A birthday weekend in Toulouse

I’m writing this Toulouse travel post from Washington DC which sounds like a really irritating brag until I tell you it’s cold, grey and pouring with rain – and there’s a heatwave back home in London! Ugh. So having ticked off my hit list of indoor DC attractions, I’m mentally transporting myself to sunshine: specifically last weekend’s sunny South of France retreat.

Pete is the BEST at birthday surprises, particularly when they necessitate a passport. He also likes to add an element of mystery with retro games of hangman and obscure clues, which this year took a topical turn into politics… But Toulouse! What a treat. Neither of us really knew much/anything about it before we arrived and it turned out to be a wonderful surprise in every sense. Known as the ‘pink city’, the winding rose-tinted alleyways are heaven to get lost in, revealing a new piece of stunning architecture at every turn. We stayed in the Crown Plaza bang in the middle of Place du Capitole, the hub of Toulouse social life and home to the town hall (the Capitole, more about this spectacular building later). I’m so over design hotels – the Plaza had huge rooms, tons of wardrobe space, a massive comfy bed and an opaque bathroom door. It also had complimentary This Works pillow spray; I mean!
We spent our first day roaming the city and exploring two of the city’s breathtakingly beautiful churches. The Basilica of Saint-Sernin has the sort of gilded Romanesque architecture that it’s pointless to even try to capture on camera, but I did take some pictures of the temporary exhibition displayed in the cloisters: 20 works of Arcabas, culminating in the Hommage à Bernanos, which includes a life-size painting of the crucifixion.
 The Saint-Etienne Cathedral was equally staggering, with red stained glass bathing the corner of the church in a surreal pink light. This was originally two cathedrals that have been knocked through into one, so you can imagine the sheer scale of the place. Then after a wander around the Jardin des Plantes, we relaxed in the tranquil cloisters of the Couvent des Jacobins. The weather was perfect, despite earlier storm warnings!
We also did a lot of eating and drinking on the Saturday, which was less problematic for two non-dairy eaters than you’d imagine in France, home of cheese and meat! After a breakfast of fresh strawberries from the market, we stopped at Dip’s Tea to sip herbal brews out of delicate floral china.
Lunch at Petit Ogre was a real highlight of the trip: cosy lamp-lit checkered tablecloths and incredibly relaxed, friendly service, plus fantastic organic wines… and the food! I’d recommend every vegetarian visiting Toulouse head here for the huge platters of veg, dips and various meat-free proteins (oddly it’s pretty hard to find via Google recommendations). Pete had a kind of onion nut roast while I had coconut ‘cookies’, which were so, so good. We shared vegan carrot cake for dessert and several more glasses of wine (naturally).
The evening was spent touring Toulouse’s student bars, halfheartedly searching for Eurovision… When it comes to boozing here, you really are spoiled for choice: we started out with rosé in a cosy Capitole wine bar, The Dry Dock, moved on for cocktails in the Fat Cat, then G&Ts in Le Bar Basque and La Couleur de la Culotte near the river (very studenty), and finished up in a bar run by an Irishman, yes, showing the Eurovision results! The owner took quite a fancy to Pete – he’s still got it.
Sunday brought 27 degree sunshine and the chance to wander my favourite part of any city – the canal paths. Our stroll took us over the river to Les Abattoirs, which is happily no longer an actual slaughterhouse! It’s now Toulouse’s answer to the Tate Modern, housing permanent works as well as the current New Realism exhibition. Then after a vegan buffet lunch at La Faim des Haricots (fine but nothing to compare with Petit Ogre), we headed back to Le Capitole and took advantage of free entry to the building. The marble and pink brick building is a revelation: the ceilings are like something you’d see in the Vatican City and we wandered about heads up and mouths gaping. My favourite space, Salle Des Illustres, housed Henri Martin’s four seasons canvases; gazing at ‘summer’ is akin to getting lost in a Rothko room i.e., better than meditation. Afterwards we chilled out in the sun on the square, people watching and tanning until it was time to head back to the airport. We even saw a local wedding, with the bride, groom and their family all dancing in the square!
I’d recommend two days in Toulouse to anyone: it’s a city with everything (art, architecture, friendly people, nightlife, food) but on an entirely manageable scale. And contrary to popular belief, it’s even good if you don’t eat sausage!
Alice

I’m a publisher working in Covent Garden and living in Woodford, East London, with my King Charles Cavalier JD, and my boyfriend Pete. I’m posting about London living – eating, drinking, seeing art, style and reading books. Anything and everything really…

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