La Ville Rose, Toulouse: Lovely, Luxurious and LGBT Friendly
La Ville Rose, aptly named for the stunning pink-hued bricks making up most of the old city, Toulouse is one of the jewels of southern France. Probably best known as one of the headquarters of Airbus, Toulouse is also a must-see for the luxury traveler. Lying just east of the Spanish border it is a truly cosmopolitan city enjoying the warm Mediterranean climate, the sophistication of French culture and the refinement of French cuisine whilst drawing inspiration from regional and international culinary traditions. Strolling the streets of the city centre you will hear a myriad of languages, including the local Occitan language. Toulouse, along with the rest of France, is an LGBT-friendly destination. The city has a number of gay-specific businesses, but as a whole, the city welcomes LGBT travellers openly.
Of course, there is always so much to see when travelling somewhere new, but I wanted to challenge myself to 24 hours in the city to experience all I could. I arrived midday and immediately upon checking into my flat set out to start my exploration of the city. My first stop was a local cheese shop, Xavier Fromagier. The French are known for their love of cheese and I couldn't pass up a chance to learn from a real expert. Francoise Bourgon is the owner and my guide as I perused the shelves bursting with all sorts of colourful and aromatic creations. Francoise explained how he can tell where a cheese is from just by looking at it. As we wandered through his cellars and past enough ripening cheese to last a lifetime Francoise shared the story of how his father started the business and how he takes the time to get to know each and every vendor to ensure the reputation his father established continues under his stewardship.
Leaving Xavier I wandered through the streets of the old city and enjoyed the sights and smells coming from the small shops packed in the small seemingly endless streets. I walked past cathedrals and basilicas, antique book shops selling French literary classics and bakeries selling pastel-coloured sweets piled high on silver platters. I stopped at a small bistro to sit with a cafÃ© au lait and a small almond pastry and watched as the world passed by. The city is such a cosmopolitan community that I could have sat there all day and not tired of the sights and sounds.
Recharged from my coffee I set off to see some of the cultural sights scattered around the city. The height of this was a visit to the Basilica Saint-Sernin. With its red brick Romanesque exterior, this pilgrimage spot has been enjoying a revival over the last few decades. Its interior is an awe-inspiring collection of French history. Relics from long past saints, murals stretching back to the 12th century and an alter almost 1,000 years old. Worlds away from the hustle and bustle of city life just outside, the basilica is a tranquil place to visit.
The highlight of Toulouse had to be my dinner at Le Parisien. After a day spent on airplanes, meandering through endless airport queues and walking every street I could find to explore I had worked up quite an appetite. Great food, atmosphere, and company made it a thoroughly enjoyable experience and exactly what I needed. I had decided to meet up with a new friend I made whilst exploring the city earlier in the day and together we feasted on Le Parisien's set dinner menu and, of course, a perfectly paired bottle of French wine to go along with each course of fresh seafood. Hours passed as we relaxed and enjoyed each dish that was brought to us. From dinner, I walked back to my flat and settled in for a rest before my morning adventures.
After a relaxing lie-in, I awoke to begin the final leg of my whirlwind tour of Toulouse. One thing I was looking forward to all night whilst trying to sleep was a behind-the-scenes look at a local chocolatier at work. La Compagnie du Chocolat is a small artisanal chocolatier on one of the small streets radiating from the main square. Vincent Puyuelo runs the shop alongside his wife and each morning he handcrafts a number of delicacies for his customers. Seeing small chocolate covered biscuits rolling around the humming machines in Vincent's kitchen and a fountain pouring chocolate over orange peels I could hardly resist when offered the chance to taste some of his creations. Milk chocolate covered praline and ganache along with candied violets were my personal favourites and the treats I left the shop with. Vincent's love for his home and profession was infectious. He was filled with suggestions on where to go to try local dishes and what made the Occitan region a unique part of wider French society. It was a pleasant way to start the day.
Upon saying goodbye to Vincent and packing my spoils away I set off for breakfast. I had made reservations the night before for a restaurant I came across whilst strolling through the main square. Le Bibent is housed in a typically beautiful Toulousien building, but once I walked inside the full opulence of the restaurant overtook me. Ornately carved doorways, mural-adorned ceilings and golden accents abound I was seated next to one of the large windows overlooking the main square. Sitting there, overlooking the Capitolium, I received plate after plate of fresh fruit, pastries and eggs accompanied by fresh juice and coffee, all brought to me by the friendly staff. Mme Constant has created a wonderful dining experience with all the French charm one would expect to come across. And with a fully appeased appetite, I was ready to set out and enjoy my final hours in the city.
I have never been able to pass at a chance to visit a garden. Toulouse would be no exception. From Le Bibent I walked to Toulouse's Jardin des Plantes where flowing fountains, colourful beds, and manicured green spaces were filled with families playing and couples enjoying a romantic afternoon in the summer sun. The garden is joined by a greenway that bisects the city right down to the Garonne River. From there Toulouse lays out a beautiful network of paths along the river.
The city is rich in outdoor spaces to enjoy and walking from one to the other I couldn't help dreaming of what I would do for my last meal in the city. I decided to take a local's recommendation and try La Gourmandine. Incidentally enough it happened to be directly across from Xavier's and once seated I immediately set my eyes on the chef's set lunch menu of an assortment of duck starters and stuffed veal with homemade gnocchi. One last meal in France meant one last chance at some French wine. The waiter was knowledgeable and helped me to pair a good wine with my meal. I enjoyed every morsel whilst I took in the final sights of my trip.
My time coming to a close I packed up my bags and tucked away my treats and trinkets and set off for the airport and my return home. Sitting on the plane I had a chance to relax and reflect on my brief trip around the southern French city and was able to let everything I experienced soak in. I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived, but the friendliness of the people I met and the passion of the local business owners and restauranteurs I met along the way made me share in their passion. The warm climate, stunning architecture and culinary masterpieces I experienced are something I would recommend to anyone thinking of their next travel destination.