Archive for the ‘tourism’ Category

On the voie romaine: Nîmes, Arles, and the Pont du Gard

May 26, 2010

On one of the many lanes across the farmland around Latour is a path marked with a guidepost for hikers: Voie Romaine (Roman road). Though not mapped on any of the general maps of the Roman Empire I’ve discovered thus far, this path is probably one of many in this area, just south of Toulouse (Tolosa), just east of Auch (Elimberris), and just west of the Garonne River, known in Roman times as the Garumuni. In the Roman era, this was Western Gaul, dotted with outposts, farms and extensive villas among the conquered barbarians. The Romans built more than 13,000 miles of roads in Gaul, now France, including, in this area, the Via Aquitania from what is now Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea through Toulouse to Bordeaux on the Atlantic. From Narbonne, the Aurelian Way ran east to Italy and the Via Domitia south to Spain. In villages and cities along the way, parts of the original stones of the road have been uncovered, including in places the ruts worn by chariots 2000 years ago. Here in the Haute Garonne, smaller unpaved routes followed the river valleys or cut across the hills to connect Roman settlers and villages. Indeed, the site of Latour des Feuillants, built on the tallest point for miles around, was probably used in Roman times as a camp, or lookout, or way station. The voie Romaine probably passed through the valley just below the chateau, and a small spring in the hillside of the property was likely used by Roman travelers.

For the children’s two-week April vacances, we take off for a few days, following the A62 east along the old route of the Via Aquitania to Narbonne and the Mediterranean Sea, then on along the old Via Domitia—marked on the expressway with roadsigns showing a Roman in a chariot—toward Nimes and Arles in the department of the Gard.

Our first stop is the spectacular Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built over the River Gard between the villages of Uzes and Remoulins about 20 kilometers north of Nimes. The day is gorgeous and green, and after we park the car on the west side of the river, we follow the trail upstream to where the huge bridge-like structure—more than two thousand years old, fifty meters high and 275 meters long—spans the beautiful river. A World Heritage Site, the Pont du Gard provided water to the city of Nimes, which the Emperor Augustus made the capital of Narbonne province around 28 BC. We walk across the lower part of the bridge under the arches, and explore the museum and Ludo, an interactive kids’ exhibition. We experiment with the model system of canals, dams, and aqueducts; the kids dig and map their “finds” like archeologists; and we learn about life in Roman times in model classrooms, market stalls, and baths. In the museum we talk about the lives of the slaves used to build these huge structures, and the machines invented for construction, transport and warfare. The whole 50-kilometer aqueduct system—and the lives of the people who made it—are explained in models and videos and dioramas. We end with ice creams and a climb to the top to see the view before returning to the car.

The water ran through the top part in a covered trough.

We drive back to Nimes and find our hotel, check in and change, and drive into the center of the small city to eat. The old town is lovely, centered around the elliptical Arena of Nimes, dating from the end of the 2nd century AD (another World Heritage site). This amphitheater, modeled on the Colosseum in Rome (built at about the same time) is the best preserved in the world and is still used for bullfights, concerts and other events. We wander the quiet narrow cobblestoned alleys of the old town, stopping for a look at the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple from 16 BC, which has also served as an early Christian church, a meeting house, a stable and a storehouse. On the tiny Rue de Grand Couvent, we found Au Flan Coco, a wonderful restaurant housed in a former abbey with high arched and vaulted ceilings. The specialty of the house was stuffed tart-like puffed pastries; Susan had one with onion and I tried the fish. Both were excellent and both came with huge fresh salads. The kids shared a steak, and finished with sorbet. All, including wine, for less than €60. Exhausted and happily sated, we returned to our hotel on the outskirts of town for a good night’s sleep.

Amphitheatre in Arles

The following day, we drove the half hour to Arles, where we breakfasted in a small café, visited the tourist information center, then walked through the lovely streets to the Romanesque Church of St. Trophimus to see the Last Judgment sculpture on its portal and the columns in the cloister. Susan’s new series of drawings here in France is about human misperceptions of animals and incorporates imagery from gargoyles and sculptures, so we wandered around looking for lions and monkeys and donkeys and the like in the facades. On up the hill, we circled the ruins of the Roman theater on our way to the arena, in which we imagined ourselves turning thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the gladiators in the ring below. The view from the top of the river and valley was stunning, and it was easy to understand how this town—so close to the Mediterranean that the Romans built a canal to it—became an important Roman city. As we strolled the streets back down to the Roman Theater (both the theater and arena of Arles are World Heritage Sites), we watched for the sign-post reproductions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in front of the actual places he painted. At the theater, James and Izzy “performed” songs from the repertoire they have memorized at school this year on the remains of the stage before the semi-circular seating area. We ended our day with a stop at the Musée de l’Arles Antiques, which contains a wonderful collection of Roman sarcophagi and full reconstructions of mosaic tile floors so intricate and colorful that they seem like carpets.

Roman columns just lying around in Arles...

With some sandwiches for a late lunch, we loaded up in the car and headed east on the A8 to visit our friends in Nice, following the ancient path of Romans returning home to Italy, almost in the ruts of the chariots some 2000 years ago, along the voie Romaine.

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Sledding From the Top of the Pyrénées

December 31, 2009

December 30 dawns foggy with warm air streaming across the snow-capped Pyrénées mountains to our south. One of James and Izzy’s main goals for vacances d’école is to go sledding. Downhill skiing is not within our budget, but we can see the snows on the Pyrénées seemingly right out our windows. It seems we should be able to get there to slide without too much trouble, especially on a day when the weather is predicted to be mild and clear. We do a little research on the Internet and find a cross-country skiing place that has a rental shop and luge hill for children and adults. Google Maps claims we can drive there in an hour and eleven minutes. James watches the sunrise, pink and orange, on the mountains, with some concern. “That looks really high,” James says. “I might be scared to sled all the way down from the top of the Pyrénées.”

We’re packed with snacks and snow pants and extra socks and in the car by 9:30. As we enter the A64 (expressway) heading south, the sun breaks through to burn off the fog. When we exit at Montréjeau about forty minutes later, we’ve got the car windows open, the sky is blue, and the temperature is over 50ºF. The Pyrénées break clear of the clouds, sparkling white over the green meadows and rolling hills. We begin to wind our way south and up through the villages of Nestier, Bize, Nistos-Bas, and Haut-Nistos, and Nistos, following the sign for Nistos Station de Ski at Nistos Cap de Neste. At one hour and eleven minutes, more or less, we’re in the village of Bize. Thank you, Google maps. We continue up. The road is tiny, steep, and winding. Up up up. The grass is still bright green on the sides of the road. No snow, though there are tantalizing peeks through the evergreens of the top of the Pyrénées against blue sky above. Forty-five minutes (and some very white knuckles) later, the tiny road dead-ends in a parking lot above the tree-line. There are perhaps fifteen cars, a chalet-style house with bar/café and rental shop, a small skating rink, and the top of the Pyrénées mountains ringing the bowl. It’s still at least fifty, and the snow is icy and melting, but it’s snow. And it’s gorgeous. The kids change into their snow pants and gloves. We rent two plastic luge sleds (with hand brakes) for €8 and start up the hill.

Picnic in the Snow in the Pyrénées

It’s glorious—absolutely clear, warm, and peaceful. The kids make a couple of runs—though they don’t use the brakes at all and it seems possible that they will, indeed, sled all the way to the bottom of the mountains—and then we have a picnic in on the mountain. There are a few other families with kids sledding, plus a few intrepid snow-hikers and cross-country skiers. A long, very icy trail snakes back and forth across the bowl with a low grade of descent, so after eating, we climb up there and take a few runs with a mom and kid in each sled—moms controlling the brakes. It’s a rush, even with the brakes almost totally engaged. By 2:30, the kids are wet and cold and tired, so we return our sleds, change into dry things, and head back down the mountain.

Drop off at edge of road to Nistos Cap de Neste

At Nestier, we turn north and follow the signs to the Grottes de Gargas, only a short detour from our route home, in the foothills of the Pyrénées near Saint Bertrand de Comminges. At 3, the tour guide herds us all (a group of about twenty, including many children, like ours, on school vacation) up the steps of a hill to the cave entry, guarded by a locked steel door. The grottes consist of two very different main caves, connected in more modern times by a passage. The whole thing has been well-preserved, and the new managers have laid a narrow concrete sidewalk for the tour and installed lights to highlight the most important paintings and etchings. In the first cave we see etchings of ibex, horses, and other animals carved into the walls about 15,000 years ago. The guide speaks some English and is very solicitous of all of the children, inviting them to the front, close to where she uses her red laser pointer to identify the parts of the creatures’ outlines.

The second cave is very different and the art here is much older, dated to around 25,000 years old. Here are at least 192 negative prints of hands made by blowing ground charcoal or manganese oxides and red iron oxides mixed with ocher yellow goethite across hands of men, women, and children so that an outline relief was created. No one knows, of course, why these were made, though theories abound. Some of the hands seem deformed or are positioned into what might be a kind of sign language. Susan supports the theory that fingers were lost to frost bite (this was during the Ice Age, of course) or cut off to avoid gangrene. Maybe the hands were printed as a form of ritual—marking a connection to the spirits within the rock or stone—or as play or entertainment. The guide tells us that these inner caves were not inhabited but seemed to have been reserved for special events like this art making or other rituals.

It’s drippy and spooky in there under ground, so close to the hands of humans—art-makers—who lived 25,000 years ago. Someone touched this wall. A human with a hand like mine. We are breathing, in some way, the same cool damp air they breathed, connected through this touch to stone. It’s humbling.

This day of contrasts—from the thin blue air atop the Pyrénées to touching the long-distant past buried under the rock of the Earth—seems to be a complete moment, a full life experience in some ways. The white moon in the deep blue sky is nearly full as we drive home to the château. We are far from home but also completely at home, here on the small blue planet at the outskirts of the universe, sledding all the way down from the top of the mountains, braking on the ice, enjoying the ride.

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

Bonne Anniversaire

December 15, 2009

On a Friday in November while in France, I celebrate my 51st birthday, the youth of old age, according to a French proverb. The children, who will be in school all day, tease me about being over fifty, but I cavalierly assert that fifty is only halfway to 100. “And I fully intend to live to 100,” I tell them as we drop them at school. Their sixth birthday comes one week after my birthday, so November usually becomes focused on the kids, as it should be. But there is something about a birthday, no matter one’s age, that wants celebrating somehow. It’s a marker, that moment that the sun returns to the same place it inhabited on the day you were born.

Back at the chateau, Susan’s mother, Sandra, and her friend, Eric, are visiting. Susan asks what I want, and, as always, I say that I’d like a nice meal in a restaurant. It’s the ultimate luxury for me—good food with friends, fellowship with other humans, and no dishes to do at the end of it all. So we review the list of recommendations that our hosts have left for us. At the top of Rosie and Pete’s favorites is Bistro de Pays (translated, plain and simple, “Country Bar”) in St. André, traditional French fare in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Rosie’s note about it reads: Phone ahead to reserve, show up, eat what you’re served! I know that Susan—a notoriously picky eater—will never make this place her first choice, so I play the birthday-me-first card: Bistro de Pays il est! We reserve a table for “dejeuner,” lock up the house and stable, get in the car and go.

It’s a gorgeous day, my birthday. Sunny and warm, probably about 70˚ F. The road to St. Andre from Saint Araille is curvy and narrow, up one hill and down the next, the snow-capped Pyrenees appearing at the crest of each rise. We zip in and out of villages, pass old women on old bicycles headed for somewhere, and slow for sheep and cows crossing. I think about the Haute Garonne region, the way the glaciers must have pushed up earth into these hills as they advanced and receded back to the mountains, the way the Mediterranean Sea must have swamped this area for awhile, and then the more recent history of Romans and Spaniards, knights and Crusaders, invaders and monks and pilgrims, traders and explorers and farmers—always farmers here—crossing and settling these fertile hills and valleys. It must have been a pleasant journey. The climate is perfect. The scenery changes with each mile. Something like aging, I think. I like this place, the youth of old age rather than the old age of youth, which, according to the proverb, is forty. I don’t feel old; I can still make the climb up the hill, and the view both behind and ahead is splendid.

About an hour later we arrive in St. André, one more small village in a chain of small villages. A Mairie. Maybe a maternelle or l’ecole. A church with a bell wall. A few houses. A farm with a cavernous stone barn. Perhaps a garage or small store. All of the towns we pass through are mostly deserted. In St. André, however, a half-dozen white delivery vans line the street next to and across from the church, a veritable traffic jam. A good sign, Rosie has said: Look for the delivery vans. Those guys always know the best places to eat. Is this the place? We don’t see a sign. Eric parks next to the church. I can see into the building behind us, a very small kitchen, steam rising from huge metal pots on a stove, two women wearing white aprons. It could be my own kitchen; it’s that small. On the street-side, a sign: Bistro de Pays.

We enter the screen door as the church bells begin to strike twelve. Halfway through the day, halfway through this life. I hope. On the left side of a small center hallway a windowed door reveals a tiny store. We open the door to the right. A well-stocked bar. Fifteen or so tables—six arranged in a row together, family-style—all set with cloths, old unmatched china and heavy silverware, wine bottles, and water pitchers. The only diners in the room are a group of delivery men at the first table, who all look up at us—the Americans—as we enter. Conversation stops. The four of us mumble to each other, begin to walk toward an empty table. A smiling woman in white apron comes from the back, takes our name, and gestures to a table. We sit.

Vous aiment un apéritif? she asks. An aperitif? Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m in the youth of old age. Susan’s mother and I nod. Oui! She serves us an amber liqueur in petit crystal glasses from the bar, Paloumbas de _?_. It’s sweet and strong, flavored with peach or plum, I think. A local favorite, she says. As we drink, another group arrives—two couples, one English-speaking—and they are seated at the table next to ours. One of the women passes her astrological birth chart to her friends. She is celebrating her birthday too. Her friends toast her: Bon aniversaire! It is as if a strange twin has appeared, and I can’t help but look closely at her. Are we alike for sharing the same day of birth? She looks about my age. Do her stars predict a similar path? What did bring us both to Bistro de Pays in the tiny village of St. André from some distant place on this particular day?

More truck drivers—male and female—arrive and are seated, some at the long table, though they do not seem to know one another. The woman in the apron brings bread. We pour the wine, a local red, and break the bread. I am a little fuzzy from the drink and warmth of the room. Another couple arrives. The restaurant is full within the hour. Only the woman in the apron waits tables, but she serves the same things to each table, one after another, in some cases moving the same plate of one dish from one table to the next.

I am not a restaurant critic, neither a chef nor food connoisseur, but I know that this food is wonderful. The soup arrives in a huge tureen just for our table, and we all serve ourselves. Pale brown, potatoes and carrots and big pale beans; it fills the belly and heart, and steams the windows. I am happy. The whole restaurant is happy. People laugh. I watch the delivery drivers share bottles of wine from table to table. The woman in the white apron brings the next course: a white mayonnaise-like sauce over thinly sliced celery root, oily black olives on the side. Then the patê, rich and smooth, arrives, and we cut thick slabs to eat with our bread—more bread—before the loaf is whisked off to the next table. I watch my birthday twin cut herself a slab from the loaf. The meal and the day stretch on.

Just before 2, the main course arrives. We’re in luck, because today’s meal includes cassoulet, the specialty of this region of France. Named for the pot in which it is prepared, the cassole, cassoulet is a very slow-cooked bean stew that has a particular mix of meats depending on the individual (or regional) recipe used by the cook. In ours there are sausages and chunks of duck and goose, as well as some roast beef, I think. Originally a peasant dish from medieval times, I’ve been told that a proper cassoulet is cooked sometimes for days, with more and more water added as it reduces, hence the thickness. It is also traditional to use the base from one cassoulet to start the next, leading to legends that some cassoulets are hundreds of years old in origin. The perfect dish for a fifty-first birthday. Even older than me!

As we scoop up seconds from the pot of cassoulet on our table, the woman in the white apron returns with a platter and serves us slices of pale tender pork roast, a hint of apple in the flavor. We eat. We eat. Everyone eats. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” For me, in this moment at the Bistro de Pays in St. André, I feel at one with all humanity. When we eat good food, though we are strangers, we return to some kind of essential common existence. And there will be no dishes to wash at the end!

At last, we sit back. Sated. Satisfied. The woman in the white apron returns. Dessert? Of course. It’s my birthday, after all. There are choices: Chocolate mousse; flan; yogurt and fresh fruit; ice cream. We choose one each, and all are delicious. The chocolate mousse—my choice—is like eating chocolate clouds, a satiny richness that is perfect with the rich coffee that ends every French lunch. The truck drivers depart, and then my birthday twin with her friends from the next table. We decide that we have just enough time to drive over to see a little church we’ve heard about, and stand to pay our bill at the bar. The tab for this luxury, this long afternoon of life lived fully in gustatory glory? €12 each. About $15.

We walk out into sunshine, church bells ringing again, stretching and yawning. This is the youth of old age, that hour of the early afternoon when life feels rich and full of promise, when the view stretches to white-capped mountains in the distance and back across the hills toward home. We visit the little church painted with intricate stories, and the little well outside that is known for miracles, and we return to fetch the children from school under a painted sunset sky. C’est un bon anniversaire, indeed.

La Ville Rose

December 8, 2009

La Ville Rose

Here in Saint Araille, an orange glow in the northern night sky marks the location of Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, about fifty miles away. Called La Ville Rose, the pink city, for the distinctive brick used in much of its architecture, Toulouse is a colorful place with a thriving economy and youthful population. The city is culturally diverse, with a history of progressive thinking and tolerance partly derived from its situation at one of Europe’s geographic crossroads, approximately halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and about three hours’ drive from the Spanish border. Affluent today as the high-tech center of France’s aerospace industry, the beauty of this small city is due to its historical affluence, particularly during the 1400’s when it was the center of export for woad, the plant from which the color blue was made before indigo was imported from India and the Americas. Many of the grey stone streets in the center are pedestrianised, and the River Garonne, Canal du Midi, and numerous parks provide shady green respite. Situated in the south, winters are mild and short here. We have found Toulouse small enough for the foreigner to easily negotiate but large enough to provide all the urban conveniences. La Ville Rose seems to us to be nearly a perfect city.

Toulouse has been inhabited since at least 300 B.C. The Romans established a colony here in 200 A.D., and the city suffered the comings and goings of all the usual suspects of this particular area, trampled by travelers, traders, warriors, and invaders including the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Franks, not to mention the plagues, famines, fires and wars that marked most of early European civilization. The streets in the old part of the city still follow the Roman paths, meandering and narrow, and you shouldn’t be surprised to happen upon sites marked as ancient Roman temples between shopping in the second-hand stores near the Academy des Beux Arts and dining on the local specialty, cassoulet. As we watch our children in a playground beside the riverbank, listen to college students discussing their textbooks, or sip a coffee in a café, the rich history of the city seems a living backdrop to the contemporary life around us.

The town played a major role in the religious wars the Roman Catholic Church instigated against the Cathars, including hundreds put to death in Toulouse and the surrounding area during the Albigensian Crusade and Inquisition. The area around Toulouse, the Languedoc, was known for literacy and religious tolerance in the early middle ages. The Cathar’s version of faith valued aestheticism and rejected power and the idea of a single god, all cited as “just” cause for the Crusaders and Inquisitors to wipe out Catharism in a series of bloody raids, wars, executions, and occupations. Of course, the fact that the Languedoc was also fertile and lush farmland, a veritable breadbasket, and an important pathway between the continents, meant that conquering such a land added to the physical wealth of the knights and lords from the north (and the Catholic church) who joined the ventures against the “heretic” Cathars. Something of those early roots of tolerance seems evident in the progressive and forward-thinking Toulouse encountered today.

Toulouse is a vital and gorgeous city. For the tourist, the center offers a wealth of distractions. The aforementioned woad plant—the source of the blue pigment so desired by textile dyers and artists of the middle ages—brought prosperity to the region and to Toulouse, where a vital export business was established in the mid-1400s. After fire destroyed most of the city in 1463, using brick instead of wood to build became standard practice, hence today’s “pink city.”  The wealth of the woad traders who dominated the city’s economic and social life well into the 1700s can be seen today in the fabulous hôtel particuliers—private urban palaces—they built. Indeed, a visit to the Renaisance Hôtel d’Assézat, originally built for a wealthy manufacturer, now housing the Bembourg Foundation’s extensive collection of art, should be on every tourist’s agenda. More than fifty more elaborate Renaissance hôtels still dot the city, some accessible via private tours.

The enourmous Capitole de Toulouse—135 meters long—on the expansive Place du Capitole combines an original medieval gate and courtyard with a 1750 neoclassical (pink brick, of course) façade, topped by a bell tower designed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the well-known architectural restorer of the fortress at Carcasonne, an hour east. Today the seat of the city government, the Capitole also houses an opera company, a symphony, and the Salle de Illustres, a Baroque hall inspired by the Galleria Farnese in Rome and filled with 19th century paintings and frescoes. On the plaza outside (Place du Capitole), a Wednesday market is good for African handicrafts, fabrics and clothing. During the holidays, we go on a weekend before Christmas for the evening Marché de Noel, where we shop for small gifts and decorations and stand around with hot mulled wine and warm roasted chestnuts under the lights.

A few blocks north of the Capitole, the Basilica Saint Sernin, built between 1080 and 1120 and often cited as the largest Romanesque church in the world, offers a reminder of the role religion played in the history of Toulouse. Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who was martyred (dragged through the streets by a bull) in 250 when he refused to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods, is supposed to have been interred on the original site of the basilica. At least 128 weird relics—bits of bone, teeth, a fragment of the “true cross,” etc.—donated by Charlemagne are lodged in the crypt, chapels, and ambulatory, which increased the basilica’s popularity as a stop on the pilgrimage route called the Compostella de Santiago, adding religious tourism income to the town and church coffers. The stone that killed Simon de Monfort, a leader of the Crusades against the Cathars, was thrown from the roof of St. Sernin in 1218. The interior of the church is vast and light and open (115 metres long, 64 metres wide and 21 metres high) with vaulted ceilings, a peaceful and spiritual place in the cruciform shape specifically designed with an extra-wide ambulatory so that the pilgrims could see the relics without disturbing any services underway at the time. As we wander the aisles, stopping to stare at the moldering grey tooth of a saint nestled on velvet in an elaborate gold reliquary cask, we wonder how the believer on the road to Spain in 1200 might have felt awe.

A five-minute walk south along the Rue du Taur (Road of the Bull), the Eglise Notre Dame du Taur provides a dramatic architectural contrast to St. Sernin. Tucked between houses, one doesn’t expect the gothic expanse inside from the narrow façade. This church, however, also plays a part in the St. Sernin story, for legend has it that Notre Dame du Taur (literally, “Our Lady of the Bull”) is built upon the spot where Saint Saturnin became detached from the bull that tore through the streets of Toulouse with his body. Others believe that Notre Dame is actually built upon the spot where the Romans sacrificed bulls to their gods, the act for which noncompliance led to Saint Saturnin’s death sentence. Inside is Jacob’s geneology in a 14th century fresco as well as the pictoral story of St. Saturnin’s life and bloody death.

Eglise de la Daurade, on the bank of the Garonne near the Art Academy, built on the site of an ancient pagan temple and then a Benedictine abbey, houses the Black Madonna, Vierge Noire, of Toulouse, a statue of Mary whose face has darkened from candle soot over many years, and who is credited with many miracles. She seems to particularly favor pregnant women. Her outfit is changed several times each year by a special contingent charged with the honor, and it is said that parishioners have solicited new garments from famous designers of French haute couture. It’s hard not to speculate about what the Virgin thinks of her fashionista attire.

The Musee des Augustins offers yet another perspective on the diversity of Toulouse, both religious and architectural. Originally a convent with a beautiful cloister, chapter house, sacristy and chapel, the grounds now house an impressive collection of more than 4000 works of art, including, among other objects, Romanesque capitals and funerary epitaphs rescued from religious sites around the country, paintings that were the spoils of Napoleonic conquests, and statuary from local hôtels particuliers. The cloister garden is serene and orderly, lush with flowers, vegetables and herbs, each labeled and all carefully tended. Here it is easy to imagine why the wealthy might choose to retreat into such a place, to live in one of those tiny rooms in the walls above. If you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, take advantage of free entry and tour, wander the illuminated gardens, and stay to attend the free weekly concert on the restored baroque organ. If you are traveling with small children, like us, come when a concert is scheduled for later and wander through in the afternoon, telling the stories of the huge paintings while rehearsals echo through the halls.

Another former religious house, les Couvent des Jacobins, provides a wonderful example of 13th and 14th century Gothic architecture. The fanned brick ceilings seem like palm trees or huge flowers stemming from the marble columns. The Convent also houses the relic of the body of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, there’s a detailed inventory of which bones and their measurements on the Convent website: http://www.jacobins.mairie-toulouse.fr/accueil/accjaco.htm . It’s the contrasts that get to you—bizarre scrap collections and majestic constructions to faith; wars and economics and religions overlapping; the best of tolerant and intellectual enlightenment next to torture and inhumanity. We wander the streets of Toulouse, the world, and we discover that we are a strange history, a meeting in the contemporary moment of weirdness and goodness and horrors.

Back on the streets of the city, we stop at Gulps, the candy store on Rue St. Rome, and the carousel at Place du President Wilson before heading back to our car, parked at one of the many underground garages in the center. We will return another day to walk across the Pont Neuf to Les Abatoirs, the Toulouse Modern and Contemporary Art Centre built inside the old slaughterhouses across the river, other days for the range of markets (book markets, vegetable markets, flea markets, toy markets, even “adult” markets—we’ll skip that one), and another day at Cité de l’Espace, the science and space theme park ten minutes east in the suburbs. We’ll visit the Gay and Lesbian Center. If we’re very lucky, we’ll take a cruise down the Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 150 mile feat of 17th century construction. But truthfully, we don’t need an excuse to come to Toulouse. We will return many days (and evenings) during our time in Saint Araille. Tonight the glow of La Ville Rose in our northern sky seems positively pink. It’s a city that provides its own diversions at every turn, the past and the future in one location. It is a crossroads that is also a wonderful destination.