Perfectly proportioned, Toulouse spreads out from the arcaded, café-lined Capitole Square, to cross the River Garonne and Canal du Midi. From the 10th to the 13th centuries the counts of Toulouse controlled much of southern France. They maintained the most resplendent court in the land, renowned for its troubadours, the poets of courtly love (whose work influenced Petrarch, Dante and Chaucer) and thus the whole course of European poetry. Near both the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, Toulouse is today a beautiful town known for its charming historic centre of rose coloured buildings.
Built of brick, stone and tile from the 11th to the 13th century, the Basilique St-Sernin is France's largest Romanesque church. Nearly 115m in length, it contains the tomb of Saint-Saturnin or Sernin, martyr and bishop, who brought Christianity to Toulouse. It was also used to house the thousands of pilgrims who travelled through on their way to the tomb of St. James in Spain´s Santiago de Compostela. Its most striking external features are the octagonal brick belfry with rounded and pointed arches, diamond lozenges, colonnettes and mouldings picked out in stone. Outside the basilica the whole of Place St-Sernin turns into a vibrant flea market on Sunday mornings.
Place du Capitole has been the seat of Toulouse's city government since the 12th century. It is one of the most striking City Halls in France. The elaborate 18th century pink and white façade features grand columns and pilasters, from which the flags of Languedoc, the Republic and the European Union are flown. If there are no official functions taking place, peek inside at the Salle des Illustres and a couple of other rooms covered in elaborate late 19th century murals. The arcaded, café-lined Place Capitole is a perfect place to take a break from sightseeing, enjoy a coffee and people-watch.
In the nearby web of pedestrianized streets, the magistrates of the Capitole built their private mansions or hôtels (often more like castles than homes). They used almost exclusively the flat Toulousain brick, whose rosy colour gives the city its nickname of Ville Rose. The best known is the Hôtel Assézat. The 16th century brick and stone palace features Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, plus a lofty staircase tower surmounted by an octagonal lantern. The building is open to the public thanks to its excellent collection of paintings. There are works by Cranach the Elder, Tintoretto and Canaletto as well as Pissarro, Monet, Gauguin, Vlaminck, Dufy and Bonnard.
By the right bank of the river Garonne is Toulouse's new contemporary art gallery, Les Abattoirs. Opened in 2000, the venue was constructed in a vast brick abattoir complex dating from 1828. It is considered to be one of France's best contemporary art museums. The collection comprises over 2000 works (painting, sculpture, mixed- and multimedia) by artists from 44 countries, but the most striking piece is undoubtedly Picasso's massive theatre backdrop, La dépouille du Minotaure en costume d'Arlequin, painted in 1936 for Romain Rolland's Le 14 Juillet.
Toulouse has always been an aviation centre. St-Exupéry and Mermoz flew out from here on their pioneering airmail flights over Africa and the Atlantic in the 1920s. These days, the city is home to the National Space Centre, the European shuttle programme and the leading aeronautical schools. Aérospatiale is the driving force behind Concorde, Airbus and the Ariane space rocket. Located in Blagnac, 10 kms from Toulouse, Aérospatiale is where the Airbus A320 and A340 planes are assembled. The hour and a half visit of the Clément Ader factory (the temple of aerospace) is well worth the time.
The tree-lined Canal du Midi is an enchanting waterway. Constructed under Louis XIV to link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea, the canal is today inscribed on UNESCO's list of the world's cultural patrimony. There is no better way to explore the diversity of the countryside than to hop aboard a "péniche" or barge, and navigate your way along the canal at 4 miles an hour. A 40km cycle path stretches from Toulouse to Port Lauragais on the south bank and the many canalside paths are peaceful places to walk, run or cycle. You can hire a bicycle from Vélo-Station, at Place Charles de Gaulle opposite the Tourist Office.