More Daydreaming About France - Toulouse, La Ville Rose
This post is about my favorite city – Toulouse. It doesn’t have a lot of competition, really, because I’m not that fond of cities. I love the museums, the concerts, the gardens, the historic buildings – but not enough to linger in a city for very long. After two or three days, I feel an intense longing for the countryside and want to be out in the natural world, as far from the haunts of men as possible.
But there’s something about Toulouse…
It’s not very high on the list of tourist destinations in France, perhaps because as the hub of Airbus, it’s presumed to be a rather industrial sort of place. This is true, but if you stay in the historic center you’ll never know that modern industry exists.
It is a city of rose-colored brick on the Garonne River, and is set in a great fertile plain which has been important since Roman times. Everywhere, the colors delight the soul, the soft rose bricks, the pink tile roofs, the beige stones and red brick of the Pont Neuf. Some of the land circling the city is still golden with sunflowers and grains, full of warmth and sunlight, as it was a thousand or more years ago. The Garonne, changing from blue to green or brown, flows from its origin at a large spring in the Pyrenees through the center of Toulouse and then reaches the Atlantic by way of Bordeaux. The 17th century Canal du Midi, lined with Sycamores and canal boats, ends in Toulouse after a long journey from Narbonne. Toulouse has much of the charm of Paris but on a very manageable scale.
It is an ancient city and has seen a lot of tragedy, as well as great beauty. My favorite Toulouse is that of the High Middle Ages, when it was perhaps the most sophisticated and tolerant place in Europe. In the Languedoc region of what is now known as France, the troubadour culture, a highly evolved art of music and love was born and flourished until it was dispersed by a storm that came out of the north. That storm was the Albigensian Crusade that began in 1209 and ravaged Occitania (that area where Occitan was spoken and included the Languedoc) for decades and eventually wrecked its remarkable civilization. The king of France, Philip II, and the Pope, Innocent III, launched this so-called crusade to eradicate the Cathar heresy that they saw as a threat to the power structure. That is another post, because it is a long and remarkable story.
There was something in the air of Languedoc that fostered the art of courtly love, which praised and exalted the feminine, giving women a higher status than anywhere else in Europe. The magic is still there. You arrive in Toulouse in the mid-morning after the rigors of changing planes at CDG in Paris, and as tired as you are, you go looking for that magical quality. As soon as you throw your suitcase down in your hotel room, you make a dash for the Place du Capitole, the great central square of the city. This is a vast space, paved with variegated stones and embossed with a huge Occitan cross in the center. There is the Capitole, a magnificent 18th century building, the center of government, constructed in beige stone and red brick in wonderful detail.
Directly across from the Capitole, is a favorite place of refreshment, the Café Florida, so named for the fresh orange juice that is the specialité. It is also where we like to take an aperitif in the evening and watch the city life.
Just a block away is the building that I love best: Le Couvent des Jacobins. St. Dominic founded the Dominican order in 1215 and the Couvent, with its church and cloister was begun in 1230. The Jacobins was an anti-heretical presence in a city where there was much sympathy for the persecuted Cathars. The church is massive and fortress-like, in the Southern Gothic style. There are two things that particularly make me love it. The first is the double nave supported by seven grand stone pillars, 92 feet in height, that expand like palm fronds to define the vaulting in lines of Toulouse brick. The second is the otherworldly beauty when the morning light streams through the stained- glass windows and illuminates the interior with a rainbow of color.