Thursday, May 26, 2016

Toulouse: Something for Everyone

After a busy week in Paris with my sister, we headed off Toulouse in the southwest of France for ten days. Why Toulouse? Why not. It was on the way to Barcelona where we'd eventually meet up with dad. Plus, it's France. When deciding where we'd spend our time in France, we ultimately decided that it wouldn't matter because we'd love being anywhere. That proved to be true of Toulouse.

It's a university city and the centre of the European space industry with the headquarters of Airbus and some other space related things. As a result, it's got that great vibe that university cities have combined with a multinational expat population giving it a feel of a very modern and active city. 

It has everything I think a great city needs: a good Metro and transit system, good cafés and restaurants, wonderful public park spaces, and an active and busy central core. It also appears to have a vibrant arts community - though for the theatre, it helps to understand French, and good sports teams and facilities. The city loves its rugby team, Stade Toulousain, which is apparently one of the best in Europe - or so say those from Toulosue. And even more exciting, Toulouse will host some of the Euro Cup games next month.

We had some good relaxing days at the couple of playgrounds near our apartment. 

Biggest climbing thing we've ever seen.

Best of all, there was a boy across the street who played on the street. Eamon wasted no time at all running down the stairs to join him every time we saw him outside. Meaghan even joined in on the fun. Eamon wasn't shy about sharing with me his delight that the boy spoke English! So much for my plan of finding French-speaking kids to play with. 

Eamon and his English-speaking friend from across the street

Given that we viewed Toulouse as a bit of a rest stop, it should come as no surprise that Kerry and the kids pulled out Minecraft to continue building their world together. 

They could build things in their Minecraft world all day given the chance.

The kids also enjoyed the Cité de l'espace museum. Hands down, this has been the best kids' museum to date. Even though we spent almost the entire day there, and the kids were disappointed we had to leave early. There were so many exhibits that included so very much information. Usually, the space part of the museums we've seen include a bit about astronauts, or a bit about the planets, but this had so much more. It included information about the race for the first man on the moon, astronauts around the world, European space programs, the International Space Station, life in space, satellite launching and what satellites do for us, weather predictions, the solar system, the Milky Way - there is probably more; I just can't think of it right now. The Imax theatre played a couple of different movies and the planetarium had shows throughout the day. There was a special kids area in a rocket ship.

And as if that's not enough, there was the moon walk where you strap on the space pack and walk like you're on the moon. More than once after our visit we heard pleas to return. And we probably could have returned for a second day.

Moon walking. A blurry shot, but you get the idea.

We also made a trip to the Muséum de Toulouse, the city's natural history museum. Based on the reviews, we weren't expecting much, but were pleasantly surprised. The kids loved the living world part of the museum of that had terrific displays on earthquakes, volcanoes and continental drift. They also enjoyed the massive taxidermy section that grouped the animals with their scientific names. Throughout the museum there were also a variety of kid friendly interactive displays. They were mostly in French, but the kids understood enough to play them. Again, another fun day for the kids.

Apart from the fun the kids had, Toulouse surprised and delighted me with its long and rich history. The first big force were the Romans. They took the reddish clay solid and knew how to make bricks out of it, giving the city a bit of a pinkish hue and leading to today's nickname of La Ville Rose.

Though the Romans were here, there aren't a lot of Roman ruins. There are some straight roads thanks to them, the centre of town, bits and pieces here and there, and a good museum with some Roman artifacts included, but that's about it.

And of course, there's the pre-Christian Romans making an example of the first Christian Bishop, now known as St. Sernin (or sometimes Saturnin). This time, the Roman pagans tied the feet of the bishop to a bull that dragged the man through the streets, thus killing him. This event has given the name to the street the bull apparently ran down (Rue du Taur) which happens to run the length of the main square to the site of the present day Basilica St. Sernin, and the name for the TGV station: Matabiau, or Mata buòu meaning 'kill the bull' in Occitan (the old language of the area - more on this below), which is maybe where St. Sernin was first buried, or maybe where the bull finally fell over dead, or maybe just because there was a beef abattoir there in the middle ages. That's the beauty of these old tales. No one really knows.

Basilica of St. Sernin

Anyway, now St. Sernin's relics are held in the Basilica of St. Sernin, which is definitely named after him.

Surprisingly, my favourite church so far we almost didn't go to: Church of the Jacobins. It was begun in the 13th century by the Dominicans - who were founded earlier to combat heresy and lead the Inquisition, which lasted 400 years. The church has high ceilings, grand pillars, a simple altar, and some beautiful stained glass - only a bit of which hasn't been restored. 

Church of the Jacobins. I love stained glass!

The columns and arches are also impressive. Here's the palm tree, a column that is 28 m high.

Church of the Jacobins. No one had the patience for me to take an entire afternoon to try to get a photo with both the ceiling and the stained glass, so I opted for the ceiling. But I know what all that stained glass looked like.

It also has a unique and more recent history. Napolean's men used it as a barracks and stable. You can see where the floor was added half way up to make room for soldier's barracks and horses. This floor has been removed, but in places you can see evidence of where it was. No photo of this.

But most interesting of all, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas - who belonged to the Dominican order - are under the altar. No, he wasn't French. But his relics were apparently a gift from the Pope to show his pleasure with the work the order was doing.

The altar of the Church of the Jacobins with the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas underneath.

There are also some nice displays about the history of the church. I found the church so appealing because of its vast space, high ceilings, and relative simplicity. It always bothers me a bit to see extravagance in churches. I can't help but think about how much money has been spent on the church while the poor parishioners suffer. There seemed to be little extravagance here, relatively speaking, but then I read the pillars are stone and were brought at great expense from afar, and I think of the pretty stained glass... Sigh.

The middle ages moved along in Toulouse with religious wars, crusaders, plagues, famines, floods -- really, the middle ages in most of Europe. 

Eventually, Toulouse had great wealth thanks to the plant based blue dye known as pastel. The great wealth and all that came with it came to a sudden end with the appearance of indigo from India. Today, artisans are bringing back pastel and fabrics made with it are in shops. Can you believe I don't have a photo! What was I thinking? Quite likely I just didn't want to look too closely for fear of having an uncontrolled urge to buy something.

One other notable item in Toulouse is the Canal du Midi, which helped connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. The entire project is really three different parts; the Canal du Midi being the bit connecting Toulouse and Garonne River with the Mediterranean. Canals are always so peaceful, quiet, and lovely to stroll along. We stayed near a secondary canal connecting the river with the Canal du Midi. Even though I thought Eamon might just take a wrong step as he jumped around on the path, landing him in the canal, it was quite wonderful to walk along.

Walking along Canal de Brienne, the canal that joins the Garonne River with the Canal du Midi. It's no coincidence that Eamon is walking on the bank side, not the canal side.

On a completely different note, it was in Toulouse that we first saw and learned about the Occitan language (pronounced ox-ee-tan). This was the language spoken in the southern part of France. It is closely related to Catalan spoken in Catalonia, the Spanish province where Barcelona can be found. The language nearly died out, being overtaken by today's French which comes from the north of France. But as with many withering old languages, there is a movement to try to keep it alive. In Toulouse, kids now study it in school, street signs include French and Occitan, and the Metro stop announcements are in both French and Occitan. However, it may be an uphill battle to have the language thrive because English is fast becoming the young people's second language of choice.

Street signs in French and Occitan

Although there were other churches and museums we could have seen in Toulouse, our goal is to live in a place, and not run ourselves ragged getting around to see everything. We accomplished that in Toulouse and left with some wonderful memories.

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