Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Monday, April 20, 2015 - Toulouse

Judy arrives today in Toulouse.  So we're off to visit this 4th largest city in France for the day before picking Judy up at the airport at 5 pm.  Situated on the Garonne River and the Canal du Midi, this city has been an important trading center since the Greeks.Its University was founded in 1229 and Toulouse has the 3rd largest student population of France. Toulouse  has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites - the Basilica of St. Sernin and the Midi Canal. It is known as "la ville rose" (pink city) because its buildings are largely made from terracotta bricks. Built on an alleuvial plain, mud was plentiful, but stone was not.
Terracotta brick gives these buildings their pink hue.

Toulouse is about 200 km (120 miles) pretty much directly south of here but there's no easy way to get there on France's equivalent of interstate roads which would take only 1.5 hours, so we will need 2 1/2 hours to make the trip.

We start as usual on our "highways" heading southeast over roads that we are beginning to recognize as we've wandered over them before. Our plan to intercept an interstate road backfires as we run into a detour without detour markers and decide to backtrack to find an alternate route. It's a good thing Janis and I don't get car-sick in the back seat because the roads are their usual curvy selves.
A typical curvy road - here two lanes with a speed limit of 45 mph

The idea of rolling hills doesn't really adequately describe the countryside here. The hills are higher and more rugged and the valleys are generally narrower, except in the alleuvial plains of the meandering Dordogne River. Farmers' fields in shades of green and brown cover the lower slopes punctuated by wooded areas that look wild and unkempt.
alleuvial plains of Dordogne river. Notice how high we are when taking this photo.  That's the cliff face on the opposite bank of the river.

The French believe that un-manicured forests are better for supporting wildlife and the natural ebb and flow of plant growth. Farther up the hills,  the slopes are mostly wooded, but dotted with complexes of limestone farm buildings and communities of small houses. Towns tend to be built away from the valleys as backing into the hillside afforded protection from marauding brigands and conquering troops during the middle ages.
fields and woods along a country lane. Look carefully on the left side and you can
see that our car takes up the whole width of the road. When you meet a car on such roads,
one of you finds a spot to pull over so the other can pass.

There are wide alleuvial planes around larger rivers like the Dordogne and these fertile areas are covered in patchwork fields of grasses, grains and vegetables. We discover why we've been seeing brown fields with mounded rows covered in black plastic when we see folks in a near-by field harvesting white asperagus. A delicacy in Europe, white asparagus is the same as green except they keep burying the stalks as they grow to keep them away from the sun. The plastic must provide additional protection from the sun and I'd guess warms the soil. This is one of the earliest crops and is ready now as can be seen by all the "asperges vente directe" (asparagus direct sales) signs dotting the sides of the roads. Farmers sell the asparagus directly from their farms, which is where Janis and I have been buying it.

We are also seeing bright patches of yellow today as the mustard fields are all in flower right now and add colorful punctuation marks to the fields of brown and green.  As we drive further south, we see fields and fields of a plant we can't recognize. It grows taller than grapevines on a single thick stalk and pushes out long thin branches from its central stalk. These are leafing out and are covered in white flowers. Above each row, a mesh curtain is strung, ready to be extended over the plants. For shade? To keep the birds out? We haven't found an answer yet.

Finally, nearing Toulouse, we realize how spoiled we are to be driving through endless countryside, even if it is slower. For 30 miles before we get to the city, we are driving through industrial areas and the scenery is gone. Then once in Toulouse, we are in endless traffic which only gets worse as we approach our goal of the city center. This old part of Toulouse is filled with brick streets that are only one lane wide (and luckily usually only one-way), but give priority to pedestrian traffic. So, people are scattered everywhere on these streets and one just crawls slowly behind people until they move aside or reach the store they are seeking. Sully gets us to the "Capitole," the main square of old Toulouse, but we're on the wrong side for getting to the parking lot underneath the square. Another 10 minutes of wandering gets us finally to the correct side and we easily park under the square.

Toulouse parking lots have signs posted (on the main roads) telling you direction to and the number of spaces available in, any given parking lot. Even more interesting is the parking at the airport where they tell you how many spaces available on each floor and each space has a little light over it that is green when empty and red when filled. Ingenious.   However, parking is very expensive in this city that has a metro system and is quite flat and walkable.

We're here. First the tourist office, then lunch in the park outside the tourist office. The day is warm and sunny and we watch children playing in the park as we eat lunch.
Tourist office is in the tower behind us called the Donjon. French people aren't bashful about making out on city streets.
Oh wait, that's Janis and Clark. 

The Capitole was built starting in 1190 to house the government of the increasingly rich region of Toulouse. It sustained many restylings over the years, leaving nothing earlier than the early 17th century Donjon.

Facade of the Capitole
Today one sees an imposing late 17th century facade on the Place du Capitole.

Passing through the policed gate, you are in the early 17th century Henry IV courtyard, money for which the "capitouls" (ruling representatives of the 8 districts that made up the region of Toulouse) received from Henri IV in exchange for putting up a statue of him.
Statue of Henri IV

Henri IV Courtyard

Passing under this statue, one comes to the entrance to the rooms that are open to the public. As this is still the center of government for Toulouse, these rooms are used for public functions and official government affairs.

A huge marble staircase with walls covered in paintings leads to the first floor (the French have a "rez-de-chausée" - ground floor - and then a first floor).
Marble staircase to first floor.

The Salle Gervais is used for marriages and here the walls are painted with themes of love. I especially like the paintings of love at age 20, 40, and 60. Quite amusing.
Love at Age 20

The next salon has walls painted in almost a pointilist style that I find very attractive. Above are niches where busts of important people in the letters and sciences and government are posed.
These paintings are huge.

Busts of famous scientists and politicians ring the room in niches above the paintings

Finally, we enter the Salle des Illustres where the walls are again covered in paintings. I spend my time examining one end wall  entirely covered by a monumental painting in shades of red.  In 1900, Benjamin Constant completed this painting of Pope Urban II entering Toulouse in 1096, The artist painted himself into the painting in the lower right corner, as was the fashion of the day.
Pope Urban II entering Toulouse in 1096

Benjamin Constant as one of the Pope's attendants

The windows of this room give fine views over the Place du Capitole and the streets running off at angles from it.
Looking out on Place du Capitole. French flag in center, Occitan flag on left, Toulouse flag on right.

Moving on, we head toward the Basilica of St Sernin via Rue du Taur (Street of the bull). St. Sernin (AKA St Saturnin in Latin), the first bishop of Toulouse,  was martyred in this street by being tied behind an angry bull and dragged down the street to his death.
Rue du Taur is a pedestrian priority street that cars can drive on, but people have the right of way.
Tower in background is steeple of St.Sernin's

Halfway down the street is a 14th century church, "Eglise Notre Dame du Taur" where the remains of St. Sernin were originally buried.

Allegorical paintings were added in 18th century. 

His remains were transferred to the Basilica of St. Sernin at the end of this street at the beginning of the 5th century. The magnificent building that replaced the 5th century church was begun in the 11th century and finished over several centuries. It is one of the largest Romanesque churches and it has one of the most important organs (1888) in France. Of course, it was on the route to Compostela as well.
Basilica of St. Sernin from south side. 

Nave of St. Sernin's 

Choir stalls St Sernin's 

Altar, St. Sernin's

The tourist office recommended to us to go up to the top (7th) floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store to have a rooftop view of Toulouse. As we were walking back, Janis and I went into a children's clothing store (there could be something for Evie and Tristen there), so Dave and Clark said they'd go off in search of a wine bar.  Call them when we're done. Except that I didn't have my phone. After trying to figure out how we'd find the guys again, we finally decided to go to the viewpoint at Galeries Lafayette and if they weren't there, we'd just have to meet up at the car. To our relief, the guys were there with a 17 Euro half-bottle of red wine. Quel surprise!
Cafe at the top of
Galeries Lafayette

Next stop, airport, but first we had to fight out way out of Toulouse in rush-hour. But we made it just fine.
Clark waiting for Judy to come through arrivals at Toulouse-Blagnac airport

Dave and I bought a pre-paid chip and pin credit card since our Barclay card hasn't been working. It took about a half-hour, required our passport, but allows us to re-charge it as needed and use the card as an ATM card.

Judy arrived on time and we escaped the city to go back to our country life. Home late, we at the vegetable soup Janis had prepared yesterday.

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