“Think: Before aerospace,” says the guide as she walks the historic streets of Toulouse. “Toulouse and the aerospace industry are inextricably linked, but think back to the 15th century.”
She is about to lead her charges into the courtyard of a gracious Renaissance mansion built with the wealth generated by a magic blue dye, but she has also shown them a 12th-century Romanesque church and a section of an ancient Roman wall.
Toulouse is known to many business travelers as the home of Airbus and the French aerospace industry as well as the engineering and tech companies that have grown up around them. That’s why, in June, Air Canada launched a new route to Toulouse from Montreal, Canada’s aerospace centre. It’s the first direct year-round link from North America to France’s fourth largest city and landed at Toulouse-Blagnac on June 2 to a welcoming brass band and speeches from Canadian and French dignitaries.
For tourists, the Cité de l’Espace on the outskirts of Toulouse picks up the theme with a family-friendly discovery center that includes displays about the future of moon landings, working reproductions of the Mars rovers and a real, full-scale prototype of the Mir Space Station.
For the cultural visitor, however, the action is in the historic centre, in the narrow streets leading from the Place du Capitole down to the banks of the Garonne river. Here the distinctive orangey-red brick gives the city a special glow in sunlight and takes on a pinkish hue at dawn or dusk, hence the nickname Ville Rose. The brick buildings, using local clay because no stone was available nearby, date back as far as the 12th century. A handful of half-timber houses remain but after fires in the 15th century, building with wood was discouraged and Toulouse’s unusual architectural appeal is as a Renaissance city of brick.
It was a city of wealth long before Airbus, thanks in large part to the plant that in English is known as woad. In Toulouse, they have a prettier name – pastel – a word derived from the paste that dye makers made of its leaves. This produces a pleasing blue dye in anything from the pale robin’s egg to darker denim-like shades and by the 15th century Toulouse was the European capital of the woad trade.
Here was the money that built the 16th-century Hôtel d’Assézat: It’s a gracious mansion, or private mansion, made of brick and stone (another indication of wealth in Toulouse because it had to be hauled from a distance) that sports a tower, only permitted because the owner was a Capitolone of the local magistrates who governed the city.
Today, the hotel houses the Fondation Bemberg, a private museum featuring European art from the 16th to 19th centuries that promises to reopen soon after some renovations. In the surrounding streets, you can buy scarves, soap and cosmetics in the distinctive blue hue. Entirely eclipsed by indigo from Asia by the 19th century, the dye is now being revived as a local cottage industry.
The 15th and 16th centuries produced the wealth that built the graceful pink city but its origins go much further back. The impressive Romanesque Basilique Saint-Sernin, named for an early Christian bishop who was martyred when the pagan townsfolk dragged him behind a bull, was built in the 11th and 12th centuries over the remains of a fourth-century church. Next door, there is a museum, the Musée Saint-Raymond, dedicated to Roman remains found in the city, including an impressive gallery of portrait busts and a basement filled with early Christian sarcophagi. But the oldest artifacts go further back still: The collection includes gold jewellery, crafted in the second or third century BCE by a Gaulish tribe called the Volcae Tectosages. The necklaces and bracelets still glow softly today.
Of course, in France, food is culture, too: Last year, UNESCO added the baguette to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and there is no shortage of excellent baguettes as well as many local cakes in the bakeries of Toulouse. The streets on the south side of Place du Capitole, seat of the local government, are filled with good restaurants. In the warmer months, the Place Saint-Georges is taken over by their tables and, in the evenings, it seems as though the whole city has gathered to dine together in the open air. Local specialties include duck in many forms: duck breast, foie gras and the hearty cassoulet stew that also includes white beans and Toulouse sausage. A few streets north, the covered market in the Place Victor Hugo offers a huge array of cheeses, charcuteries and pastries while local fruits and vegetables in season include strawberries, white asparagus and artichokes in three different sizes. Chocolate shops abound and offer another local specialty, crystalized violets. The Toulousains like to drop one in a glass of sparkling white wine to turn it a pretty colour.
Blue dye, pink bricks, purple violets – and centuries of history: Toulouse is a southern charmer both urban and accessible.
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If you go:
Air Canada flies direct from Montreal to Toulouse year-round.
English and French language tours are available from Taste of Toulouse (of the city’s gastronomy and wine) and Toulouse Walking Tours takes visitors to key sites or overlooked neighborhoods, with options for private tours. www.tasteoftoulouse.com; www.toulousewalkingtours.com
The Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra is a classic French hotel, with lush red decor, newly renovated marble bathrooms, a generous breakfast buffet – and a central location on the Place du Capitole. www.BestWestern.com
If you’re looking for a distinctive souvenir, AHPY, a shop at 13 Rue des lois, offers men and women’s fashions dyed with “pastel” while Bleu Par Nature sells cosmetics and souvenirs at its Maison du Pastel in the Place d’Assézat. ahpy.eu; bleuparnature.com
For more information, see Toulouse-visit.com.
The writer was a guest of Atout France. It did not review or approve this article.