48 hours in Toulouse

With Concorde soon to be grounded, head to the jet's home town to say farewell. 'La Ville Rose', so named for its pink-brick architecture, is both historic and hi-tech. And its sausages are tasty, too, says Martin Hughes

WHY GO NOW?

Late spring is a lovely time to see one of France's most historic and colourful cities. "La Ville Rose" gets its popular name from the small bricks made from local clay used in many of its older buildings. Their colour varies from red to dark pink, according to the metal content, and gives the city a rosy complexion all of its own, especially in gentle sunlight. Today, Toulouse is a centre for aviation, space travel and high-tech business, and has the second largest student population in France, making it a vibrant and cosmopolitan city.

BEAM DOWN

British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) has three daily flights from Gatwick to Toulouse (typical return fare: £121), and a Saturday service from Birmingham. Air France (0845 0845 111; www.airfrance.com) also flies from Birmingham (£176) and from Heathrow (£155). BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) flies from Manchester to Toulouse (£169), while its subsidiary, bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), flies from East Midlands (£105) and Cardiff (£70) on Saturdays. FlyBE (08705 676 676, www.flybe.com) flies from Birmingham (£167), and, starting 19 May, from Southampton (£132). There is a shuttle every 20 minutes from the airport to the city centre, with stops at Place Jeanne d'Arc, Jean-Jaurès metro station, and Matabiau railway station. A return ticket costs €5.60 (£3.70). Taxis are more expensive and charge around €19 (£13) during the day and €23 (£15.50) on Sundays, public holidays and at night. Alternatively, take the Eurostar from Waterloo to Lille or Paris (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com), and then change trains and get to Toulouse in under 10 hours; return fares start at £99.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city centre is framed by the Canal du Midi to the north and east, and the big boulevards to the south and west. The most prominent geographical feature is the river Garonne, but the heart of the city is the Place du Capitole – or "Place du Cap", as the locals call it. Just behind it, in the Square Charles-de-Gaulle, is the tourist office (00 33 5 61 11 02 22; www.ot-toulouse.fr); it is open 9am-6pm, Monday to Saturday (with a 12.30-2pm break on Saturdays), and 10am-12.30pm and 2-5pm on Sundays.

CHECK IN

Visitors on Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday can benefit from a local initiative called "Toulouse en Liberté", whereby certain hotels, including the three below, offer a discounted rate, including breakfast, and a pass for local attractions. Art Deco fans (see 24-Hour Room Service, below) could try the three-star Holiday Inn at 13 Place Wilson (00 33 5 61 10 70 70; www.holidayinn.com), which has a Deco interior; doubles €80 (£53), singles €70 (£47). The four-star Crowne Plaza (00 33 5 61 61 19 19; www.crowneplaza.com) in the Place du Capitole costs €110 (£73) double, €100 (£67) single. The two-star Park Hôtel on rue d'Austerlitz (00 33 5 61 21 25 97; www.au-park-hotel.com) is €50 (£33) double, €40 (£27) single.

TAKE A HIKE

Your Toulouse en Liberté pass entitles you to a free two-hour guided walking tour at 3pm every Saturday. For a DIY tour, begin in the Place du Capitole. Head up rue du Taur towards the basilica of Saint-Sernin(8.30-11.45am, 2-6.45pm Monday to Saturday; 8.30am-12.30pm, 2- 7.30pm on Sundays) built in honour of the city's first bishop. Saint-Sernin was tied to a bull and dragged through the city's streets before his remains were finally recovered in rue du Taur – "Taur" being the word for bull in the region's original language, Occitan. The basilica is one of the world's finest Romanesque churches, and an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Next, take the side streets towards the Couvent des Jacobins (9am-7pm daily). The convent's ribbed "palm-tree" chancel and peaceful cloisters are the highlights. After a short walk towards the river Garonne, walk on to the magnificent Pont Neuf , the oldest bridge in the city. Head back across the bridge and up rue de Metz, take a peek inside the courtyard of Toulouse's most sumptuous merchant residence, the Hôtel d'Assézat (9am-7pm daily) and cross Place Esquirol. Turn north, wander past the charming Place Saint-Georges, and end with a drink in Place Wilson.

TAKE A VIEW

The best vistas can be combined with a spot of shopping at the Nouvelles Galeries department store on rue Lapeyrouse. Go up to the Ciel de Toulouse restaurant and viewing terrace on the 5th floor (00 33 5 34 45 98 98), open 11am-6pm, Monday to Saturday.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grab a sweet or savoury snack from the pâtisserie Maison Pillon, 2 rue d'Austerlitz (00 33 5 61 21 96 51; open Tuesday to Sunday, 8am - 7.30pm), or blend in with the locals at the nearby covered market in Place Victor Hugo. Hidden beneath a multistorey car park is a vast array of stalls selling every kind of local produce. Choose bread from La Boulangerie, local cheeses from Betty, and ham and salami from the Charcuterie Garcia. The market opens 6am-1pm daily, except Monday.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Musée des Augustins at 21 rue de Metz (00 33 5 61 22 21 82; www.augustins.org) occupies a former Augustinian convent built in the 14th-15th centuries. The building, with an impressive courtyard and a Gothic church, is just as interesting as its contents, though the museum's collection of Romanesque sculpture is one of the richest in the world. Paintings by Delacroix and Toulouse-Lautrec (who was from nearby Albi), among many others, are also on show. The museum opens 10am-6pm daily, except Tuesdays (to 9pm on Wednesdays). Admission is €4 (£2.60), but free with the Toulouse en Liberté pass.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The main shopping streets are rue La Fayette and rue d'Alsace-Lorraine. Luxury goods are to be found in one of the prettiest streets in Old Toulouse, rue Croix-Baragnon, while the boutiques on rue Saint-Rome offer more accessibly priced clothes. Buy a bag of crystallised violets from a confectioner such as Olivier at 20 rue La Fayette (00 33 5 61 23 21 87). The city's connection with the flower dates back to Napoleonic times, when soldiers brought them back from Italy.

AN APERITIF

Sample a glass of Fronton or Gaillac at Le Père Louis on rue des Tourneurs (00 33 5 61 21 33 45; 9.30am-10pm daily except Sundays), one of the most atmospheric bars in town, first opened in 1889. Rest your glass on an oak barrel, take in the paintings of Toulouse's bridges, and enjoy the bodega feel of the dark interior. Alternatively, try one of the bars on Place Saint-Pierre, Chez Tonton at No. 16 (00 33 5 61 21 89 54), for example, or Le Bar Basque at No 7 (00 33 5 61 21 55 64). Or go for the belle époque grandeur of the Café Florida, 12 Place du Capitole (00 33 5 61 23 94 61).

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

The city's signature dish is cassoulet, a hearty casserole made with beans, vegetables, duck, pork and sausage. It can be found on most menus, along with other regional specialities such as foie gras, duck confit and Toulouse sausages. Inside Le Colombier, 14 rue Bayard (00 33 5 61 62 40 05; noon-2pm and 7.15-10.15pm daily except Saturday lunchtime and Sunday), a mural depicting Rabelais's Gargantua presides over the serious business of eating. The set menu is €29 (£19). Le Bon Vivre at 15 bis Place Wilson (00 33 5 61 23 07 17; 11.30am-11.30pm daily) is cheaper, with a set menu at €18 (£12). At 8 rue Jean Suau, La Réserve (00 33 5 61 21 84 00; closed Sundays and Mondays) recreates the atmosphere of a bourgeois mansion. Set menus from €9.50 (£6.30) to €34 (£23).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Visit the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, open 8am-7pm Monday-Wednesday, and 8.30am-7pm Thursday-Sunday. The cathedral's construction spanned five centuries.and it is a curious amalgam of both Mediterranean and Gothic influences. The overall effect is disconcerting, mainly because the nave and chancel are not aligned.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Cité de l'Espace on Avenue Jean-Gonord (00 33 5 62 71 48 71; www.cite-espace.com) is an excellent theme park on the outskirts of Toulouse. Take the No 19 bus from Matabiau station at weekends, or a taxi for around €13 (£8.60). The Cité celebrates Toulouse's important role in space exploration, as Europe's answer to Nasa. Instead of white-knuckle rides, intriguing interactive exhibits bring space travel to life. Top marks to the giant Ariane 5 rocket and Mir space station replicas. Admission is €12 (£8), but it is free with the Toulouse en Liberté pass. It opens 9am-6pm daily (an hour later at weekends and during school holidays).

OUT TO BRUNCH

Place Saint-Georges is one of the city's oldest squares – it was used for executions in the 18th century. Tuck into a croque-monsieur (€3.80, £2.50) from Café Wallace (00 33 5 61 21 07 18), from 8am Monday to Saturday, midday on Sunday. Don't let the thought of the 170 souls who perished here spoil your appetite...

TAKE A RIDE

...aboard the bateau-mouche Le Capitole (00 33 5 61 25 72 57; €8/£5.30) on the lovely Garonne, which winds down from a glacial source high in the Pyrenees. The 80-minute trip departs every day except Monday from the Quai de la Daurade at 10.30am, 3pm, 4.30pm and 6.30pm. A commentary in English can be arranged if you speak to the crew beforehand.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Toulouse is capital of Europe's aerospace industry. From Clément Ader's pioneering flight, to the development of Concorde, it has played a vital role in the history of aviation. Today, you can take a trip around the largest aircraft assembly plant in Europe, on the opposite side of the runway from the main airport terminal. Book the €9 (£6) tour through Taxiway (00 33 5 61 18 06 01; www.taxiway.fr) at least 48 hours in advance and take ID. The easiest way to get there is by taxi for around €22 (£15).The 90-minute guided tour includes a coach trip around the Airbus site, plus a look at the production line where passenger aircraft are built.

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