Aloose in Toulouse


Special to The Washington Post

Our first stop in Toulouse was a national historic monument -- okay, so it also happens to be a bar.

At Le Pere Louis, we stood around a fat wood barrel and drank quinquina, a wine aperitif flavored with an extract of the Peruvian tree, with about three generations of boisterous Toulousians. The walls were long ago painted with scenes of the city and the Garonne Riverp and now wore a deep amber patina from 115 years of exposure to tobacco smoke that shows no sign of going away.

Our friends Christian and Maryvonne were showing my wife, 10-year-old son and me around during our two-day stay in their city. Christian, a doctor, spends most weekdays in Paris and commutes home on weekends to France's fourth-largest city, about 400 miles southwest of the capital. He described the differences between the two cities, starting with the obvious: Toulouse is Mediterranean, warmer and has more days of sunshine, he explained. As a result, Toulousians spend a lot of time outdoors and in the streets and cafes.

"Also, in Paris," he said with a pained expression, "most people are énervé [irritable] most of the time.

"In Toulouse, on the other hand, people are less énervé," he continued. "Toulouse is more relaxed . . . plus cool."

In fact, Toulouse may be the plus cool city in France. It is certainly one of the youngest, owing to a population of some 100,000 university students and its role as the center of France's hot aerospace industry.

On a much smaller scale than Paris, Toulouse's center of inviting public plazas and winding pedestrian streets lined with Renaissance-era mansions can be explored without any need for a taxi or the city's mini-size Metro. Yet Toulouse has ample opportunities for culture, adventure and romance -- with lower prices and fewer tourists.

With the sagging U.S. dollar feeling only slightly more valuable than the obsolete franc, Toulouse and other regional capitals offer something nearly impossible to find in Europe's big tourist-trampled cities: value. Restaurants, hotels and diversions in Toulouse cost about half the price of their Parisian counterparts.

Where Paris has Notre Dame, Toulouse has St. Sernin Basilica, France's most magnificent Romanesque-era pilgrimage church. Like nearly all of old Toulouse, it is constructed of the weathered red bricks that give the city its moniker, La Ville Rose.

Where Paris has the Seine with its grandiose bridges, Toulouse has the Garonne, with views of the Pyrenees Mountains. Long riverboats carting tourists and diners glide along the murky waters of both rivers. But Toulouse in summer also has water-skiers.

Where Paris is sophisticated and stately, Toulouse is provincial and bohemian, with lots of artists, musicians and quirky entrepreneurs, and locals speak a saucy dialect with way too many syllables to be considered proper French.

Paris may be a city of the world. Toulouse is the capital of Southwest France -- a land of mountains, pastoral canals, vineyards, deep countrysides and a large population of rugby-playing males -- with a thousand-year history of rebellion.

Today, regional cultural organizations and militant regionalist rappers keep the independent streak alive. Toulousians matter-of-factly say that they identify more with Barcelona than twice-as-distant Paris.

"Everything is open for Latin culture here," Martine Rondet explained one late evening at Le Petit Diable ("The Little Devil"), a bar-restaurant where she organizes evenings that bring together Toulouse's tango clubs.

Once the home of legendary troubadours, Toulouse has long been crazy about opera and most all forms of music. Carlos Gardel, Argentina's original "Tango King," was born in Toulouse, adding one more ingredient to the cultural cassoulet.

Comfort Food Capital

And speaking of food.

Toulouse is home to France's most comforting comfort cuisine: duck in all its glory, from pâtés to preserved-in-its-own-fat confit to magret (duck breast).

In the United States, foie gras -- liver from fattened ducks or geese -- is a gastronomic luxury. In Southwest France, it's a birthright. Yet despite the fat content of the local diet, Toulouse has some of the lowest heart attack rates in the developed world. Some French theories have gone so far as to suggest that duck fat somehow melts away cholesterol.

"If you don't eat the skin of the duck, there is no fat," Christian explained to me with professional authority that first evening at the bar.

Of course, in Toulouse who bothers to pick around the skin? Our drinks at Le Père Louis came with a small bowl of gratons -- fried, peanut-size morsels of duck drippings.

"These, on the other hand," Christian said, "are pure fat."

I looked around the bar. How was it possible that middle-aged guys ingesting cholesterol and drinking quinquina by the liter could have half the heart attack risk as, one study suggested, men in carrot-chomping, exer-cycling Stanford, Calif.?

"When in Toulouse . . ." I reasoned and popped some fat morsels.

In the Belly of the Feast

The following day began at Toulouse's large covered food market, sometimes called "Toulouse's stomach." Victor Hugo Market is surely the most sumptuous place housed on the ground floor of a parking garage.

On the streets surrounding the market we passed antiques shops, chic boutiques and food shops that display local specialties in windows like jewels: glass jars of cassoulet, slabs of chocolate, candied violets, bottles of Armagnac and large pyramids of goat cheese that after nearly a decade of aging resembled 18th-century masonry stones.

On the sidewalk outside the market were the vegetable sellers -- in October hawking cèpes, wild boletus mushrooms as large as soccer balls. Inside were rows of permanent stands, from bars serving up coffee and wine to bakeries, fish sellers, cheese vendors and butchers. There were skinned rabbits for the picking, whole pigs, wild boar, young deer, sausages coiled up like garden hoses and, naturally, every kind of terrine, mousse, pâté and filet of the web-footed species.

Lunch was upstairs on the second floor of the market at one of several restaurants crammed into a no-frills, fluorescent-lit space with plastic tables and chairs and paper table coverings. All the restaurants here were packed with Friday-afternoon lunch-goers. Our group consisted of three families and we waited an hour for a table that would accommodate us all.

It was worth the wait.

When my cassoulet arrived, the white beans were baked golden brown and crusty on top. Toulouse pork sausage and a leg of tender duck confit were folded inside. "There is no fat in cassoulet," Christian said with a grin. Then he held up his index finger and delivered the caveat: "When it is prepared correctly."

Making Toulouse's signature dish properly, he explained, starts with good beans -- preferably from the central Pyrenees town of Tarbes -- and involves skimming the fat off the dish numerous times. Of course, when you're working with beans cooked in fat, duck and sausage, Christian said, "it's hard to get all the fat out." He pronounced my cassoulet well-prepared. It would be hard to imagine a better rendition, even at a Michelin-starred restaurant, where we would have undoubtedly paid a premium (much more than the $15 cassoulet here) for pink table linens, hovering waiters and real chairs.

Lost in Toulouse

Toulouse's Town Hall, the Capitole, was built 500 years ago as the seat of local power. Hundreds of years of grand renovations have created a majestic, over-the-top, brick-and-stone monument on a landmark plaza of arcades.

It was, in short, the perfect cultural experience for those who, like me, find their attention spans cut way down to size by the delightful combination of rich food and stout red wine in the afternoon.

On the second story of the town hall, the Salle des Illustres is a 19th-century gallery of immense paintings, windows and faux-marble columns. Painted in the center of the arched ceiling is a bare-breasted, haloed Marianne (the symbol of the Republic of France, apparently not deprived of her cassoulet in this fleshy rendition) leading the French army in a chariot pulled by lions. As a devil flies overhead -- no subtlety here -- an angel soars up to Marianne with a sword.

For the remainder of the afternoon, our son went off with our friends, and my wife and I walked down to the Garonne alone. We crossed the red brick bridge, the Pont Neuf, to the Chateau d'Eau, an early 19th-century water tower that's been transformed into a modern photography gallery. We then took one of the small streets leading away from the Garonne and wandered.

"Let's get lost," my wife said, and we did.

For the next few hours we walked whichever way the mood struck us. Away from the commercial places, we walked along quiet, crooked streets. We stopped in art galleries, a piano maker's workshop, a tea room, vintage clothing stores and a stereo shop that sold custom-made tube amplifiers using, as were informed in English, "only old technology."

Just up the street from the 16th-century church of Notre-Dame la Dalbade, we passed a potter's studio -- doors flung open and blaring a jazz trio's CD. In the back of the studio, a huge troll of a man was kneading a large piece of clay. A massive ocher urn near the entrance bore a price sticker that said only "cher" ("expensive"). We met the artist, who in a few minutes of conversation riffed on the state of modern jazz and then on some of his peeves -- from noise-sensitive neighbors who were shutting down Toulouse's music clubs to George W. Bush (all the usual and then some). As we left, we noticed in the window a sign hand-lettered in black marker: "All the pots," it said, "guaranteed deaf."

French in Space

Our last stop was just outside town at Cite de l'Espace, Toulouse's multi-lingual space park, which includes a scale model of the Russian space station Mir, space travel simulations, a planetarium and some excellent interactive exhibits on the future of space exploration. The goal was to please the 10-year-old in our family, and in that it succeeded.

Lest we forget, or very likely in case you didn't know, France has the world's third-largest space program.

The United States may have put the first man on the moon, but it took the French to improve the food in space. Jean-Francois Clervoy, an astronaut who considers Toulouse his home town and a member of several international missions, including the 1999 Hubble telescope rescue mission aboard Discovery, is credited with serving the first out-of-this-world Southwestern French dinner, complete with foie gras.

One small entree for man . . .

Robert V. Camuto, a writer living in the South of France, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

Details: Toulouse, France

GETTING THERE: Toulouse is about a 1 1/2-hour flight from Paris. Easy Jet (www.easyjet.com) offers fares starting at about $80 each way. From Washington, Air France, Alitalia and British Airways, among others, offer connecting service to Toulouse from about $640 round trip. By train, Toulouse is about six hours from Paris. Second-class fares start at about $75 one way. For schedules, rates and reservations: SNCF, www.voyages-sncf.com.

GETTING AROUND: Everything in the city center is within walking distance. For quick crosstown jaunts, the local Metro costs about $1.70 per ride. Or rent a bike for about $2.60 per day. You can cruise Toulouse by glass-roofed bateau mouche with Toulouse Croisieres (7 Port St. Sauveur, www.toulouse-croisieres.com); fares run about $6 to $10.50.

WHERE TO STAY: Hotel des Beaux-Arts (1 Place du Pont Neuf, 011-33-5-3445-4242, www.hoteldesbeauxarts.com) is a small, charming hotel overlooking the Garonne. Doubles run $100 to $218. For well-renovated rooms at bargain prices, try Ours Blanc Centre (2 Rue Porte Sardane, 011-33 -5-6121-2597, www.hotel-oursblanc.com), housed in three buildings near Place Wilson and the Victor Hugo Market; doubles about $85.

For more unusual accommodations, sleep and dine on a canal barge five miles outside of town at the chambres d'ho tes -- rooms with fixed-price meals -- La Peniche Soleiado (Ramonville-Saint-Agne, 011-33-6-8627-8319); dinner about $32 per person, plus wine.

WHERE TO EAT: Upstairs in the Victor Hugo Market is a row of simple lunch restaurants that are a Toulouse institution. For cassoulet, duck and other regional cuisine, try Le Magret; for fish with Spanish-influenced touches, try Chez Attila. Lunch runs about $20, including wine. The restaurants in the Hotel Grand de l'Opera (1 Place du Capitole) serve Southwestern French specialties; dinner about $45 per person, plus wine.

For an intimate old bistro setting, La Belle Equipe (22 Rue des Polinaires) offers lunch for about $14 and dinner for about $38, plus wine. L'Autre Salon de The (28 Rue Pharaon) is a tearoom where the dish of the day is about $12. Stop by the classic wine bar Le Pere Louis (45 Rue des Tourneurs) and order what the people next to you are drinking.

WHAT TO DO: Any trip to Toulouse should include visits to St. Sernin Basilica and the Capitole (now Town Hall). Both sit on plazas that bear their names. Admission is free.

Toulouse has several museums specializing in classical to modern art and local traditions. Chief among them is the Musee des Augustins (21 Rue de Metz, 011-33 -5-6122-2182, www.augustins.org), featuring Romanesque sculpture, French and local paintings, and concerts. Admission is about $3.

Families with children shouldn't miss Toulouse's aerospace attractions outside the city center. The Cite de l'Espace (Ave. Jean Gonord, 011-33-5-6271-6480, www.cite-espace.com) features multilingual interactive exhibits and space travel simulations, a planetarium and a park of scale-model space vehicles. Admission is about $18 ($28.50 in July and August).

Take a 90-minute guided tour of Airbus's assembly plant Taxiway (10 Ave. Guynemer, Colomiers, 011-33-5-6118-0601, www.taxiway.fr). Reservations and personal ID or passport required; admission is $10 to $12.

INFORMATION: The Toulouse Tourist Office (011-33-5-6111-0222, www.ot-toulouse.fr), in the dungeon of the old capitol, makes reservations for some of the city's cultural sites, concerts and more. For information on the Midi-Pyrenees region: Midi-Pyrenees Regional Committee of Tourism, www.tourisme-midi-pyrenees.com. French Tourist Office, 410-286-8310, www.franceguide.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto