A city to wander
You can’t go to Toulouse and not fall under the spell of the Capitole. The emblematic building with a stunning 17th century neoclassical style façade is the beating heart of the city. Around it are a series of districts each quite different from the other and all easy to reach on foot. Saint-Cyprien on the left bank of the River Garonne is a bit bohemian, while In the Tounis district the river Garonette, a branch of the Garonne, has long gone but its old bridge remains. There’s also Saint-Georges, Saint-Aubin, Saint-Étienne and the Carmes districts. Pick up a map from the tourist office and go walkabout to discover the many charms of Toulouse.
The Runway of Giants
Every day, a mythical giant walks in Toulouse on a site where giants of the air used to land their planes. This brand new project is designed around a former historic runway used by the pioneers of civil aviation who were based in Toulouse. Known as the Piste des Géants (Runway of the Giants) it’s where you’ll find Asterion, the 14m tall Minotaur, a legendary beast that is half man and half bull. Each morning he awakes, flutters his long eyelashes and opens his bright blue eyes; his vast chest rises and falls and you hear his heart beating as he snorts water over excited visitors. Then he roams the runway carrying up to 50 passengers in a colourful temple-like carriage on his back. It’s an extraordinary sight and though you know he is a 46 ton machine, he somehow feels almost real…
The Halle de La Machine – magical and mad
The Minotaur is the brainchild of François Delaroziere and La machine company famous for The Island of the Machines in Nantes and for their incredible street theatre machines. The Minotaur is not alone. In the vast space of the Halle de la Machine more mysterious inhabitants are waiting to meet you. Amongst the exhibits are a walking 37 ton spider called Ariane and musical machines which make up the strangest orchestra you’re ever likely to see. There’s a giant set of wings piloted by a machiniste, pipes which spout flames, twirling guitars and a table laid for an enchanted dinner where the pepper is sprinkled by a flying waiter. The “veritable-machinistes” who operate the machines are also actors and story tellers, part of the show. It’s seriously mad and utterly magical.
Flight of the Pioneers of Airmail
The history of airmail in France began in Toulouse. We take it for granted now but in its early days it was a job for brave and heroic pilots. This new museum tells the tale of how the first French pilot to deliver mail by plane took off from what is now the Runway of Giants on Christmas Eve 1918. These early pioneers of airmail delivery were courageous and determined adventurers. They established routes, built runways and airfields around the world and ushered in a new era of communication. L’Envol des Pionniers tells their stories through film and a collection of photos and letters, historic artefacts, planes, engines, and film posters – the bravery of these early pilots inspired a legion of movies.
Les Abbatoirs Museum
The Halle de la Machine isn’t the only home to a Minotaur in Toulouse. At Les Abbatoirs Museum of modern art, Picasso’s famous stage curtain “The Remains of the Minotaur in a Harlequin Costume” is a star in an outstanding collection. Created for a theatre in 1936, because of its fragility this show-stopper is displayed for only six months of the year. The museum has a superb collection of modern and contemporary art but is no elitist museum, you can do yoga classes amongst the artworks, workshops, a library and at Christmas they hold a market where artists and craftsmen sell their works. After your visit pop to the park next door to enjoy the views over the river Garonne.
The Bemberg Foundation – an exquisite collection of artworks
Toulouse has many museums, from the Musée des Augustins, one of the oldest in France (it opened shortly after the Louvre in 1795) to the ultra-modern space museum “Cité de l’espace” where you can try your hand, or rather your feet, at moon walking. But one you shouldn’t miss is the Bemberg Foundation tucked away in a pretty courtyard near the Capitole. It’s in a former 16th century mansion where each room has been restored to 19th century glory to showcase the wonderful collection of paintings, furniture and ornaments including Degas, Monet, Matisse and Boudin. I loved the intimate feel of this museum, as if it were still lived in by someone with the most exquisite taste in art.
Less than 15 minutes’ walk brings you to secret Toulouse - the Carmes and Saint-Étienne districts where most visitors never venture. This is old Toulouse, the narrow streets of Carmes are lined with sumptuous manor houses built by wealthy merchants from the 16th century onwards. Place Sainte Scarbes is breath-takingly pretty with its ivy clad mansions and tinkling fountain, and surrounding it are roads with smart boutiques, neighbourhood bars and architecturally stunning buildings. Saint-Étienne is like the Marais district in Paris, streets lined with grand houses and chic stores in the shadow of a Majestic Cathedral.
Eat out at The Minotaure Café
I don’t believe there’s another restaurant in the world where you can sit and eat with a view of a 50 foot high spider known as “La Princesse”. Add to this the sight of a giant Minotaur wandering about outside and you’ve got a recipe for the best table for a lunchtime performance ever. And, the food is seriously tasty with a menu that’s fresh and seasonal. Locals in the neighbourhood also come here for coffee, a glass of wine at the bar, a snack or three course lunch – an indication of just how good the Minotaure Café is.
Monsieur Georges Restaurant
Toulouse has a pulsating night life which revolves around Toulousains love of great wine and great food – especially tapas (French style), influenced by its closeness to the Spanish border. With its many squares lined with restaurants and bars, you’ve got a massive choice. But, lively Place St Georges in the historic centre is one of the most popular with the locals and Monsieur Georges bar/restaurant with its colourful décor is ideal for a rendezvous with a glass of wine and in the evening it’s perfect for dinner on the terrace. Indulge in a seriously tasty menu, deliciously decadent desserts and scrumptious cocktails.
Brasserie des Beaux Arts
The Brasserie des Beaux Arts is full on French brasserie style dining on the edge of the famous Pont Neuf overlooking the Garonne River. Locals love it here for the classic Toulousain dishes including the famous cassoulet as well as fresh seafood platters, superb service, lovely Art Deco mixed with Belle Epoque style decor and fabulous location. Previously called the Café Bellevue it was the haunt of students and teachers from the Fine Arts school including the painter Ingrès then a professor. Loved by artists like Matisse and musicians, it remains an institution in Toulouse.
Where to stay Hotel des Beaux Arts
At the boutique Hotel des Beaux Arts just a few minutes’ walk from Le Capitole, you know as soon as you walk through the door that you’re in a hotel where art is the name of the game. Each of the 18 rooms are decorated in a different style – mine featured plastic robots together with a knockout view over the River Garonne (as do all the rooms). Less is not more at the Hotel des Beaux Arts and walls and surfaces are covered with an eclectic mix of vibrant paintings and ornaments.