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Toulouse may not immediately come to mind as a destination for a short break but this exciting, vibrant and historic city is less than a 90-minute flight from the UK and is well served from all over France by the rail network. Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, well known as the home of the European Space industry and of airbus, though I was here for the food, culture and architecture of La Ville Rose (“the pink city”).There are no stone quarries nearby so rich local clay is used to make pinkish terracotta bricks which many buildings are made of. In the early morning or late afternoon sunshine they are a photographer’s dream. Making for a great base, the Grand Hotel de l’Opera, is slap bang in the middle of the city on the vast Place du Capitole. It is one of the classic mansions of the city and boasts two restaurants, both sharing the same courtyard. Les Jardins de L’Opera is the gastronomic home of Michelin starred chef Stephane Tournie while the more affordable Brasserie de L’Opera run by chef Gratien Castro is terrific. Sitting here with a glass of Pastis, nibbling on amuse bouches, half a dozen plump escargot swimming in garlic butter and steak frites, makes for a very French, very relaxing lunch.
Place Charles de Gaulle is a good starting point for a visit to the city to find out what’s on and to pick up a one-day Toulouse Pass Tourisme at the tourist office. The pass gives you free entry to the museums and reduced rates at many of the city’s attractions. It also includes free travel on public transport, metro, bus, tram and airport shuttle bus as well as a guided tour of the city and a free cruise along the River Garonne. The walking tour of Tolouse starts from the tourist office housed in the historic Donjon du Capitole. This much-loved building houses the Hotel de Ville, the Theatre Nationale Orchestra and Opera House. It is well worth a visit to see the dramatic wall murals depicting the seasons of Toulouse. You can’t help but notice that all over the city are two symbols, a twelve-pointed cross and the scallop shell. The cross is The Occitan Cross also known as the cross of Languedoc, it is the symbol of Occitania and appears everywhere. The place du Capitole has a huge brass one set in the floor, designed by Raymond Moretti in 1995, each point is a symbol of the zodiac A short stroll through streets lined with buildings of pink bricks brings you to the basilica of Saint-Sernin. This was an important stop on the Way of St James, one of the routes of Santiago de Compostela, which of course explains the appearance of the many scallop shell symbols in Toulouse (pilgrim's motif).
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