Toulouse: City living with southern comforts

John Brunton discovers why Toulouse is a favourite bolt-hole for the French

Known as La Ville Rose ­ the Pink City ­ Toulouse is one of those places with a certain magic, which you sense the moment you arrive. The first spot everyone visits is the Place du Capitole, one of the most awe-inspiring squares in France. Three sides are bordered by solid, characteristic brick buildings which glow rose-red, a colour you will see across the city. Then the square is dominated by the grandiose, pastel-yellow façade of the Town Hall, which takes up one whole side. Inside, a grand Renaissance marble staircase leads up to the Salle des Illustres, a sumptuous Baroque hall covered with elaborate paintings and frescoes.

Known as La Ville Rose ­ the Pink City ­ Toulouse is one of those places with a certain magic, which you sense the moment you arrive. The first spot everyone visits is the Place du Capitole, one of the most awe-inspiring squares in France. Three sides are bordered by solid, characteristic brick buildings which glow rose-red, a colour you will see across the city. Then the square is dominated by the grandiose, pastel-yellow façade of the Town Hall, which takes up one whole side. Inside, a grand Renaissance marble staircase leads up to the Salle des Illustres, a sumptuous Baroque hall covered with elaborate paintings and frescoes.

But that's for the tourists. The real action takes place out on the square itself, where the locals indulge in the Saturday-morning ritual of a coffee and croissant on one of the terraces that dominate it. The two great rivals of the city are Le Florida and Bibent, which glare at each other across the Place du Capitole. The Bibent is almost overpowering Art Nouveau, all swirling motifs and statues, with a rather well-heeled clientele. Le Florida has a softer, pastel 1920s decor, and is much more the preferred hang-out of the Toulouse hip crowd.

Why go?

Toulouse is notable for an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. The architecture resembles that of an Italian city, while the mood of the people is more Spanish. No other city in France seems to be growing as quickly as Toulouse. It is especially attractive to Parisians, desperate to escape the stress of the capital but looking to move to a fun, prosperous city rather than a sleepy provincial town.

Toulouse could not be more perfect, offering all the attractions of a capital city with none of the disadvantages. With the successful European Airbus project centred here, the city is booming, and it does not take long for a visitor to discover that the Toulousains know how to enjoy their leisure time. It is difficult to imagine another city in France that can compare for an ideal weekend break combining culture and gastronomy, bars and nightlife, shopping and sightseeing.

Why now?

With its mild climate, this is a great destination for any time of the year. But Toulouse really comes into its own during the spring and summer months.

The mission

If you are travelling with children, do not miss an adventure into the future at the Cîté d'Espace. This is just a 15-minute bus ride out of the city centre, and the experience is great fun for adults, too. You can take a tour through the original Mir space station (which was used for training astronauts in the days of the Soviet Union), gaze up at the towering Ariane space rocket, and experience how it might feel to travel through space to Mars.

For those who would prefer to travel back in time to the Middle Ages, stay in the town and spend the afternoon wandering about the labyrinth of rooms and peaceful cloisters that make up the Musée des Augustins, which is housed in an ancient monastery.

And the one cultural attraction that no one should miss is a visit to the 16th-century Hôtel Pierre d'Assézat, a grand Renaissance palace. Like many of Toulouse's private mansions, it has a tall brick tower jutting from the roof, because, apparently, this was the ultimate status symbol of wealth at the time. Today, the palace houses the splendid private art collection of the Bemberg Foundation, with exhibits including Canaletto and Caravaggio, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and one of the finest selections of work by Pierre Bonnard.

Remember this

Things really start to hot up here after midnight, and there is a wide choice of nightclubs. The most surprising is a vast salsa dance floor, Puerto Habana, at 12 pont St Etienne, which has live bands direct from Cuba, while nearby there is acid jazz and house at L'Ambassade, at 22 boulevard de la Gare, in what was the Austrian consulate.

For a serious blast of techno, join the queues outside Le Bash, at 23 place Bachelier, and the On-Off Club, at 23 boulevard Riquet. Or to chill out in a cooler atmosphere, take refuge in a beautiful old mansion, La Maison, at 9 rue Gabriel Peri, which has bars on four floors, or the late-night groove bar, Zoodrome, at 37 rue de l'Industrie.

Eating out

The chic, expensive Les Jardins de l'Opéra, at 1 place du Capitole (tel: 00 33 561 23 07 76), is the gastronomic headquarters of Toulouse, offering creative dishes such as ravioli de foie gras frais de canard au jus de truffes, while at the other end of town, you can have a cheap, fun meal at any one of the dozen restaurants that line the lively rue des Blanchers. The best bet here is the friendly Les Enfants Gatés, at 9, rue des Blanchers (tel: 00 33 561 21 88 94), run by two former Parisians, Didier and Stéphane.

If you are prepared for a seriously heavy dinner, then Toulouse is the place to try a traditional cassoulet ­ a steaming plate of preserved goose and duck, sausage, pork and mutton, cooked for hours and hours in a rich sauce with white beans. The romantic Restaurant Emile, at 13 place Saint-Georges ( tel: 00 33 561 21 05 56), undoubtedly serves the best in town. Just don't be tempted by the starters or you will never get through the cassoulet.

For a complete change of ambience, there are also two excellent Spanish tapas bars. The fashionable crowd tends to go to the vast Bodega, at 1 rue Gabriel Peri (tel: 00 33 561 63 03 63), which stays open till 4am, but a better bet is the more authentic La Tantina de Burgos, at 27 avenue de la Garonnette (tel: 00 33 561 55 59 29), which has delicious calamari and live flamenco played by local Tzigane guitarists.

Where to stay

For splashing out, there is no better address than the Hôtel de l'Opéra, at 1 place du Capitole (tel: 00 33 561 21 82 66; fax: 00 33 561 23 41 04; www.grand-hotel-opera.com), which could not be better placed, just off the place du Capitole. Double rooms cost from Fr830 (£79) and are individually if somewhat eccentrically decorated with lots of plush red velvet on the walls. There is an excellent buffet breakfast and very friendly and helpful staff.

Less expensive, but still rather smart, is the boutique Hôtel des Beaux Arts, at 1 place du Pont Neuf (tel: 00 33 534 45 42 42; fax: 00 33 534 45 42 43; email: contact@hoteldesbeauxarts.com), where the small size of the rooms is largely compensated by the beautiful views over the Garonne river. Double rooms cost from Fr490.

Budget travellers should not miss the Hôtel Grand Balcon, at 8 rue Romiguères (tel: 00 33 561 21 48 08; fax: 00 33 561 21 59 98), which may be a bit run down but still oozes charm. Double rooms cost from Fr170. Ask for room 32, which was where the famed aviator and writer of Le Petit Prince, Antoine de St-Exupéry, always stayed.

What to buy

Toulouse is a delight for any food lover ­ the perfect place to pick up foie gras, jars of confit de canard (preserved duck) or a hearty cassoulet stew, smoked hams and sausages. On a Saturday morning, head straight for the bustling Marché Victor Hugo and seek out the stall of Madame Anny Penchenant, who stocks the finest foie gras; then either have a drink at the market sellers' favourite watering hole, Le Bar des Amis, whose amiable owners, Nicole and Michel, serve huge portions of cassoulet for breakfast, or try an excellent selection of regional wines at Au Vin Qui Chante, which sells bottles to take away, too.

On Sunday morning, no matter what time you went to bed the night before, make sure you get up before lunchtime, as it is crucial not to miss the farmers' market which runs right round the Saint-Aubin church. Toulouse is still very much an agricultural city, and you will see farmers holding up struggling live chickens, rabbits, ducks and geese, while alongside, gnarled, red-faced paysans sell huge cheeses. Old women display vegetables grown in their gardens, stalls sell tasty sausages and pungent cheeses brought down from the Pyrenees. Wine-makers offer samples of Fronton, the local wine much loved by the Toulousains.

Those more interested in fashion shopping will quickly join the crowds that jam the pedestrian-only rue St Rome, but apart from the fun vintage clothes outlet, Groucho, it's a better bet to discover some of the city's more interesting specialist shops. First stop should be rue Bouquihres, where each boutique is a surprise.

Spend too long admiring the artisan bookbinding at Filigrane and the charming owner may even persuade you to sign on for a course on your next trip. Toulouse has a couple of creative young designers, and down dark back streets you will come upon chic outfits at Rosie-Rosa, at 8 rue Boar-Lormain, elegant hand-made hats at Framboise, at 1 rue des Trois Banquets, and romantic wedding dresses at Mademoiselle Rose, at 12 rue Boar-Lormain.

Getting about

The first rule is to leave your car at the hotel, because driving and parking are a nightmare in Toulouse. La Ville Rose is somewhere to discover on foot. There is a metro, but you will not need it as there is so much to see in the centre.

Getting there

Air France (tel: 0845 0845 111) offers return flights from Heathrow daily from £98, while Buzz (tel: 0870 240 7070) has return flights from Stansted from £90. By train, the TGV goes only as far as Bordeaux. To drive, pick up the A10 autoroute from Paris down to Bordeaux, then the A62 direct to Toulouse.

Further information

Tourism Office, Donjon du Capitole, Square de Gaulle (tel: 00 33 561 11 02 22; www.toulouse-tourisme-office.com).

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