A small leap from the Pyrenees, the “Pink City” of Toulouse is a rich cultural destination that’s perfect for a weekend getaway at all times of year.
Admittedly my perspective of Toulouse before visiting was rather romanticised. I had visions of picturesque pink brick facades and chic Toulousians sipping coffee all day long al-fresco style outside traditional French patisseries. That’s not to say that doesn’t happen. The independent cafes dotted around its gorgeous market squares and cobbled streets certainly make people watching an enjoyable pastime. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, far from quaint, Toulouse is a thriving city, buzzing with technology, culture and a vibrant youthful population.
I visited in early November, just as the rest of the continent was gearing up for Christmas. Yet Toulouse was gearing up for a very different festival. The Guardian of the Temple, a new show from the world famous engineering firm La Machine, was an ultra-immersive event that took over the entire city. Featuring colossal robotic structures, in the form of a towering Minotaur and a gargantuan spider worthy of War of the Worlds, the festival showcased the best of engineering from Toulouse in a spectacular visual four-act drama against the backdrop of the city’s most iconic landmarks.
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Powered by an intensively co-ordinated team of pilots, these two tremendous figures enacted a modern interpretation of a classic myth – The Minotaur – the half bull-half man beast reincarnated and guided to restoration in his rightful place as a guardian of the city by his sister Ariadne, embodied by the spider. Anyone familiar with the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur, originally imprisoned in a vast labyrinth, will be able to easily identify the relevance of the story to the city of Toulouse, parts of which are laid out like a sprawling labyrinth of ancient streets.
These streets give way to some of the most beautiful and varied examples of architecture in Toulouse, from the stunning neo-classical Capitole (seat of government) decorated within by the art of Henri Martin and Paul Gervais, to the gothic Church of the Jacobins. With its gallery of stained glass windows casting a spectrum of rainbow light throughout the stark interior, it is one of the most tranquil spaces I’ve ever encountered. Other living connections to the symbol of the Minotaur include the Rue du Taur, which gets its name from the legend of St Sernin (Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse) who was martyred for refusing to worship pagan gods by being dragged through the street by a bull. The end of Rue du Taur is home to iconic Romanesque Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of three UNESCO heritage sites in Toulouse.
A final nod to church architecture is the curious “crooked” church, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne. Composed of several different styles added over the years, the completed building is a mish-mash of different design ideas, resulting in an oddly L-shaped interior, intersecting windows, gargoyles overlooking the nave and a pillar and steeple that have been amusingly superimposed above the original clock tower. My favourite anecdote about this church is how we exited via the side door through a car park built on the site of the now demolished old chapel. In the words of Counting Crows, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
If the history of Toulouse can be charted by its variety of churches, then its economy can be mapped by the city’s numerous centres of industry, largely characterised by science, research and engineering. The biggest surprise was the role that Toulouse plays in the advancement of Aerospace. Who knew that this modest city in the Southwest of France was such a hub of space exploration?! Geeks like me will be delighted to discover the opportunities to reach for the stars with attractions like Cité de l’espace (surely the theme park of Sheldon Cooper’s dreams) and the Aeroscopia Museum. Aviation enthusiasts can even visit the Airbus factory, where you can get a panoramic view of the assembly lines of the A380 and A350.
The latest addition to Toulouse’s sci-fi attractions is the brand new Halle de la Machine, into which we were given a sneak peak a week before it officially opened to the public. It is the new permanent home of Compagnie La Machine, the brilliant animatronics firm behind The Minotaur and The Spider. La Halle de la Machine will be a base for these masterpieces when they are not travelling around the world, together with a selection from the company’s inventory of 1,000+ machines. These include La Symphonie Mechanique, featuring 50 mechanical percussion instruments, and a machine for communicating with plants. Yes, really.
The entire facility is built on the grounds of the former Aeropostale site, on the delisted airport runway. The new tourist and cultural attraction “Runway of Giants” honours the city’s heritage of engineering, design and aviation. The old runway provides a new platform for showcasing The Minotaur and The Spider and the entire district is a great example of how a disused public space can be repurposed to give it new life and modern relevance.
If you’re not a culture vulture or a self-certified geek like me, then there is plenty for foodies and fashionistas too. Toulouse is the capital of Occitanian France, meaning it is the epicentre of the historical region of Occitania, sandwiched between Spain and Provence. This wealth of influences gives Toulouse real gastronomical gumption. The Victor Hugo food market offers a wide array of local fare, from cured meats and fruit preserves to sumptuous foie gras and so much cheese. Yum.
For an imaginative lunch, visitors should try Le Glastag, a quirky design restaurant bursting with indoor flora and fauna. An evening spent in good company at Monsieur Georges promises delicious tapas and excellent wine. Or, for a fashionable late night tipple, head to Cosmopolitain to try a Kir Royale, among other well balanced cocktails. If, after that, you have the urge to dance, the recently-opened Mama Shelter, a design hotel on the main Boulevard, has a lively bar and dance floor, complete with an outdoor terrace segmented into private booths with overhead heating.
The rooms at Mama Shelter are also a sight to behold. Designed with a sense of humour, you’ll find Stormtrooper lamps, postcard art and colour-changing lights as standard features. Very reasonably priced, from just EUR69 a night, it’s a great base from which to explore all that Toulouse has to offer. Just a stone’s throw from the hotel is the shopping district, where you’ll find native brands like The Kooples and Le Comptoir des Cotonniers. On Sundays, you’ll also be just round the corner from Saint Aubin market – a treasure trove of arts, crafts and vintage gems. I picked up a gorgeous tapestry jacket and vegan cork backpack and spent the rest of my time there musing over a coffee, watching Toulousians dancing to folk music in the street. Talk about easy on Sunday morning.
Toulouse really beat all expectations. It’s easy to get to, easy to navigate and easy to find something to love about the city. There are so many destinations where you can anticipate all the usual offerings of night life, good food and drink, art, culture and shopping. Yet Toulouse is a truly unique place where ancient history meets technological innovation within walking distance of each other. It’s the ideal getaway for people who want more than a romantic minibreak or your standard weekend away. You’ll leave Toulouse feeling like you’ve genuinely learned something and experienced the world a different way without even trying.