TOULOUSE is known as the capital of aviation, but despite being the centre of design for Concorde, the city has kept its feet firmly on the ground.
Set in the heart of France, this Midi-Pyrenees city — on the banks of the River Garonne and not too far from the Spanish border — is the leading French centre for aeronautical research and a big agricultural producer to boot, as well as housing three universities and 90,000 students, although it is perfectly easy to escape all this and relax in the peaceful confines of its leafy squares.
With the Toulouse rugby union team four times European champions, the influence of the sport on the city is clear; the centre heaving with fans of both home and opposition Clermont Auvergne, but instead of trouble, they merely wafted flags in the breeze, and amiably chatted to each other as they sipped coffee and beer.
We spent a pleasant hour or so in The Melting Pot Irish pub with some Leinster fans who had travelled from Dublin to check out potential future Heineken Cup opposition — or was it just a great excuse for a booze-up?
Impressive Renaissance period architecture, countless theatres, museums, monuments, galleries and public buildings are dotted around the city, many carefully restored and refurbished, including the beautiful Musee des Augustins.
Parks and expansive gardens, such as the Jardin des Plantes, are everywhere, enabling you to spend time away from the main shopping area, which is like no centre you would find in England. The closest you would probably come would be Bath, with its great and unspoilt architecture, small independent, stylish shops and uncrowded but bustling alleyways and side streets.
A walking tour took us along the Garonne to the Pont Neuf — a 16th century bridge — and we called in at the Saint Sernin Basilica, which is built in the form of a crucifix, as well as the almost as impressive Notre-Dame de la Dalbade.
We didn’t have time to visit The Space Experience (cite-espace.com), but were reliably assured that if you’ve got children with you, it’s the place to go.
France’s fourth city produces about 500 aircraft every year, but with more than 8,000 hotels and 12,000 holiday homes, the region is just as interested in welcoming people off planes at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.
We took a flight of just under two hours duration from Manchester with bmibaby and stayed at the clean and comfortable Mercure Toulouse Saint- Georges on Rue St Jerome.
Ideally situated in the centre of the city, it is just a stroll from the spacious, pedestrianised Place du Capitole — which hosted an art and books market while we were there — the central focus of which is the splendid Capitole de Toulouse Government building.
Known as the Pink City or Ville Rose, due to the colour of many of its buildings, Toulouse combines modern culture with a nod towards its past, with many street names in the old Occitan language of the region.
We enjoyed a couple of hours in these pleasant surroundings and then, finding the shops all closed on the Sunday, somehow not a bad thing, we joined the locals, sipping beer (rather expensive, be warned!) and coffee, and catching up on the events of the week.
Recommended restaurants include Al Andaluz in Rue Jean Suau and Maison Pillon in Rue Ozenne, and at least two of our number enjoyed fabulous mussels, oysters, and foie gras, a speciality of the region.
The food in Toulouse shares many characteristics with the neighbouring cuisine of Gascony, Dordogne and Perigord. Like most towns in the south of France, the people here love to eat and have made the art of gastronomy an integral part of their lifestyle.
By far the best place to have lunch in Toulouse is above the wonderful food market in Place Victor Hugo.
The handful of small restaurants crammed into the mezzanine above the market offer fantastic food at great prices. They are only open during lunch and all are closed on Mondays.
We enjoyed a fabulous evening at the Casino Théâtre Barrière de Toulouse, a massive riverside complex on the outskirts of town, offering poker rooms, bars, several restaurants and a theatre, before heading back to the centre for a few late nightearly morning drinks.
The pink city that is Toulouse really does light up in the evening and it’s pretty good in the daytime too.