Toulouse and fancy-free

Low fares on nonstop flights from TLV make ‘the other South of France’ nearly irresistible

Toulouse (photo credit: ARI BAR-OZ)
(photo credit: ARI BAR-OZ)
The email wanted to know if I’d like to return to the South of France.
The writer needn’t have asked.
Having fallen in love with the region six months earlier on a trip to Nice, I was more than ready. This time, we were off to Toulouse, heart of the Occitanie region – “the other South of France.”
Toulouse sits 90 minutes from the Mediterranean to the east and the Pyrenees Mountains in every other direction. This fortunate geography makes the city easily and equally accessible to both the beaches and the mountains, something locals boasted to me on at least three separate occasions.
But it is far more than civic pride and location that has given the ancient city its reputation for culture, beauty and charm.
First impressions are strong. Not a single cigarette butt could be found on the cobbled streets or spacious sidewalks, although I did see a tourist unthinkingly flick a butt on the ground, only to be greeted with such a sharp look of displeasure that he picked it up and tossed it in the trash. Imagine social pressure having that kind of effect in your hometown!
Cleanliness only adds to the aura of la Ville Rose – “the Pink City” – nicknamed for the terracotta bricks that make up many of the facades of Toulouse’s buildings. The name, however, is only partially accurate. All colors are seen here, from dark brown on huge, centuries-old wooden doors, to lively blues and reds painted on storefronts that adorn buildings, where eggshell beige walls contrast with intricate, cast iron railings. Add the occasional art nouveau stained-glass window and sculpted statues and pillars of white that adorn many of the city’s streets, and the overall impression is far more pleasing than pink alone.
On our first morning, we took a walking tour of Toulouse and passed along the Garonne River that bisects the city as it flows from Spain to Bordeaux. Huge archways supporting the river’s old stone bridges tell a different story, of lowland floods when mountain snows melt. Modern engineering has greatly ameliorated this threat, but it was not always so. The Hôpital de La Grave on the river’s left bank, whose large brick archways and tall central dome make it look more like an old university than a medical facility, was once subject to regular inundations.
The original hospital, which in its modern form covers an astonishing 5-plus hectares, dates back to the late 12th century. One wonders where the patients, mostly indigents, went when the floods came. Their suffering from the Black Plague – which killed as many as 200 million people in Europe and Asia – was dire in any case, made worse during the Plague of 1628 when most doctors fled the town.
Having worked up an appetite, we stopped for a leisurely lunch at the Brasserie les Beaux-Arts. I was going to have to pace myself, I thought. This was going to be the first of many feasts, and it was pretty much what you’d expect – if your expectations included exceptional food, a never-empty wine glass, and rich desserts arrayed on elegantly laid tables surrounded by beautiful art, fixtures and furniture. Even the restrooms bespoke of an elegance of a bygone era, adorned as they were with immaculately patterned tiles and hand-carved wood.
THAT AFTERNOON took us to the Airbus Aerospace Corporation’s main facility. Despite some sleepy after-effects from the wines and rich food (particularly the pâté de foie gras, for which the area is famous), there was no missing the sheer scale and technical accomplishment of the place. The aviation museum nearby helps put those accomplishments in historical perspective, with a huge array of aircraft on display, from canvas-winged biplanes with polished wooden propellers, to the sleek, needle-nosed supersonic Concorde.
If Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was aviation’s birthplace, Toulouse is where it grew up and went to school. The city has spawned generations of aviation pioneers since Louis Blériot made his first fixed-wing flight in 1909. Now, 110 years later, Airbus, which serves Toulouse on a massive scale, has produced more than 10,000 planes that have flown over 110 million flights and over 215 billion km., carrying 12 billion passengers.
The aviation giant operates in the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe, but it is particularly France – and specifically Toulouse – where as many as a quarter of the company’s employees work. More than 28,000 Airbus employees work in Toulouse, plus another 4,500 sub-contracted employees and countless others in ancillary supply-chain operations.
Airbus makes big planes, and here you can see them being assembled, including the A-380, the world’s largest capacity passenger airplane, and the even larger Airbus A300-600ST, known affectionately as the “Beluga.” The plane’s high forehead and narrow radar proboscis make it look so much like a whale, so that the company has officially adopted the nickname and now paints curved lines from the planes’ port to starboard pilots’ seats to make them smile. When seen flying for the first time, its sheer proportion of size against the sky produces a jaw-dropping reaction.
With barely enough time to digest lunch, it was time to feast again, this time at La Gourmandine. Not only were the foods again incomparable, they were, as in the other restaurants we visited, works of art on the plate. Meals of this caliber in such gorgeous surroundings were surprisingly reasonably priced, with a starter, main course and dessert costing around 35€.
Toulouse’s reputation as a gourmand’s paradise was only further enhanced the following day, with a gourmet tour of the Victor Hugo market. Named for the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is less so a market and more so an enormous shrine to all things edible and drinkable.
Food is a very serious business in the South of France, highly respected and regulated. This was epitomized by Emilie, the owner of a fromagerie – a cheese shop – who said she studied cheeses for a year at the equivalent of a university-level institution before she was allowed to become certified to sell the products. Even then, she had to wait three years until the cheese seller at the large indoor market entered retirement.
We were doubly fortunate to be at the market on the day on which that year’s Gaillac Primeur and Beaujolais Nouveau are first released. Jessica Hammer, our gourmet guide, said you should be impressed. An expatriate from Chicago, Hammer fell in love with French wines and French cooking, and figured out a way to make a living at it. Not being a wine connoisseur, I can only say the vintage was delicious.
Fortified with baguettes and cheeses, wines and countless other tasty tidbits, we headed 10 minutes south from the center of town to Halle de La Machine, a magical blend of Rube Goldberg, Edward Scissorhands and the Tower of Babel.
AT THE Hall of the Machine, a mechanical Minotaur of wood and steel articulated at every joint stands taller than any dinosaur who ever roamed the Earth. This work of art and machinery stands over 12 meters high as it slowly stomps the grounds. Meanwhile, up to 50 passengers ride placidly on a circus-painted, wooden-railed platform on top of this steam-breathing beast, as it rolls its eyes and tilts its enormous head to stare at the pitiable human ants below who got left behind.
Inside the facility’s enormous exhibition hall, a man blasts a roaring tune on flaming gas jets before moving to an air horn, foghorn, hoot-and-holler contraption to greatly humorous musical effect, as if Oz, the great and powerful, was letting you behind the curtain to see all the levers he pulls.
Within the hall there is also a 30-foot tall articulated wood ballerina; a 9-meter wooden spider complete with eight enormous black, shiny eyes; and everything you’d need to serve 20 dinner guests mechanically, including a spring-loaded dinner-roll launcher that occasionally lobs one onto your plate from several feet away and a steel-jointed wine steward who – excuse me, which – fills up your glass.
The people who work there seemed thrilled and delighted to be doing their jobs and watching their audiences react. They bounced from display to mechanical beast like maniacs in the very best sense of the word.
From there, it was back to the hotel in time for a quick shower, and off to Les Caves de la Maréchale. The restaurant inhabits the old Saint-Romain priory, which was abandoned by the Dominicans in 1229 and inhabited by Benedictine monks some 400 years later. Its vaulted brick ceilings and red brick walls lent a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, to yet another dinner that exceeded all expectations.
The surroundings were appropriate preparation for our next day’s trip to Carcassonne, about an hour’s drive south of Toulouse, and home to one of Europe’s great medieval Roman Catholic cathedrals.
I have heard world-weary travelers complain of being bored by cathedrals. How is that even possible? Perhaps it was their tour guides who bored them, or their own bored disposition, but the sheer greatness of architectural achievement, awe-inspiring stained glass, bizarre carvings and myriad statues make this particular cathedral a place of wonder.
Begun a century after Pope Gregory IX initiated the Inquisition, the Carcassonne Cathedral stands as a monument to both extremes of human possibility: universal love and mindless hate. To their credit, residents of the ancient city were so aggrieved by the excesses of the Church’s efforts in pursuing the Inquisition, that they chased the grand inquisitor from the city’s fortified walls, which stand today layer upon rebuilt layer, looking forever inviolable.
It was here that the Franciscan friar Bernard Délicieux stirred the people to revolt, and though he was successful in stopping the Dominicans’ worst crimes, he was eventually rewarded for his bravery by being hanged. Carcassonne capitalized on that infamy by having a black-hooded faux monk roam the streets as he advertised the local Museum of the Inquisition.
Some 50,000 people live in Carcassonne, where from high inside its stony walls, you can see rolling fields, trees, church spires and a pastoral tranquility that belies the city’s bloody history.
Before leaving Carcassone we once again found ourselves feasting, this time at the Comte Roger restaurant, where we met chef Pierre Mesa who has been creating culinary masterpieces for more than 20 years, and for whom superlatives to describe his culinary talents do not suffice.
NOW SATED and jolly, we headed to Château Canet, a 115-hectare wine estate whose tidy vineyards are surrounded by open fields, small forests and olive groves. But by now it was getting late on Friday. So with only time for a brief tour and – what else? – some wine – we headed back to Toulouse.
With the onset of Shabbat, we went to meet the local members of the tribe. First stop was the Jewish community center. Built first and foremost with security in mind, it was almost impossible to find the entrance. Once we did, though, we met a small group of our fellow Jews inside, made a l’chaim, said a few speeches and headed off to the small Sephardi synagogue.
It being the holy day of rest, we didn’t switch on any lights or take any pictures, but by the illumination of the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that burns above the ark in which the Torah scrolls are held, we learned some fascinating things about the Jewish community of Toulouse.
In both places I asked about antisemitism, and received the same answer heard I in other locations. “Well, personally, I’ve never had a problem, but then again, not being Orthodox, I don’t appear to be obviously Jewish.”
And so we wrapped up our trip on a curious note.
When speaking of Toulouse and the South of France, one often hears the word, “civilized.” It is a sign of civility that no one throws as much as a cigarette butt on the street. It is a sign of civility that after-hours clubs have a double door to prevent excessive noise from escaping onto the city streets. And it is a sign of civility that shopkeepers gladly walk you personally out the door and around the block to help you find your way.
But knowing that within living memory, when Nazis occupied this part of France, and the local rabbi was murdered after being “asked” to produce a list of all the members of the Jewish community and refused, one has to wonder how thin is this veneer of civilization.
Perhaps this is a “golden hour” in civilization’s bloody march. Or perhaps it is the dawn of a new age of tolerance and acceptance. In either case, now is a great time to visit Toulouse. The fares are cheap, the people are friendly and the city is magnificent.
One way to go is on EasyJet, which recently inaugurated direct flights to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. This is one of several low-cost airlines now flying the route. While EasyJet gets you from Tel Aviv and back for as low as an incredible $74, don’t expect any frills. These are bare-bones airlines. You pay bargain-basement prices and get to your destination. Period. Anything extra costs extra – whether it be coffee, water or snacks. Just be grateful the bathrooms are free.
Having said that, I have no complaints. Even if the four-and-a-half hour flight involves a series of endless advertisements, for products ranging from costume jewelry to cheap perfume, and if the seats have a little less legroom and don’t recline – who cares? For these prices, I’d stand on my head to get there. Besides, the airline’s employees were pleasant, they didn’t lose my luggage, and they got me to France’s fourth largest city – something that might never have happened in the era of high-priced travel.
Go now. The price is right, the city is beautiful and for this particular moment in history, there are smiles and wonders awaiting you.
The writer was a guest of the Occitanie Region Tourism Board, the Toulouse Tourist Office and Atout France (France Tourism Development Agency).