Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Katie arrives in Toulouse

Our first company arrived today. We picked Katie up at the airport in Toulouse at 5:15, and wonder of wonders, everything went smoothly (well, minus a few wrong turns following Olga's directions to the airport from the center of the city.) Our adventure unrolled like this:

We left at noon and made our way south to Narbonne and then west to Toulouse. There's a rest area (aire) at Carcassonne where you can get a great view of this walled city. It's on our list of places to visit, but for right now this view is tantalizing and cements our need to get to this place.

In Toulouse, we navigate to the center of town and find a place to park in an underground lot. After checking out the Office du Tourisme for a town map, we check out the Capitole - the building where the government met in the old days when Toulouse was the capital of the region. The large "place" (you must pronounce this as the French do- with the "a" sounding like the "a" in father rather than a long "a") in front of the Capitole is filled today with booths of various vendors. A market day, but we only see all kinds of stuff we don't need: clothing, purses and trinkets mostly.

Across the square are cafe's under an arcaded building. We stop at one for a quick pizza. They have a "formule" for lunch - pizza and a drink for 10 Euros, but that is done now (it is 2:30) and so we can only order off the menu (la carte). We share an excellent pepperoni pizza, marveling at how the French can take just a few ingredients and make something so tasty. There's not an overabundance of sauce, you can see the thin crispy crust through the sauce. And the mozzarella cheese likewise doesn't cover the entire surface. Bits of oregano show amid the cheese. But the sauce is flavorful and the pepperoni spicy and the whole together is what good pizza should taste like.

We pay, use the toilets and head out. (Side note: it's important to use toilets when you have the opportunity as public toilets are not frequent, are often pay-to-use, and can be really disgusting at times. It is common that men will pee into the bushes, even in very public places, and as far as I can tell, French women must have bladders of steel.)

We have noticed that the center of Toulouse at the lunch hour is teeming with people. As in all old city centers, streets are narrow and one way for the most part. Many are pedestrian designated, but that doesn't stop bikes, motorcycles and in fact cars from using them. Generally, the brick streets are separated from the sidewalk by regularly placed cement posts which prevent cars from parking on the sidewalks (a French tradition in a land where towns and villages were built hundreds of years before cars were invented.) The sidewalks are crowded with people, mostly young people - Toulouse has the largest college-aged population next to Paris. People spill into the streets, walking in front of cars, moving out of the way by only inches, stepping off from corners without ever looking to check traffic. It's amazing that all this pedestrian and auto traffic co-exists without people getting hurt.

We then make our way to St Sirnan through the Rue du Taur down a narrow street spewing small cafes and shops along its way. Everything in Toulouse is made of red brick. A sharp contrast to the greys of the stone and plaster buildings we're used to. Toulouse is on the alluvial plain of the Garonne River and so brick was the only easy-to-get building material. The whole town has a pinkish cast to it from the red of the clay bricks.

St Sirnan is a huge, intact Romanesque church that is on the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compestello (in Spain). It was built from 1080-14th century to house the remains of St Sirnan (in Latin Saturninus), an Apostle and early church Bishop who was martyred in 250 AD for refusing to sacrifice a bull to pagan gods. The disappointed locals tied him to the still-alive sacrificial bull which then dragged him down the street (Rue du Taur) to his death. It seems every saint in this region has some sort of bloody history to commend him or her and cause a church to be built in his/her name.

The church itself is most notable for its size and the coherence of its Romanesque architecture. It has not been destroyed and rebuilt in successive styles and so remains pure Romanesque. The pillars inside are massive, supporting taller than expected barrel vaults. Romanesque windows are small compared to later Gothic style because of the brickwork needed to support the weight of the massive upper parts, so the church is quite dark which only adds to the coolness of the temperature inside.

But we can't spend too much time, as we now must make our way to the airport to pick up Katie. The airport terminal is in sharp contrast to the old brick of the center city. It is new, modern, clean, and spacious with cool granite floors and well posted information. It is also amazingly calm and quiet (at least in the arrivals Hall D). Katie arrives on schedule and we repeat the trip back to Beziers, arriving too late to stock up on wine for the evening. We have only a part bottle of white to tide us over till the next day. Poor planning to be rectified tomorrow in the marketing and grocery shopping.

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