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Pink City of the South Aims for the Stars

Costa Rica

Toulouse is one of France’s most atractive big cities after Paris. La Ville Rose, the Pink City, is deep in the south west, mid-way between the Atlantic and Mediterranean and hard by the Pyrenees. It is a city of elegant ancient wonders, alongside the modern marvels of the European aerospace capital, with wonderful eating as a bonus. And one of the best rugby teams in Europe. Photo: Neoclassical-style Town Hall, so big it has room for the Opera House. Credit - cs.nyu.edu

City centre hideaway.

This was no ordinary hotel. Our taxi driver took an enormous circuit to find the only way in, up a one-way street as narrow as a Pyrenees mountain pass. The Hotel Garonne hides away, down below the ancient bridge over the river, just off the city centre. It is so tiny and intimate they serve you breakfast on a big tray in your room. Reception doubles as the bar. I counted 30 steps from front desk to our room, decorated in warm red and beige, dominated by a big oval mirror ringed with Japanese characters.
Ten strides over the narrow street took us to the hotel’s own Restaurant le 19. This former medieval fish cellar is all wood panels and terracotta bricks, under a curved ceiling. Submit to whatever delights are on the menu, e.g. cream of watercress soup with warm oysters; magret of duckling with ginger and crushed apples; baked red snapper with spider-crab sauce; saffron-flavored sabayon with ice cream made from unpasteurized milk.

Top marks square

Do your dream of sipping a drink at a café in St Mark’s Square, Venice? While you save up for that, try this more affordable substitute. Toulouse’s Place du Capitole easily passes the great-city-squares-of-Europe test. There’s a vast car-free space for strolling, and people-watching, with one of those immense old civic buildings the French do so well as a backdrop. The Neoclassical-style Capitol (Town Hall), built 1750, is so big (at 140 yards long) it has room for the opera house (Théâtre du Capitole) as well. Find a table at one of the many cafes, and order pre-dinner drinks. Then call back for a nightcap, when the square is decoratively lit up, as are many of Toulouse’s public buildings and bridges.
If you want to eat on the square, try the Grand Cafe de l’Opera. They say this glossy brasserie serves the best oysters in town.

Eat with the locals

We were surrounded by regulars at Le Bon Vivre on Place Wilson - always the sign of a good French restaurant. They were here for no-fuss farmhouse cooking at its purest. The day’s favourite was the enormous cassoulet, served in an earthenware bowl. It’s their own very generous version of this regional dish. They make it with duck and pork. I started with smoked cod with garlic mayo, followed by braised lamb in a succulent wine sauce, and a hot apricot tart to finish. Simple but perfect. Ask for the set-price lunch.

Next evening we sat at one of the pavement tables at La Braisiere for more, excellent, straightforward French food: a wide range of grills from a wood oven, followed by nougat ice cream in honey.

Trek to the stars.

The stellar ambition of Cité de l’Espace, Europe’s best space museum, is announced from afar. Rising out of the Toulouse suburbs is the 150 feet high life-size version of the Ariane 5 rocket, ringed with Caribbean vegetation to imitate its launch pad in French Guyana. Among a constellation of exhibits are a full-size model of the Russian satellite Sputnik launched in 1957, a big hunk of Moon rock, and original sections of the Russian Mir craft and the Space Station. There are enough intelligent displays and hands-on exhibitions to fill a day. But a minute is long enough in the Gyroscope, where they hurl you upside down and back to front for the 360 degree spin dryer treatment. Then sit back and wonder at the universe in the state of the art planetarium.

Plane magnificent

Airbus Headquarters at Blagnac in suburban Toulouse is the best place to see some of world’s largest airliners. Among them is the 500-plus seat Airbus A380, Europe’s answer to Boeing (the wings are made in North Wales). It is 210 feet long and as high as an eight storey building. They start the 90 minute A380 tour with an overview of the programme, then drive you around the runways to see the outside testing areas and the production facility in an immense hangar. Lucky visitors may even catch these astonishing monsters taking off or landing on proving flights. Book ahead.

Vision in Pink

It started as a medieval economy measure - pink brick instead of more expensive white stone. Fortunately Toulouse stuck with its distinctive colour code, and gave its compact old heart, largely intact since the 1400s, a distinct and seductive decor. We wandered the high, tight streets, where the Smart is vehicle of choice (it’s the only one that will fit), and took in the highlights. The 11th century Basilica of St. Sernin, the largest (300 feet long) and finest Romanesque (12th century) church in Europe, contains the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas. The art gallery Hôtel d’Assézat has landscapes by Pierre Bonnard, famous for his intense colours. And, everywhere the 50 towers of Toulouse rise up. The best is above Bernuy Mansion, home of the baron who grew rich through trading woad, the blue dye Julius Caesar saw on the faces of the ancient Britons.

The writer travelled by Eurostar from London St Pancras, and TGV (the French high-speed train) from Lille.

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