In the sunny southwest of France, close to the Pyrénées mountain range, lies the pink city of Toulouse. Easily accessible by train or plane from Paris, Toulouse has been called the ville rose for its rose colored brick buildings in the historical center. Being the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille, Toulouse is not only known for its universities, but also as homebase of the European aerospace industry.
The historical center of this quaint and lovely city is easy to explore on foot, although it’s more fun to explore by bicycle. There are numerous bike rental stations conveniently scattered throughout the city so that pick up and drop off can be done at any of these stations. By swiping a credit card, one can rent these bikes for 1-2 Euros a day. On a recent trip to Toulouse, my friends and I took this bicycle tour of Toulouse, and it was one of the most fun activities that I had done in a long time. The weather was sunny and the wind was low, and we set off on these two-wheelers through this charming pink city.
We weaved in and out through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with beautiful old buildings. The first sight that we saw was the majestic Basilique St. Serrin, just down the street from my friend Olivier’s apartment. It’s the largest Romanesque basilica in the western world, and the signature octagonal bell tower popped against the dramatic cloudy sky.
The Cathedrale St. Etienne has a unique exterior that looks like a mishmash of different architectural styles, since it was constructed by joining two incomplete churches. Once inside, you can also appreciate the 2 different styles of Gothic architecture that are also structurally askew.
We bought delicious Indian chicken curry and tandoori chicken wraps to go, put them in our cute little baskets on the front of the bicycles, and headed to the serene Jardin des Plantes for a picnic. On that Sunday afternoon the park was alive with smiling joggers, university students lost in their textbooks, lovers cuddling on their blanket and families enjoying their quality time playing games. I love the feeling of grass and moist soil on my bare feet- it’s a good feeling to take off my shoes from time to time and really feel the earth under every part of the soles of my feet. With the sun filtering through the green trees and caressing my face with its gentle warmth, the lullaby of laughing children in the distant background and a content belly full of good food, I drifted off into a quick postprandial snooze…
…but not for long, as we had a lot more pedaling to do. The 150 mile long Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in Europe still in use, and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It felt exhilarating to pedal along this picturesque canal that was beautifully lined with lush green trees and where people still live on crazy looking old boathouses.
The Place du Capitol, the epicenter of Toulouse, is a place of public gathering. One can sit at any of the numerous outdoor cafes to people watch against the background of the majestic town hall and opera house. When we went there, there was a demonstration going on in one corner of the plaza, while street vendors tried to entice people with paintings and trinkets on the other end.
After we returned our rental bikes to one of the rental stations, we walked over to the Garonne river to watch the beautiful sunset. As the sun disappeared behind the pristine bridges of Pont Saint- Pierre and Pont des Catalans, the expansive sky captivated us with an awe inspiring panorama of lights, patterns and colors. We talked about lost loves and new loves, as we sat on the banks of the Garonne and stared at the sky until it turned dark.
Naturally, this full day adventure made us hungry. What shall it be tonight? Which Toulousian specialty shall we indulge in? Perhaps the most typical dish that represents Toulouse is cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked bean stew with white haricot beans, duck confit and pork sausage. This heartiness of this stew was almost intimidating, and I couldn’t finish it off. We enjoyed our meal with a bottle of Cahors red wine, and finished the meal with a glass of Armagnac to round out our Toulousian culinary experience. Armagnac, which is a French brandy similar to Cognac, is made exclusively in this area.
Toulouse, beautiful charming ville rose of southwest France- come discover this treasure on bicycle and enjoy the delicious flavors of the region.
Random trivia: Legend has it that France’s King Henry IV (1553 – 1610) had Armagnac and garlic placed on his lips by his grandfather on the day he was born. He is said to “have drawn wisdom and strength for his whole life” from that experience.