Place du Capitole.
I’d always wanted to go back to Toulouse. I had made a quick stop there for lunch more than 20 years ago with my sister, and the brick buildings intrigued me. Toulouse looked like nowhere else in France. It’s an easy weekend trip from Paris, and I recently had my chance to return there.
I met a friend and her family for lunch at Le Bibent, a brasserie opened by Christian Constant, who is famous in Paris but is originally from Toulouse. It is right on the square near the Capitole, which not only acts as Toulouse’s town hall but also is a museum that you can visit for free. The frescoes are beautiful, and construction of the building began around 1190, just a few years ago!
Le Bibent was not as good of an experience for me as the other Constant restos have been, yet I’d still recommend a stop there. The room is magnificent, the ceiling complete with frescoes, and the minimalist interior is a good accompaniment. It is very fine brasserie food, a serious cut above the norm. I just wish my vegetables hadn’t been swimming in butter.
Oysters with caviar at Le Bibent. Photo: Yetunde Oshodi.
Toulouse is a bit of a mystery. It has a distinctly Spanish air, and with the brick architecture, it has a unique look. Luckily the red brick has faded over the years to a lovely pinkish hue, and there are many buildings in town that are nearly 900 years old, many of them open to visitors.
The Saint-Sernin Basilica is something to behold, having been built in the Romanesque style between the 11th and 12th centuries; the golden altar is stunning. It is unlike any church in France that I’ve seen before or since.
I stayed in an apartment at the Lofts, which was a good value and close enough to the center of town to walk everywhere. While the entrance of this commercial building is strange and not very pretty, the rooms themselves are all duplexes and include complimentary tea, coffee and cookies. The views are superior, as the small apartments are all on the 18th and 19th floors, but if you have a Mac, beware: there are some Wi-Fi issues to be sorted out. For those who prefer a fully staffed hotel, there is also a chic, modern four-star hotel nearby, called Le Citiz Hotel Toulouse, with rooms that can be had for under 200 euros.
With computer issues, and not feeling my best, I hadn’t gotten a grip on whether or not I really liked Toulouse until the last afternoon, when I spent a bit of time walking through the old quarter. It’s primarily a university town, and an old one at that. Currently 110,000 students are enrolled at the University of Toulouse, which was founded in 1229. Aerospace is the primary business in the area. Airbus planes are built here, probably using the best graduates from the science and technical schools nearby.
One day at around 7 p.m., I reached the Garonne River near the docks and spied a group of Toulousains dancing the tango en masse. It was a 75-degree evening, the sun was sliding down the sky, the river looked inviting and about 40 couples were dancing the tango. The event was very organized and ended about 30 minutes after I arrived, but there was enough time to grab une bière pression (draft beer) and to watch them enjoy this very romantic of exercises. I took a short video of it, which I promptly e-mailed to my husband, explaining to him that this was what I wanted for our anniversary—to dance the tango by a river in France. We better sign up for lessons.