Toulouse is one of the most vibrant provincial cities in France. Long an aviation centre – St-Exupéry and Mermoz flew out from here on their pioneering airmail flights over Africa and the Atlantic in the 1920s – Toulouse is now home to Aérospatiale, the driving force behind Concorde, Airbus and the Ariane space rocket. Moreover, the city’s 110,000 students make it second only to Paris as a university centre.
This is not the first flush of pre-eminence for Toulouse. From the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the counts of Toulouse controlled much of southern France. They maintained a resplendent court, renowned especially for its troubadours, the poets of courtly love whose work influenced Petrarch, Dante and Chaucer and thus the whole course of European poetry. The arrival of the hungry northern French nobles of the Albigensian Crusade put an end to that; in 1271 Toulouse became crown property.
The beautiful old city – the Ville Rose, pink not only in its brickwork, but also in its left-leaning politics – lies within a rough hexagon clamped round a bend in the wide, brown River Garonne and contained within a ring of nineteenth-century boulevards, including Strasbourg, Carnot and Jules-Guesde. The Canal du Midi, which here joins the Garonne on its way from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, forms a further ring around this core. There are three very good museums and some real architectural treasures in the churches of St-Sernin and Les Jacobins and in the magnificent Renaissance townhouses – hôtels particuliers – of the merchants who grew rich on the woad-dye trade. It’s all very compact and easily walkable.
On Sunday mornings the whole of place St-Sernin turns into a marvellous, teeming flea market, and there are book markets on Thursday mornings in place Arnaud-Bernard, and all day Saturday in place St-Étienne.
The star of the left bank is undoubtedly Toulouse’s contemporary art gallery, Les Abattoirs. This splendid venue is not only one of France’s best contemporary art museums, but an inspiring example of urban regeneration, constructed in a vast brick abattoir complex dating from 1828. The space is massive, with huge chambers perfectly suited to displaying even the largest canvases. The collection comprises over two thousand works (painting, sculpture, mixed- and multimedia) by artists from 44 countries; the most striking piece is undoubtedly Picasso’s massive 14m by 20m theatre backdrop, La dépouille du Minotaure en costume d’Arlequin, painted in 1936 for Romain Rolland’s Le 14 juillet, and which towers over the lower gallery.