Toulouse

Ebullient Toulouse is the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and the fourth-largest city in France. Just 100 km (60 miles) from the border with Spain, Toulouse is in many ways closer in flavor to southern European Spanish than to northern European French. Weathered redbrick buildings line sidewalks, giving the city its nickname, "La Ville Rose" (the Pink City). Downtown, the sidewalks pulse late into the night with tourists, technicians from the giant Airbus aerospace complex, and, since this is the country's second-largest university center, loads of students. Despite Toulouse's bustling, high-tech attitude, its well-preserved centre ville—the brick-paved streets between the Garonne River and the Canal du Midi—retains the feel of a small town, where food, Beaujolais nouveau, and the latest rugby victory are the primary concerns. So be prepared to savor the city's Mediterranean pace, southern friendliness, and youthful spirit.

Toulouse was founded in the 4th century BC and quickly became an important part of Roman Gaul. In turn, it was made into a Visigothic and Carolingian capital before becoming a separate county in 843. Ruling from this Pyrénéan hub, the counts of Toulouse held sovereignty over nearly all of the Languedoc and maintained a brilliant court known for its fine troubadours and literature. In the early 13th century, Toulouse was attacked and plundered by troops representing an alliance between the northern French nobility and the papacy, ostensibly to wipe out the Albigensian heresy (Catharism), but more realistically as an expansionist move against the power of Occitania, the French southwest. The counts toppled, but Toulouse experienced a cultural and economic rebirth thanks to the woad (blue dye) trade, and, consequently, wealthy merchants' homes constitute a major portion of Toulouse's architectural heritage.

You can learn more about the city's past and present by visiting the tourist office for details about guided tours (self-guided itineraries can be downloaded directly from its website). The office also sells So Toulouse passes, valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours (€18, €25, or €32), that admit you to 30 tourist sites free or at a reduced rate and give you free transport on the tram, bus, métro, and airport shuttle. For a personalized introduction to the city, contact Toulouse Greeters; the complimentary program can link you up with a local volunteer who’ll show you around (www.toulousegreeters.fr).

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