Sunday, September 29, 2013

Excursion à Toulouse

Dimanche, 29 septembre.

Bonjour and bienvenue à Toulouse, the destination of my most recent weekend trip!

Toulouse is home to: one of Europe's oldest universities, the largest cancer research center in Europe, the headquarters of Airbus, Europe's largest space center, and the largest Romanesque church in France. Oh, and it's casually been described as "the place capitalism was invented." With all that it's got going on, it's not surprising that the city is the fourth-largest in France! (To put it in perspective, however, the population of this grande ville is approximately 1.2 million ... just over that of Fairfax County.) Oh ... and it's also the name of one of the kittens in The Aristocats.


Molly and I decided to go to visit the city a few weeks ago, when we realized how inexpensive it would be to take the train there for the day. We ended up taking the train (about two hours each way and less expensive than going from Northern Virginia to Williamsburg) and spending ten hours in Toulouse with a couple of other study abroad students we know from the pre-stage. I didn't know too much about the city (and naturally neither did anybody else), so we headed to the Office of Tourism for a map and then just spent our day wandering around downtown Toulouse!

The absolute "must see" in Toulouse is the capitol building. Like much of the historic part of town, the Capitole de Toulouse is built out of pink brick -- it's this unique characteristic that gives Toulouse its nickname: la Ville Rose. The capitol was originally founded in the 12th century by the capitouls who governed the city, but as you can tell, the current building is a little bit more recent: the Neoclassical facade was constructed in the 18th century! However, the presence of those original eight capitouls is still very obvious in the design of the building (the eight columns feature their eight coats of arms).

We weren't allowed to visit the inside of the building, but we did get to poke around the beautiful Cour Henri-IV. The statue in the little alcove of King Henry IV was remplaced temporarily after the French Revolution. Although the king was eventually returned, a plaque from the Revolution remains: « Vivant, le peuple entier l'aima. Il le pleura quand il fut enlevé. La postérité ne cessera de l'aimer d'un amour pieux. » (Living, the whole people loved him. They mourned him when he died. The posterity will never cease to love him with a pious love.") So that's nifty?

As you might have guessed, there are a lot of things to see and do in Toulouse. Unfortunately for poor college students, a lot of them (particularly the museums) cost a pretty good amount of money, even with student ID discounts! Fortunately for poor college students, however, there are a TON of beautiful churches in Toulouse. Churches are quickly becoming my favorite part of travelling in France: they're typically free to enter and walk around ... oh, and they all happen to be absolutely gorgeous. So without further ado, the churches of Toulouse...

First up, l'Ensemble Conventuel des Jacobins. Built in the 13th century, this church is considered the most beautiful dominican church in Europe and contains some of the tallest pillars to exist in gothic architecture. (Have you noticed that Europeans are big on their superlatives? Like ... if it's not the biggest, oldest, or most beautiful, then why are we even talking about it?) In this case, however, I'd have to agree. The church, even though it's in the midst of being renovating, was absolutely breathtaking.

The church contained absolutely the coolest thing I have ever seen in any church ever. Surrounding one of the church's columns (a 28-meter masterpiece called le palmier because the vaulted ceiling above it looks like a palm tree), they've installed a massive circular mirror that reflects the ceiling and stained-glass windos. It's waist-high, so you can leave over and see what seems to be an endless ceiling.

Tomb of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Church #2: la basilique Notre-Dame la Daurade. I don't really know what to say about this church, because it was among the weirdest that I've ever seen. It's built on the site of a paleochristian wisigoth church and is dedicated to la Vierge Noire. Definitely ... unique.

Church #3: Eglise Notre-Dame du Taur, a Gothic church with beautiful frescoes and stained glass windows. But why is it called "Our Lady of the Bull?" (Taur is short for taureau.) It's in honor of Saint Saturnin, one of seven missionaries sent out to christianize Gaul (modern-day France) during the third century, who was martyred by the inhabitants of Toulouse. His fate? Being tied to a bull and dragged behind until the rope broke. The modern-day Rue du Taur and Notre-Dame du Taur are supposed to mark the spot "where the bull stopped." (Huh.) Despite its macabre origins, the church really is very beautiful. You can read more and check out stunning 360-degree views of church here.

Church #4: Basilisque Saint-Sernin. The largest Romanesque church in France, this basilica is absolutely enormous. It took several campaigns to build the current church, which sits on top of a fourth-century basilica. The church houses the remains of Saint Saturnin as well as the relics of several other saints, making the basilica one of the most important stops for pilgrims making the Santiago de Compostela.

Inside, the church is absolutely incredible. The ceilings are unfathomably high and I spent most of my time inside just wandering around and looking up. (It's not quite the same as the real thing, of course, but you can see a pretty amazing 360-degree view of the basilica here!) Although I didn't pay the entrance fee to visit the crypt, I was able to get up close and personal with the reliquaries, which include relics from Saints Therese of Lisieux (very popular in Toulouse) and Bernadette of Lourdes. Amazing.

Church #5: the Toulouse Cathedral, known here as la Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse -- a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful church. (I think I may have liked it even more than the basilica!) The whole church is incredibly bright, thanks to the white stone walls and big stained glass windows. Even in parts of the church that are less well-preserved (like the radiating chapel below where plaster and paint have chipped off to reveal the original brick), the church is still awe-inspiring.

Of course, we didn't spend the whole day inside churches! We wandered through gardens, popped into some amazing bakeries, and even picnicked in the Prairie des Filtres, a gorgeous park along the Garbonne River. It was a blast just to walk around town -- the historic downtown is beautiful and it's easy to follow along the banks of both the Garbonne and the Canal du Midi (which flows straight through the city on its path to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic).

Le Pont Neuf -- the New Bridge -- dates back to the 16th century. Only in Europe...

The motto of Toulouse is "Per Tolosa totjorn mai" -- Occitan for "For Toulouse, always more." It makes sense, doesn't it? Although ten hours was the perfect amount of time to spend seeing the highlights of this beautiful pink city, I can't imagine ever leaving without wanting to spend one more hour or eat one more pastry!


  1. Ah oui alors je veux etre Elisabeth! un peu plus chaque fois que je te lis. Merci ma puce!

  2. How fun! I'm so proud of you all for exploring yet another new place with such interest and energy!
    Love, Mommy

  3. Beautiful trip; we feel like we are part of your tour group. Thanks for your enthusiasm and appreciation for these beautiful sites. P&B love you.