Two days before me and my travel partner were due to fly to Toulouse we received a text message from Ryanair. Our flight had been cancelled. The rest of our afternoon had now been commandeered by the need to rectify our situation as painlessly and cheaply as possible. With some help from my partner’s father, who used to be a travel agent, we discovered we could fly to Béziers the next day and take a 90 minute train into Gare de Toulouse-Matabiau. So with a message sent to our Airbnb host with a request to book our apartment 1 day early, we changed our flights with Ryanair and mentally prepared ourselves to do everything in one evening that we thought we had two to do.
The next day we arrived seamlessly into Toulouse despite a strike with the French rail network. It was a short 10-minute walk down the swelteringly hot Rue de Beyard to our apartment which was located on Rue Bellgarde, a short 30 second walk from the Jeanne d’Arc Metro station. Luckily we received confirmation earlier in the day that our reservation was extended and the apartment would be habitable by the time we arrived in the city at 5pm. We were a little early so we enjoyed an extravagantly expensive bottle of water and iced tea at ‘La Compagnie Francaise’ just around the corner on the Rue d’Alsace Lorraine until we could go into the apartment.
Our first day was uneventful, if a little tiring. After we settled into the apartment we went for supplies: water, biscuits and some sun cream to shield ourselves from the searing Southern French sunshine. Finally unpacked and ready to eat, we headed out in search of some fantastic French cuisine. This is where the theme that would underpin our stay here would emerge; the struggle to find a restaurant that wasn’t A) a fortune and B) completly lacking in variety. There was a handy guide that our Airbnb host left in the apartment with some local recommendations. Despite being in France, we settled on Italian because you can’t really go wrong. Or so we thought.
We made our way along the shop lined Rue d’Alsace Lorraine and through the bustling, restaurant hemmed ‘Place St. Georges’ to ‘Officina Gusto’ on the Place Saint-Étienne. The grand, open square contains the beautiful Roman Catholic Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, a cathedral of contrasting Gothic and Romanesque styles. Regrettably, a table outside with a view of the square wasn’t available so we sat inside to be greeted by a fairly uninspiring menu. After much deliberation, we both settled for the same dish: conchiglie with pancetta and vegetables. It sounded wonderful, the reality was less so. We were served plain pasta with some crispy pancetta and soggy vegetables in a copper saucepan that was more inconvenient than charming. Neither of us was particularly inspired to try a dessert so we made our way back to ‘Place St. Georges’ for a drink on the square and to turn in for the evening. It had been a very long day.
On the morning of our second day, we took breakfast in the apartment after grabbing some coffee and pastries from ‘Brioche Doree’, a fast food shop for pastries. My pain au chocolat (bizarrely called “chocolatines” in French) was nice enough; the coffee however, in what was also to become a theme, was not good. Slightly bemused but unperturbed we set off in search of the treasures of Toulouse.
Due to our apartments superb location we shortly found ourselves gazing at the ‘Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse’, an 11th century church that is believed to be the largest Romanesque church in the world and an important stop-off point for pilgrims on route to ‘Santiago de Compostela’. The inside was bright, airy and impressive in scale with the tomb of St. Saturnin of Toulouse inside. The tower however was sadly unscalable. This was quite difficult to discover online so, after checking several websites, we made our way around the church and found an information booth where we received our first, but not last, taste of stereotypical French haughtiness on this trip, which so far had been pleasantly lacking in derision. After explaining in my broken French that: “I’m very sorry but I don’t speak French. Can we speak English please?” we discovered via the indifferent desk clerk that the tower was not safe to climb and we could visit the first floor from 3pm only. Being only 1pm and neither of us having the inclination to see the interior from slightly higher up, we set off again to explore the city.
The first thing you notice when you’re walking the narrow, winding streets of the ‘Centre Ville’ is the proliferation of ochre rooftops and the red-brick facades that give the city its famous pinkish hue leading to the moniker ‘La Ville Rose’, or in English ‘The Pink City’. Originally used as a cheaper alternative to the much more expensive limestone, the red brick has given the city a distinctive character. Casually strolling through the streets proved to be the highlight of my trip. It’s a staggeringly pretty city and my sense of wonder only intensified when we walked out onto ‘Place du Capitole’.
The ‘Place du Capitole’ is a grand, neo-classical square dating from 1750 in the fashion that they seem to do so well on the continent. The eastern side consists of the ‘Hotel de Ville’ (Town hall) and the south-eastern side houses the Opera House. The western side is fringed with canopied restaurants and cafés. There are also several shops, a McDonald’s and somewhat incongruously, a large underground car park which seems at odds with the pedestrianised nature of the square and indeed the city. The town hall is available to tour and it contains several paintings and sculptures although we opted not to go inside. There is also a market in the square everyday except for Sunday.
From ‘Place du Capitole’ we made our way through ‘Place Roger Salengro’ a charming, wedge-shaped square with a central fountain. The square contains ‘Flowers Café’, a delicious patisserie and tea room. From here we walked down to and along the charmless Rue de Metz and decided to stop for a coffee before crossing the Garonne River.
We sat down at an outside table at the ‘Brasserie Flo Les Beaux-Arts’, a restaurant overlooking the Garonne. The interior of the restaurant was beautiful. Mixing art deco and Belle Époque décor, it harks back to a time when clean white table linens and exceptional service where de rigueur. Imagine our surprise then when some ten minutes after we’d sat down, we’d still not had our orders taken. When a waiter did arrive we ordered 2 cappuccinos and a large bottle of water.
France has a custom whereby the waiters place the bill on the table when they bring your order. It makes sense, if you’re sitting outside it stops the possibility of someone leaving without paying and also means you can leave if you want to go without having to find a waiter and pay. It’s a custom I’d like to see employed more in London. I was reminded of this custom, which I’ve not experienced since I went to Paris several years ago, when they gave us the bill along with the drinks. It was a pleasant surprise. What was not pleasant were the numbers printed onto the receipt. We’d been charged €14.20. The coffees were €4 each and an admittedly large bottle of water was an eye-watering €6.20. Silently berating myself for not checking the menu properly before I’d ordered I proceeded to drink possibly the worst cappuccino I’ve ever had; It was lukewarm, coffee flavoured milk. I didn’t eat but was reliably informed by my partner that the cake du jour, 4 slices of lemon cake, was dry. Chalking this visit up as a disaster and after having my wallet severely assaulted we left to cross the river.
We crossed the ‘Pont Neuf’ over the Garonne enjoying a magnificent, cooling breeze and the contrast couldn’t have been more different. Coming from London, a hypertropolis where peaceful spots are scarce, even in zone 6, the sense of calm and quiet the minute we crossed was astounding. We rounded the corner of the ‘Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine’ and took a short stroll along the Rue Charles Viguerie and stumbled across ‘Le café de Toulouse’, a quaint terracotta coloured café.
Still reeling from the bill at the ‘Brasserie Flo Les Beaux-Arts’, I took a short moment to lament the fact we hadn’t crossed the bridge before stopping for a coffee and we continued up to the ‘Chapelle Saint-Joseph de la Grave’, the most emblematic symbol of Toulouse. It’s unvisitable but well worth an up-close look. It’s a beautiful 18th century building with a large round dome in that particular green colour you get when copper oxidises. It is part of the Hospital complex.
We crossed back over river across the ‘Pont Saint Pierre’ and made our way along the Rue Pargaminières back to ‘Place Du Capitole’ for lunch.
There are many restaurants to be found along the arcaded west side of the ‘Place du Capitole’. There are brassieres, glacières and cafés. After some deliberation and noting that, again, there was a lack of variety in the menus we settled for an outdoor table overlooking the square at ‘Les Illustres’. I had the Saucisse de Toulouse (Toulouse sausages) with fries and my partner went for a salmon burger. Cold water was served in a carafe and was complimentary. As I’ve mentioned there wasn’t a great deal of variety to be found and the food here was far from exceptional although perfectly fine, it was probably never going to be, located where it is, but I’m glad we chose here. The waiter we had was attentive and very friendly. He kindly gave me some tips and complimented me on my French pronunciation. The meal with service included came to €34, which considering the prime location, wasn’t too terrible.
Now full and feeling quite tired we made our way back through the elegant, sun dappled streets to the Rue Belgarde for a siesta and to prepare ourselves for the night ahead. After a nap, a shower and getting dressed we took the Metro from Jeanne d’Arc to the Quartiere Carmes for dinner. This appears to be where the main concentration of different cuisines are located. There was a Thai restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, a pizzeria, a burger place, a Lebanese restaurant and even a Haitian restaurant all located along or just off the Rue des Filatiers. Once again though, we found a very limited selection within the French menus. Everything was steak and frites or canard (duck). I don’t eat duck; they’re far too adorable therefore I was confined to either steak or a meal in an empty Vietnamese or Thai restaurant which, due to the amount of people dining out, wasn’t a particularly good sign.
We settled for a pizza in ‘La Manufacture Des Carmes’. It was filled with locals and pizza is usually always a winner. If nothing else I was impressed with their ability to single-handedly challenge the notion of “There’s no such thing as bad pizza”. I’m a bit of a pizza purist. I always go for the Margherita, I’ve made the pilgrimage to ‘La pizzeria Gino Sorbillo’ in Naples and everything. My pizza was slightly burnt on the edges with approximately 7 lumps of cold, uncooked mozzarella haphazardly strewn across the base. It wasn’t entirely their fault, I should have asked for the pizza to be cooked properly. Another disappointing meal passed and we left the claustrophobic, furnace like interior and took a light, evening stroll around the Carmes neighbourhood. Once again the true beauty of Toulouse was displayed by simply walking the streets. There were dozens of swallows darting around at speed, all singing as the sun faded.
A short while later whilst we made our way towards a bar we wanted to try we stopped to take in an impromptu musical performance. A group of brass musicians had started playing Sweet Dreams by The Eurythmics outside the ‘Marche du Carmes’. They’ll never make the Last Night at The Proms but you couldn’t fault their enthusiasm. The atmosphere was lively and only slightly dampened when the lead saxophonist announced “Nous sommes Parisiennes”. After listening to their rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen we carried on towards the ‘N°5 Wine Bar – Bar A Vin’ on the Rue de la Bourse close to ‘Esquirol’ metro station. It was voted the best wine bar in the world in 2017 and my partner, who is a bit of a wine aficionado, wanted to try it there. Being a complete wine novice it was with some trepidation that I went inside but I needn’t have worried, Brice, one of the senior sommeliers could not have been more helpful and less patronising, in what can be an intimidating environment, when I asked for some guidance after describing my very limited experience with wine.
It was a unique set-up and certainly nothing I’d experienced before. There were 5 bottles of rosé and champagne in one temperature controlled fridge that will either give you a sample, a small glass or a large glass depending on your selection. There were 2 fridges that housed 5 white wines & 5 red wines respectively. The final machine housed a selection of white and red wines labelled “exceptions” that were more expensive and considered a premium bottle. The samples ranged from around 60 cents and a glass from around €2 depending on whether you wanted a small or large glass. To access the wine you need to charge what is essentially a pre-paid debit card that you place into the machine to dispense the wine. The card was free and you had to top it up with whatever you chose. There was no minimum spend required but you would not be refunded anything left over on the card. After having enjoyed a couple of white wines from somewhere in France we called it a night and made our way back home on the metro. Single journey tickets cost €1.60 and despite the relatively small size of Toulouse it’s a quick and easy way to get home after a long day of walking.
On the morning of our 3rd day we went for breakfast at ‘Les Délices De Saturnin’ in the ‘Place Saint-Sernin’ overlooking the basilica. I ordered a chocolatine and tried again with a cappuccino. My partner went for a croissant with butter and jam and also had a cappuccino. The breakfast was good. The coffee wasn’t great but it was magnitudes better than the previous cappuccino I’d drank so after paying we decided that, after two days of extremely warm weather, we wanted to go swimming. There is a huge art deco swimming pool complex in Toulouse called the ‘Piscine Nakache’. Once again, the information available was contradictory and sparse. Several sites said that the pool was closed; some said it closed at 1pm and some said 3.30. Deciding that the information about it being closed was probably relating to the indoor part of the pool, we set off on a wing and a prayer and hoped it would be open.
After grabbing our swimming costumes and some towels, we each bought a €6 1-day metro pass and we took the metro from Jeanne d’Arc to Empalots metro station close to where the pool was located. After exiting the metro station we arrived in what appeared to be a quite run down part of Toulouse. There were several housing developments in desperate need of a lick of paint. There were also groups of young men hanging around in cars as we made our way down the ‘Avenue de Lattre de Tassigny’. Our visit passed without incident but it was the first and only time I’d felt uncomfortable in Toulouse.
We crossed the ‘Pont du Garigliano’ and made our way along by the Toulouse football stadium that hosts both the Football and Rugby matches. After several minutes of walking we made our way down an overpass. It was frustratingly vague which way we had to go so we used Google maps and made our way in the general vicinity of the sports complex. We followed the signs towards “Piscine Nakache” and, naturally, we were sent in the wrong direction. After walking all the way back around in the searing heat, we found what appeared to be the entrance. Luckily it was open and it shut at 8pm.
We paid €2 each for the entry fee and made our way to the changing rooms. It was a large, open-air swimming pool and the swim really cooled us down in what was a long, hot, and frustrating journey to get here. It’s worth noting that there aren’t any parasols and very little shade available. We swam for a while and sat in the little shade we could find but we finally called it a day when we were under attack from various small bugs that were emanating from the tree that offered our modicum of shade. After changing and knowing in our heart of hearts that neither of us had it in us to make the epic trek back to Empalots metro station, we took an €8 Uber to Carmes metro station to find somewhere to eat in what appeared to be the only street that offered some variety of food in Toulouse, the aforementioned Rue des Filatiers.
In what was proving to be a frustratingly anachronistic city, a lot of the restaurants were either closed or closing early for lunch. We settled on ‘Le Carbet d’Oc’. Once again steak and duck were the plats du jour but with little else by way of options and another pizza completely out of the question we sat outside where there seemed to be a good number of locals. My partner ordered the tuna steak with fries and I ordered the matured fillet steak with fries. I ordered my steak “moyen” which, whilst correct for medium, actually refers to clothing sizes. I was reliably informed later by my partners father, who at this point I was beginning to wonder if he was a bit of a superhero, that the French for medium cooked is “a point”, pronounced “ah pwa”. Anyway, the waiter seemed to understand what I meant as he looked surprised but had a flash of clarity across his face when he took my order. There was obviously something lost in translation though as when my steak arrived and I cut into it, I realised a low-voltage defibrillator would have made this cow moo again. After asking for the steak to be cooked some more it come back still very red inside and nowhere near medium cooked.
I understand that we have a reputation on the continent for over-cooking our beef but I didn’t enjoy how the steak was cooked at all, it was vastly under-cooked. It wasn’t a particularly good piece of meat either, it was gristly and very fatty but the waiter was friendly and gave me some extra fries to apologise for what was, essentially, ignorance on my part. The meal with a carafe of tap water came to €40. After another disappointing meal and indeed an underwhelming day we decided to head back to the apartment. My partner wanted a nap after a long day in the sun although I wasn’t quite ready to go back to the apartment so I decided that I must surely be able to find a decent cup of coffee in a country with such a strong café culture.
We took the metro from Carmes and after going our separate ways at Jeanne d’Arc station I made my way to ‘La Compagnie Francaise’. This time I decided to change tact and ordered a white coffee. I went for the “petit” option and an espresso with a small amount of foamed milk on top arrived and finally, a good coffee. Absolutely elated that I’d finally enjoyed a coffee, I decided to go back to the apartment to relax before dinner.
At around 5.30pm we still hadn’t had a reservation confirmed for a restaurant I tried to book earlier that day. We saw it on our stroll around Carmes on the previous evening so I gave them a call. My secondary school French held up surprisingly well but I did need to speak somebody in English to confirm that we did indeed have a reservation. After confirming several times that we had a reservation and it was an outside table that we’d reserved we started to get ready for dinner that evening.
We took the metro back to Carmes yet again and made our way around the corner to ‘La Braisière’ on the Rue Pharaon to be told that yes, we had a reservation but no, it was not outside. After gazing inside and seeing the great, open wood-fire that the meat was cooked on and realising that I was probably in for a warm evening I reluctantly made my way inside feeling a little like I’d been had. After selecting the furthest available table from the fire I gazed over the menu to find yet more steak and duck. I ordered another steak despite my reticence due to the lunch I’d eaten earlier that day and this time I ordered it to be cooked “a point”. My fears were unfounded though as this steak came out cooked to absolute perfection. It was a quality piece of meat that had a hint of smokey flavour after being cooked over the wood-fire. The chef clearly enjoyed his job and his enthusiasm shone through in his cooking. My partner ordered a steak with foie gras du canard. Apparently foie gras from duck is more ethical than goose foie gras. I’m not sure how true this is but I thought it was worth mentioning. Despite saying that the foie gras was a little over-powering, she seemed to really enjoy her meal. The meat came with a large dish of potatoes for the table and a simple salad. She ordered profiteroles for dessert and we both ordered a decaf black coffee to finish. The meal came to €58.
Both feeling full we went out into the cool evening air and took a twilit wander. For me, this proved to be the highlight of my trip. We took a stroll in the blue hour. That magical hour when the day slowly bleeds into night. Walking along the empty streets as the streetlights pinged on was a wonderful experience.
We strolled through the Carmes neighbourhood, then into the Quartier Saint-Étienne up the ‘Grande Rue Nazareth’ and the ‘Rue Perchepinte’ through the ‘Place Sainte-Scarbes’ into the ‘Place Saint-Étienne’. We continued up the ‘Rue des Arts’ and ‘Rue de la Pomme’ enjoying the architecture along the way and into the indigo hued ‘Place du Capitole’. After spending a few minutes here enjoying the atmosphere we carried on past the ‘Convent des Jacobins’ then along the ‘Rue des Lois’ and finally finishing in the ‘Place Saint-Sernin’. It was a lovely walk and really showed off the best of the city. I rued the fact this was the first time we’d really walked in the evening. I wished we’d done this sooner and not used the metro as much. However, a lesson was learnt and we’d had a fantastic evening after what was an underwhelming day.
On our final day in Toulouse we made our way back to ‘Place Saint-Sernin’ for breakfast overlooking the basilica again. This time we had breakfast in ‘Les Gourmands de Saint-Sernin’ and we received some more of that famous French haughtiness. I ordered a chocolatine and a café grand creme and my partner wanted a chocolatine and some cheese. She loves cheese but as far hadn’t really had the opportunity to order any. This is where the fun started. On the menu there was an option for fromage blanc and muesli. Finding this an odd combination she asked for the fromage minus the muesli. When it arrived the odd combination made a little more sense. What turned up was natural yoghurt. Realising the mis-understanding and not wanting to be awkward she asked for the muesli with the yoghurt despite it not really being what she wanted. The eye-roll and brusque tone were priceless. The food was fine, as was the coffee but the waiter had spoiled the mood somewhat so after we finished, we paid and left fairly quickly. We picked up our books and made our way down to the River to find a quiet café to do some reading. We’d both felt that we’d seen quite a bit of the city and we wanted to relax for a little while. We were on holiday after all. We did some research and decided that the ‘Café des Artistes’ on the ‘Place de la Daurade’ fitted the bill for our riverside café requirements.
Before we made our way there we decided to stop for a coffee in ‘Le Bibent’, a Michelin starred restaurant over-looking the ‘Place du Capitole’. It has a beautifully ornate Belle Époque interior, reminiscent of the grand cafés of Mitteleuropa and despite the grandeur inside; it wasn’t as expensive as you might think. We ordered an espresso and a café au lait. We sat for a while and enjoyed the interior but with very few other customers, the atmosphere was a little flat. We paid €6 for the coffees and left. We continued through the ‘Place du Capitole’ and made our way down to the ‘Place de la Daurade’ enjoying the rose-tinted architecture along the way. We found our café and after perusing what appeared to be a menu from a country suffering from hyper-inflation we ordered 2 more incredibly expensive and small bottles of water. There was no atmosphere in the café and crucially, no river views. We paid and discovered there were no functioning toilets so we wandered down to the ‘Parc la Daurade’ directly opposite the ‘Café des Artistes’. There was a free public toilet and a wonderful view of the river, the Pont Neuf and the Chapelle Saint-Joseph de la Grave.
There was also a café there called ‘Pêcheurs de Sable’. Once again, I’d wished we’d stopped a little later and skipped the ‘Café des Artistes’ altogether. We sat down and ordered a coffee, some water and some pickled anchovies with bread. I didn’t eat but the coffee was good and my partner enjoyed the fish. We passed a pleasant hour or so reading and enjoying the shade. The sun was the fiercest it had been that day and it was a welcome respite from the heat. Nearly ready for lunch we made our way back to ‘Place Roger Salengro’ to the aforementioned ‘Flowers café’.
We arrived at the ‘Flowers café’ around 3.30pm. There were no savoury options available at that time but there was an extensive cake list. My partner ordered the caramel cheesecake and I order the moelleux au chocolat blanc and a café grand creme. The cakes were delicious, if a little large. We paid around €13 and made our way back to the apartment. The time had come to pack our cases and make our way to the airport.
The Airbnb host had kindly allowed us to leave the apartment at 6pm. It left us with some time to kill so we had an iced tea and a water at ‘La Compagnie Francaise’. When the time come for us to leave we took the metro from Jeanne d’Arc to Palais de Justice. There’s a tram stop on ‘Allées Paul Feuga’ just across the road from the Palais de Justice metro station. You buy a ticket at the machine, not on the tram. You only need to buy a single trip ticket, not the airport ticket as listed. This covers the shuttle bus for the airport. The tram goes all the way to the airport and takes around 35 minutes.
Once we’d arrived at the airport we’d found the options for food frustratingly limited. There was a café/bar that sold sandwiches just after the gift shop. From there, depending on your gate number, you go left or right. To the left there was a branch of ‘Paul’, the coffee chain we have here. To the right, where we needed to go, there was passport control and a small drinks stands. Not wanting to chance going through passport control and getting nothing to eat we went to Paul. We had 2 chicken baguettes and 2 canelés. The baguettes were dry and the canelés were like tar but expecting little from airport food, we weren’t disappointed. We left and went through passport control. We sat down for a while and waited to board the plane. A short while later there was an announcement. Our plane was delayed by an hour and 20 minutes. “Of course it is” I said.
I have mixed feelings about my time in Toulouse. Part of me is surprised that it’s fairly off the tourist radar. It’s a beautiful and elegant city. The Centre Ville is charming and distinctive, the people in general are very friendly and despite it being France’s 4th largest city, with a population of almost half a million, there’s a relaxed pace of life there, you never feel hurried, there’s always a quiet nook for you to discover, to sit down and have a coffee or an extortionately priced water. There’s a variety of interesting architecture and landmarks. There’s a cosmopolitan air with the street signs in French and Catalan. The metro is quick, clean, and efficient and despite the relatively small size of the city, it’s a good way to get from A-B quickly.
The other part of me completely understands why it’s not a more popular tourist destination. It’s a frustratingly anachronistic place. It’s an elegant city but very casual. I like to dress for dinner; I wore trousers every night and I felt out of place. Many menus are printed only in French and are vague at best. Many places are shut on Sunday and reliable information pertaining to tourist sites is scarce, even less so in English. Things just don’t seem to work as well as they should. Getting to the ‘Piscine Nakache’ was more hassle than it was worth, contactless cards are not accepted on the metro (although an ‘Oyster’ type card is available for locals) and the food and drink was ok at best. It’s the only city I’ve been to where having locals dining at a restaurant wasn’t necessarily an indicator of its quality and sometimes, it was a little boring, lacking that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that the major cities seem to have.
I have a bad problem when I travel in that I tend to compare places to London. That isn’t always fair. Many people, myself included, would consider London the de-facto capital of the world, and I realise not everywhere can be like, or be London. It’s what makes London special. But coming from an ultra-connected, global metropolis where food and entertainment options are limitless to Toulouse was jarring.
Part of the charm of travelling is discovering different places, different ways of living and customs but my over-riding feelings after 4 days in Toulouse is that firstly, 4 days is far too long, 2 would suffice for most people and secondly, the city for me, was a little disappointing. There were many places that we didn’t see. The ‘Cité de l’espace’ for example, or the ‘Canal du Midi’, but we did see a fair amount of the city and whilst beautiful, there’s nothing particularly drawing me to return.
I think I have a romanticised view of what France is or should be. Wide, elegant boulevards, a fantastic café culture, magnificent food; I didn’t find this here and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. It’s back to Paris I suppose.
Thanks for reading.