Spotlight On: Toulouse
Located on the banks of the River Garonne, Toulouse is the capital city of the southwestern French department of Haute-Garonne as well as the Midi-Pyrenees region. Known as La Ville Rose, reflecting the blush pastels, pinks and terracottas of local brickwork, Toulouse is a photographer’s dream. Throughout the day, the architecture changes its hue with each passing minute from dawn to sunset.
The Toulouse metropolitan area is the fourth-largest in France, after Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Here some quarters of the population still speak 10th century Occitan; others focus with unabated passion on the here and now.
Where to stay in Toulouse
During our visit, we stayed at the Mercure Toulouse Wilson Hotel, breathing in as we squeezed into its underground car park where the ceilings were low enough to touch. This centrally placed hotel is only a few short steps from Wilson Square with its parade of designer shops, multi-screen cinema complex, ornate fountain, and carousel, complete with kaleidoscopic ceramic horses.
What to see and do in Toulouse
There are a plethora of landmarks and tourist destinations to occupy your time in Toulouse including: The Basilica of St Sernin, Place du Capitole, Les Jacobins Monastery, Musée Saint-Raymond, Antiquities Museum of Toulouse,
Musee des Augustins, and the Pont Neuf.
We particularly enjoyed a visit to the Chateau d’Eau, a water tower which has been converted into a photography gallery. Founded by French photographer Jean Dieuzaide in the 1970s, this unique space is in itself as fascinating as the exhibitions.
Another must-see tourist destination is the Canal du Midi. Originally built to boost export opportunities for 17th century wheat, wine, textile and salt producers, it is now a place where visitors can hire leisure craft for boating holidays.
Other activities we enjoyed during our holiday included rummaging for second hand bargains at a bustling Sunday street market, tapping our feet to music as we ate tapas at a jazz cafe, and cheering with rapturous enthusiasm as more than a thousand rugby fans tried to break the world record for creating the biggest ever scrum in the Place du Capitole!
The vibrant spirit of Toulouse is as alive as ever
While the tourist destinations we visited were impressive, it was the sense of exuberance, vibrancy, youthful energy and artistic verve that most seduced us. Toulouse boasts one of the largest student populations in France, and it’s evident that it beats to the rhythm of the young and adventurous.
Breakfast in Toulouse
During our visit to Toulouse, we had our fair share of breakfast croissants, mopping up the flaky bits with our fingers as they fell to our plates. No jam, no honey, no butter, no preserves, nor savouries were required as accompaniments to this sweet manna from Heaven. They saw us through from breakfast till lunchtime, with maybe a mid-morning espresso or two in-between.
We told ourselves we needed the caffeine as there was much to see and do in cosmopolitan Toulouse. Secretly though, we delighted in just hanging out at cafes people-watching. Toulouse is a hotchpotch of personalities and temperaments, a multicultural mix; more friendly than Paris, more edgy than Nice, more chic than Marseille.
Lunchtime in Toulouse - The start of a love affair with luscious Labneh…
On the day that we visited the café on the Rue Gambetta, the sun was at its height and it was 33 degrees outside when we spied a long line of people queueing for take-away orders. Inside was a clutch of tables surrounded by shop and office workers tucking into exotic salads, Lebanese breads, and galettes filled with varying combinations of spinach, garlic, herbs, spices, aubergine, houmous, marinated chicken, onions, tomato, and cheeses.
The French are renowned cheese makers but that day it was not a classic camembert, a piquant brie, a rustic Roquefort or a nutty Comté that tempted me. The one I went for was not even French. It was Labneh from Lebanon. Labneh is a traditional Middle Eastern delight made from strained yoghurt, which is essentially their version of cream cheese. It might not sound the most palatable choice to select from the gourmet menus that surrounded us in the sizzling capital of south west France, but the labneh, cucumber and mint wrap we ate hit the spot - a refreshing treat on a scorching day.
Longing for labneh…
Since our return home, I have searched for labneh at delicatessens and cheese shops, but my enquiries have prompted puzzled looks until now. I have found a Lebanese deli on Kensington High Street, where the owner delighted in telling me how to make a labneh wrap using cucumber, olives and mint, which I plan on eating in the garden during the summer months when I’m in need of a self-indulgent lunch break.
I’m aware that it will not taste exactly like the wrap I had in Toulouse, but then holiday flavours do not travel well. That feeling of gratification, delectation, is as much in the moment as it is in the ingredients.
Debra Greenhouse, freelance journalist
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