Discovering My New City Pt. 1
Per my contract and the strict rules of my visa, I cannot work more than the assigned 12 hours per week. Working so few hours may seem like a divine gift—but there is such a thing as too much free time and it can make even the most rational person question their sanity after awhile. I’m an excellent “busy bee” and even I find myself sitting and staring at the walls of my apartment—wishing there was somewhere I needed to be. However—I can think of no better way to occupy my plethora of free time than to explore the city I’m so lucky to ephemerally inhabit.
Nestled on the banks of the Garonne River, Toulouse is the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées region. It's home to 1.2 million people and it's the fourth largest city in France. This southern municipality is one of the most colorful places in in the country. Inspired by the earth-toned brick buildings and pink facades, locals fittingly coined Toulouse as "la ville rose"—or the pink city. The city is rich with history, culture and diversity—but it’s also developing faster than anywhere else in France. The European aerospace industry is headquartered here—industry and the economy are booming—the metro line is ever-expanding and there are a myriad of UNESCO World Heritage sights, museums and cathedrals demanding to be explored.
Now that I’ve mastered my tour guide jargon, allow me tell you how I have spent my time here so far. This is a large city and an abnormally wet November has kept me from the amount of sightseeing I would like to have already accomplished—but I've done alright so far.
What to See-
Quai de la Durade
There’s just something exquisite about French cities and the rivers upon which they are perched. Paris and the Seine—Lyon nestled between the Saône and the Rhône—Bordeaux and the Garonne and Toulouse on the Garonne just a little further south. Quai de la Durade is one of the best known spots to sunbathe, share a bottle of wine with friends, delve in to a good book or just sit and people watch. The French know how to take advantage of a beautiful day and this is one of their favorite spots to do so. La Durade is one of the first spots that I visited when I first got here—and I’ve been back countless times since.
One of my favorite things to do in France is explore its archaic cathedrals. I may not be a religious person—but even I can’t ignore the mysticism they manifest. The French Gothic and Romanesque exteriors are undeniably impressive—but the true spectacle always lies within. There's undeniable beauty in the kaleidoscope of colors refracted through stained glass windows—splashed across thick marble columns. The Cathédrale Saint-Etienne maintains the status quo. The exterior is an eclectic conglomerate of architectural styles—due to construction spanning over five centuries—but inside you find ornately sculpted headstones, stained glass and the famous rose window. I happily wandered into this church on one of my first days of sightseeing in Toulouse.
Place du Capitole
Another emblematic landmark of Toulouse is the main city square—Place du Capitole. It's a little touristy for sure, the expansive plaza and pink-hued palace are an obvious draw for shoppers, sightseers and café-goers. The square hosts various open-air markets throughout the week and gussies up for Toulouse’s annual Marché de Noël at Christmastime. Behind the elegant façade of the city hall is the Théatre du Capitole—a prestigious opera house and the Salle des Illustres—a hall bursting with 19th century frescoes echoing the history of Toulouse. I have yet to make it inside to see either of these points of interest, but they are on my list.
If you’re looking for a way to escape the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced Toulousian lifestyle, then I know just the place—this is obviously a joke because the south of France is the most nonchalant place I've ever been. The Jardin Japonais is a tranquil, Kyoto-inspired garden—replete with greenery, a koi pond and tea pavilion. It’s a cool escape from the hot summers and an ideal spot to reflect, meditate and picnic. Lucky for me, it’s just down the block from my French bank—so it’s a great spot to sit and ruminate on the sad salary of an English language assistant. 😋
Toulouse boasts an impressive system of connecting canals. A product of 17th century engineering, they are part of the 430-kilometer Canal des Deux Mers that connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. They are UNESCO World Heritage sites and the idyllic bridges, sloping trees and paved paths make them huge tourist draws. I prefer to use the canals and their paths as my main form of exercise. I have spent many a sunny afternoon getting my miles in by running along the Canal du Midi and Canal de Brienne—occasionally ending up along the Garonne River.
What to do:
Les Abbatoirs: Museum of Modern Art
If you've ever followed my travels in any capacity, you know that I'm a museum enthusiast. Les Abbatoirs has quickly become one of my favorites in Toulouse. It's is a contemporary art museum—housed in what used to be an 1800s slaughterhouse—that now displays over 4,000 works of modern and contemporary art. The museum looks deceivingly small from the outside. Inside, it has spacious, open rooms that create an easy flow through all the exhibitions—I easily lost track of a few hours there. When I visited, the museum was hosting a temporary exhibit featuring Peter Saul. Saul is an American artist who's work reminded me of a more eccentric Andy Warhol. It's cartoonish and funky—full of pop culture and political satire. I had never heard of him before this exhibit, and I dazzled. I will undoubtedly be returning to Les Abbatoirs during my time here.
Muséum de Toulouse
The Muséum de Toulouse is ironically not about Toulouse at all. It's actually the largest natural-history museum in France—outside of Paris, of course. While I am personally not science savvy enough to fully appreciate the scope of the exhibits—it covers everything from man's relationship with nature, evolution and earth and space science—I found the the museum to be interesting and eye-catching. I primarily enjoyed the temporary exhibit about extinction, the manicured botanical gardens and the quiet museum cafe.
It's fairly common knowledge among my friends and family that I went through a prolonged phase of wanting to be an archaeologist. Unfortunately, my archaeological fantasies didn't actually pan out. It's ok, I've come to terms with the fact that I'll never be the female Indiana Jones—but I never lost interest in the subject. The Musée Saint-Raymond opened in 1892 and is devoted to Toulouse's archaeology and antiquity. The museum has experienced quite a transformation over the years—it started as a necropolis, later becoming a hospital, then student residences and eventually a museum. The museum is intimate, the layout is cohesive and there are marvelous pink city views from the third-story windows. My favorite collections were the crypts in the basement and the immaculately kept Roman sculptures.
It's been interesting for me to draw personal comparisons between traveling to foreign countries and living in one. There are still plenty of cultural things I plan to do and see in Toulouse—but being here longterm makes me feel less pressure to devour all the culture in one sitting. In contrast, when I am traveling in foreign countries—or traveling anywhere really—I have to remind myself that sitting down and breathing every once in awhile are a necessity. That being said, there is still plenty left for me to experience in Toulouse and you already know I have a list in the works.
1. Basilique Saint-Sernin - So far I've seen one impeccable cathedral in Toulouse, and it's said to be the less impressive of the two. Someone remind me to use the next sunny day to feast my eyes on this basilica.
2. Couvent des Jacobins - The Couvent, or convent is said to be one of the best examples of Southern Gothic architecture in France.
3. Cité de l'Espace - I'm not much of a space fanatic and it's a little ways outside of the city— but given Toulouse's role in European space travel, it would feel wrong to miss the space museum.
4. Musée des Augustins - This renowned fine art museum is the apex of my to-do list, and unfortunately it's closed for renovation until spring 2020. I'll get there eventually.