Toulouse is the vibrant capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and is situated at the Garonne river. Toulouse used to be the capital of the old province of Languedoc before provinces were abolished following the French revolution. Still, the city remains the fourth largest metropolitan area in France.
Because of Toulouse’s proximity to Spain some 60 miles away from the border, it is in many ways more influenced by Spain than it is by the northern regions of France. The city is nicknamed the “Pink City” for its pseudo-Roman style redbrick buildings and is packed with dozens upon dozens of lavish hotels and mansions dating back to the medieval days of wealthy Toulouse when it was one of the richest cities in the country for its sale of dye-yielding woad plants.
While Toulouse has had a rich medieval and Gallo-Roman history, Toulouse today is at the forefront of innovation and technology; being the headquarters for Airbus, it is the center of France’s aeronautical and aviation industry but also France’s largest university town after Paris. A trip to Toulouse should bring an interesting architectural and cultural experience – the city is full of old buildings, gardens, squares, and museums. But it will also treat visitors to a thriving arts community and samples of the gastronomical delight of Southern French cuisine. The city has been fortunate to have been spared the pollution and environmental damage suffered by other European cities, as Toulouse’ role during the Industrial Revolution was limited. Perhaps equally important is Toulouse’ role nowadays as the gateway to the Pyrénées; it serves as it always has as an excellent base for many travelers headed for this mountain range and for Mediterranean Spain.
Toulouse was founded around 4th century BC and grew to become an important Gallo-Roman town. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the city was made the capital of the Visigoths. After the decline of the Visigothic kingdom, Toulouse became the capital of an independent county ruling nearly all of Languedoc and maintaining a brilliant court renowned for its fine troubadours and literature. In the early 13th century, Toulouse and its county toppled after being attacked and plundered by the northern French nobility and papacy. But it was during this time that Toulouse began prospering economically and culturally from the woad trade, a period that witnessed the construction of much of Toulouse’s rich architecture seen today.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the woad trade died down and Toulouse slipped in its metropolitan status in France. In fact, it completely missed the Industrial Revolution. It recovered, however, in the 20th century due to its role in the aviation industry. The key companies in France’s military and aerospace industries relocated to Toulouse including Boeing’s rival, the Airbus consortium. Today, Toulouse is France’s aerospace and biotech capital and has reawakened to become a major European metropolis; its population has increased at noticeable rates the last several decades as a result of migration from French northerners.
The heart of Toulouse is in Old Toulouse, the area between the boulevards and where the Garonne river forms. This is the historic town center of Toulouse, originally part of Roman Gaul and later the capital of the Visigothic kingdom. During this period, Old Toulouse was an artistic and literary center of Europe. After its defeat to northern France, from the 13th century onwards Toulouse became a prosperous city. Today, there are many sights in Old Toulouse, some of them testify to its glorious past.
At Place du Capitole in Old Toulouse, you’ll find a number of shops and cafés. The open square is home to the Hôtel de Ville, which is the city’s town hall, and an opera house. The 18th century Capitole is open to the public and features a grand staircase and numerous paintings like the large “Jeux Flomux” (Floral games), the love and marriage paintings up in the Salle Gervaise Hall, and paintings by Salle Henri-Martin and Jean Jaures. Notable is the large painting at the Hall of the Illustrious depicting the women of Toulouse slaying the leader of the Albigensian crusade during the siege of Toulouse in 1218.
Place de la Daurade is Toulouse’ other prominent square, although less central and active. The square is populated by cafés and artists. You’ll find romantic views of the Garonne river and Toulouse’ famous Pont Neuf, which is a 17th century bridge no longer in use. The remains of the old bridge include one arch and the brick walls of the 16th century hospital, Hôtel-Dieu. This hospital was used by pilgrims in the olden days on their way to Spain.
There are many old church landmarks in Toulouse, the most prominent being the Saint-Sernin church. This is the world’s largest Romanesque church and was built in the 11th century to house pilgrims on their way to Spain. The church’s signature five-tier octagonal tower illuminates at night. Its tiers contain relics and reliquaries of saints as well as a thorn that is fabled to be from the biblical Crown of Thorns worn by Christ. The interior of the church features a magnificent central apse, which glitters with 19th century gilded ceiling frescoes.
Another prominent church is the Église des Jacobins. This giant structure was built in the early 13th century and is celebrated for its Palmier des Jacobins, a major masterpiece of Gothic art involving a palm-tree vaulting. The church has a single row of seven columns that run the length of the nave. Today, the church is home to temporary art exhibitions and its acoustical cloister hosts musical concerts.
Besides the more famous Saint-Sernin and Église des Jacobins, Toulouse’ other churches include the 18th century Notre-Dame de la Daurade, which stands on the site of a 5th century temple, and the Notre-Dame du Taur. The latter is located near Place du Capitole and is famous for its wall tower that looks like an extension of the façade.
Castles and Mansions
A number of castles and mansions in Toulouse testify to the city’s former wealth back in the day when its export of woad-dye made it a prosperous metropolis of Europe. Perhaps one the best examples of this is the Hôtel d’Assézat. Built in 1555 by the architect Nicolas Bachelier, Hôtel d’Assézat is considered Toulouse’ most elegant mansion with its ornately carved doors. It is home to the Fondation Bemberg, which is a collection of paintings by Monet, Manet, Bonnard, Tiepolo, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others.
Also notable is the Hôtel de Bernuy, which was built in the 16th century by Jean de Bernuy who made his fortune from selling woad. The mansion is constructed out of stone instead of brick, at the time a much cheaper building material than the former. The abode is highlighted by an octagonal stair tower, Toulouse’ highest.
Two other Renaissance masterpieces include the 16th century mansions, Hôtel d’Arnault Brucelles, with its dominant tower and the Hôtel d’Astorg, which features wooden stairways, balconies, and galleries.
Toulouse has its fair share of museums as well. Its most prominent one is the Augustinian Museum, housed in the former medieval Augustinian convent which is built in the Mediterranean-Gothic style. The museum has a collection of religious paintings and Romanesque sculptures.
Not to be outdone is the Museum of Old Toulouse, which is only a couple of blocks away from the Augustinian Museum. This museum exhibits a collection of Toulouse artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and memorabilia.
The Museum of Saint Raymond is another worthwhile visit. It has an extensive archaeological collection of Roman artifacts, vases, coins, and jewelry.