinds of holiday, when most places are peacefully quiet after the summer tourist season and ready to be explored with the locals. My latest trip took me to Toulouse in the south of France, largely because flights were reasonable, but also because I’ve never actually been to this beautiful city. Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France and sits close to the border with Spain. It’s a hugely popular university destination and this explains the cosmopolitan feel to the city. But, despite the blend of cultures and Spanish influences, I soon discovered that Toulouse is one of the most undoubtedly French destinations I’ve visited.
I arrived in the evening when it was too dark to properly appreciate the gorgeous pink stone of the buildings that give the city its title of ‘la ville rose’, but there was plenty of time for that. I headed straight for my apartment on Rue d’Aubuisson in a gorgeous old building renovated in a clean, contemporary style with one of the most impressive front doors I’ve walked through.
After a quick change I headed straight out for dinner on the neighbouring Rue Colombette, which was full of local restaurants serving dishes like cassoulet, meaty stews and hearty meals. Since I started eating fish ten years ago I’ve never really struggled to find something on French menus (not like my fussy vegetarian childhood when a plate of chips was the only option), but Toulouse was a different story and most restaurants were almost entirely dedicated to meat-my nemesis! But we soon found a lovely Alsace restaurant serving ‘flammekeuche’, a very thin dough topped with creme fraiche and sliced onions then cooked in a hot oven like a pizza. It was perfect for the chilly evening and I ordered a reblochon cheese and potato flammekeuche washed down with a kir. Delicious! We were the only non-French people in the very busy restaurant and there’s was certainly no chance of speaking English, which seemed very typical of all the places we visited on our break, which was a good chance to dust off my rusty French.
The next morning was Sunday: market day, and luckily the city’s largest farmer’s market was just at the top of our street in Place St Aubin. We had a little browse before grabbing a coffee and pain au chocolat at a small cafe, with seats facing outwards for people watching. It was fascinating to see the types of produce being purchased by the locals. Goats cheese seemed very popular, as did wild-looking leafy green veg and all kinds of seasonal squash. Refreshed, we took a walk around the rest of the market and I soaked up the sounds and smells of one of my favourite settings.
We made sure to visit some of the most famous sights within our short break, including: The Romanesque Basilica Saint-Sernin, Capitole, Hotel d’Assezat, Jacobean Convent, Musée des Augustins and Les Abattoirs-an old slaughterhouse that is now home to a contemporary art gallery. They were all beautiful and fascinating buildings with excellent exhibitions inside too, just make sure you check opening hours before visiting as we found most of them were closed on the Monday. I also wish I’d had chance to see the famous Cite d’Espace space museum on the outskirts of Toulouse, but that’s one for another time.
With all the sights ticked off our list we spent the rest of the time soaking up the French cafe culture, eating and drinking our way around la ville rose. We had plenty of delicious coffees along the way, and one or two wines as well!
Toulouse is great for shopping and my favourite was a stationery and gift shop called La Mucca, where I picked up a poster showing a map of Toulouse which has a cubism feel to it (you can see it in the window below) and a cute ‘bonheur’ 3D cutout. Both were perfect for my office at home.
There’s also a good vintage shopping scene in Toulouse, especially in the area surrounding the Jacobean Convent. Groucho was particularly interesting and it was fascinating to rummage through some authentic vintage French clothes and accessories.
Perhaps it was the time of year, but this didn’t strike me as a tourist destination and the locals made no allowances for poor language skills or fussy eaters. For that reason it’s one of the most authentically French places I’ve been and I loved every minute
For more reading on Toulouse, take a look at our guide to the city’s food and drink.