Once upon a time, Toulouse was one of the many cities in France about which I knew virtually nothing. Despite my very best efforts to rub myself against every corner of this great nation, this is all too common. Particularly in the case of cities which aren’t easily accessed by train from my region. However, a last-minute invite from Julie – a colleague of my housemates – changed all that, and also took me on my very first French road trip.
Usually, I’m a planner. I like to be well-prepared and ready for whatever comes my way, and that attitude often pays off. However, I’m reliably informed that sometimes the best things in life are done à l’arrache – unplanned, haphazard. It was with this motto in mind that one Friday night after work, I squeezed myself and my hastily-packed backpack into a little red car, along with Julie, Magda, Eddy, and a fair quantity of luggage, including a huge cardboard tube filled with posters. The impetus for the trip was Julie’s return to her hometown on the banks of the Garonne, and her invitation for us to temporarily fill her car, her house and her life with our foreign noise. That was very courageous of her.
In recognition of our arrival after midnight, our first day in the city started off fairly slow. A late breakfast and even later lunch, followed by a guided visit of some of the sites from our lovely host. Toulouse was on her very best behaviour that first day, with beautiful blue skies, warm weather and a thriving, but somehow highly relaxed city centre. We also paid a visit to the Modern Art gallery – a former abattoir – where we predictably didn’t understand everything, but nevertheless enjoyed ourselves. I found myself very quickly enchanted by the place, which is apparently a sentiment that was shared by my fellow newcomers. As we relaxed and listened to accordion music on the Prairie des Filtres – a huge park along the riverbank – Magda suggested it was a sign we should all stay there together, forever. It was hard to disagree.
These good feelings continued well into the early hours of the following morning, with an experience of Toulousian nightlife chaperoned by some experienced locals. In practice, this ended up being an impromptu bar-crawl through some of the city’s finer drinking establishments, including (but not limited to); a rum bar playing funk records, a cellar disco basement and another bar that was inexplicably filled with communists. By four in the morning, we found ourselves in the downstairs nightclub of an otherwise unassuming bar, dancing, drinking and yelling at each other over the music through the haze of cigarette smoke. I would hardly describe this as my usual scene, but I surprised myself by having a thoroughly good time.
Ironically, being in such good spirits was also why I later found myself in silent tears. Sitting outside with Magda to take some air, I sensed the tension I’d been feeling for days – weeks, maybe – come to a head and burst inside me like an overburdened bank of clouds. I could very easily excuse this episode by saying I had had too much to drink – and I had – but the truth is that I was confronting the unpleasant reality that my life here, with all its new friendships and experiences, is so temporary. The tears didn’t last, and I felt better afterwards. Of all the reasons to be emotional, being “too happy” is one of the better ones, after all.
After all this excitement – and only getting to bed around six in the morning – our next day understandably started fairly slowly. However, once we were suitably recovered, Julie was kind enough to deposit Eddy and I at our next destination. And it was a good one.
Located on the outskirts of Toulouse, the Cité de l’Espace is the regional aerospace museum. It’s instantly recognisable from the highway, owing mainly to the huge replica of an Ariane rocket that sticks out over the cluster of nearby buildings. This is only one of many full-size and miniaturised replicas of space-faring technology housed at the museum, most of which are strewn around the park that houses the museum complex.
Within the museum itself, there are also a great many treasures. These include things like authentic relics from space missions – from spacesuits to moon rocks – as well as a full-sized Imax theatre and Planetarium. The latter was one of the most exciting parts for me, as I had never seen a proper Planetarium show. Thanks to a kind staff member who snuck us in as the show was starting, Eddy and I were able to enjoy the entire thing, and it was a delight. I even found myself getting a little emotional as I was forced to confront the enormity and beauty of the universe we live in.
I think it goes without saying that I loved this museum. Although our visit was fairly short, I very much appreciated the central theme of the complex – the sheer audacity and genius of our species’ forays into space, the heroic effort involved and the ultimate fruits of our curiosity. It was also a very welcome discovery that Eddy was just as passionate about aerospace as I was, making us the perfect team of grown-up children in this cosmonautic playground. We stayed until closing time.
I’ve previously talked about those pivotal moments in life where you realise you’re forming an important memory, and I was lucky enough to have another one of those that very evening. Standing at the top of a tall parking structure in Carmes, in the city centre, at the exact moment of sunset over a beautiful city. I know it sounds ridiculous – like a cartoon character moved by the Power of Friendship – but I was stunned to realise how happy I felt among these former strangers. How at home and welcome. It’s hard to explain exactly, but I know I’ll remember that sunset for a long time.
The next day found us on the road again – we just couldn’t wait to get on the road again – for a day-trip out to Carcassonne. The easiest way to describe this site is to say that it could very easily appear in an illustrated dictionary beside the word ‘fortified’. It is a huge, UNESCO-heritage-listed complex of walls, towers, keeps and gates with a history as long and complicated as a French tax form. Fortunately, it’s a lot more fun than that.
Carcassonne is a place which absolutely drips history, from every cobblestone and towering fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has historically been known as an impregnable fortress – and I believe it. It dates from the very first Roman camp established in the region, followed by consistent occupation by the Visigoths, the Cathars, crusaders and – finally – its eventual restorers, led by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Walking through, one cannot help but appreciate the staggering amount of work that must have gone into its construction – as well as what must be required to maintain it. There’s plenty of opportunities there to discover this rich history, as well as to watch various shows including music, dancing, archery and sword-fighting. It’s a very touristy place, but definitely worth a visit.
Our day in the country was capped off by a visit to Julie’s grandparents for crêpes and an afternoon walk along the canals, which proved to be the perfect end to a wonderful day out. The stereotype would tell you that the French are unwelcoming and rude, but I absolutely cannot confirm that in the slightest. Instead, I am continually struck by the fact that these are good and welcoming people, and that I’m lucky to be here. At last, upon arriving back at the apartment, our little band of travellers shared a Cassoulet and a bottle of wine and toasted our respective countries, our time together and our newfound friendship.
Sadly, such things cannot last forever, and the next day found me all alone in Toulouse. It was nevertheless another beautiful day, and I spent most of it profiting from this fact by wandering the city’s numerous public gardens. I ate my lunch beside a waterfall, read a book sitting against a tree and allowed myself to relax and enjoy the springtime. I also paid a brief visit to the Natural History Museum – which is attached to the Jardin des Plantes – but I couldn’t bring myself to stay indoors during such gorgeous weather.
Nevertheless, in my (now fairly experienced) opinion, the museum was very well done. Despite its small size, it has a great mix of live demonstrations, videos and static exhibitions. The usual core pillars of Natural History are all well-represented there, with exhibitions on things like volcanism, evolution and palaeontology. It also had a very good set of fossil displays that were very well lit and cleverly presented, second only to the museum in Brussels.
Ultimately, my weekend in Toulouse served in many ways as a perfect example of how living in France has changed me – and about which I rambled last time. A last-minute road-trip to a place I’d barely heard of with people I’d only just met doesn’t sound much like something I would have done back home. And yet, I loved it. My time in Toulouse will undeniably be one of the most precious memories I have of my time in Europe, and perhaps of my young life. Friendship with good people, in a beautiful place filled with fun things to do. What more can a boy ask for?
To see a gallery of photos associated with this post, click here. If instead you are disgusted by the Power of Friendship, you may benefit from the educating influnece of Yu-Gi-Oh The Abridged Series, seen here.