Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Days 224 & 225: Francefest 2012 – Days 1 & 2: Toulouse

Our meeting point for the holiday was the city of Toulouse.

Toulouse set the trend for towns and cities we visited during the holiday – I knew very little about it beforehand, but it turned out to have a charming historic town centre that we ate lots of food and drank lots of wine in. Danielle and I were the first of our group of nine to arrive, closely followed by Kitchen Mark and French Claire, who were already in France and had been at Claire’s family home. We sat outside a local Moroccan restaurant, ate some cous cous and drank some wine, and said “This place is full of mentalists, isn’t it?”

As it happened, our cosy little hotel near the train station happened to be on a street full of crazy people. In fact, our hotel receptionist crossed out an entire block on the map very nearby, warning us not to go there (I think it was a red-light area). Up and down the street, rugged and gnarled alcoholics stumbled, many with dogs as apparently the police can move homeless people along, but not homeless people with dogs, thus elevating dogs above humans in the eyes of the law. For our two days in Toulouse, we found a favourite cafe just across the road from the hotel, and revelled in the entertainment the street locals gave us, ranging from headbutting to shouting to very public urination (I don’t think any of the girls were impressed). There was lots of drunkenness, and the two smokers of our group made many friends – until informing their new friends that they had no spare cigarettes.

Our street of unquestionable character was our setting for our breakfasts and nightcaps of Toulouse, but most of our time was spent in the appealing city centre. Set around the large city square, the Place du Capitole, Toulouse was a series of winding old streets, effectively pedestrianised. On our first trip there, after Justin, Colin, and Lucy had arrived, our main reason for heading there was to enjoy some expensive and fine wine at a recommended bar called Chez Vincents, opposite Saint-Etienne, or simply Toulouse, Cathedral.

The wine was suitably expensive and tasty, a bit like a Tesco bottle of red on special offer from £8 to £5, but perhaps even better. My favourite was bottle no. 3, but bottle no.1 seemed to be the group’s favourite – but I recommend both if you can hunt them down (they were French, and red, if that helps).

Simon and Nicole arrived by the evening – they had taken trains all the way from Inverness, and despite flooding in England had still arrived on schedule. They joined us in the cafe across from the hotel, just in time to watch a man piss on the road, but too late for the headbutting, and the nine of us toasted the beginning of ten days of vacance.

Day 2 was our only full day in Toulouse, and so we touristed it to the max. The Place du Capitole had some stalls selling tat, so I bought a pair on sunglasses to accompany me for the rest of the trip. This is the first time, I believe, I’ve worn sunglasses since New York 2000 (possibly also New York 2003), and the  first time most of the group had ever seen me wear them. I believe it substantially enhanced my “coolness” – something subsequent dancing was later to thoroughly destroy.

Historic streets are eminently pleasing simply to meander along, and so we did so, reaching the Basilica of St. Sernin. This is a handsome Romanesque church, named after a saint who had the misfortune to be killed by being dragged through the streets by a bull. This occurred in the 4th Century AD, but the present basilica dates from about the 12th Century. It’s noted also for being the place where Simon de Montfort was killed, after a big stone was dropped on his head. De Montfort was the guy who led the anti-Cathar crusade, that slaughtered everyone in the town of Beziers, and was responsible for the seizing of one of Wonders, Carcassonne. Before the crusade, Carcassonne was effectively self-ruled, in a rose-tinted state of medieval bliss, but after Simon de Montfort’s heavy-handed intervention it became property of the French, developed significant further fortifications, and became something like the form we see now. He wasn’t a very nice man, as this line from his Wikipedia page suggests: He became notorious and feared for his extreme cruelty, massacring whole towns, and for his "treachery, harshness, and bad faith." In 1210 he burned 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve who refused to give up their faith. In another widely reported incident, prior to the sack of the village of Lastours, he brought prisoners from the nearby village of Bram and had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off.

But then, crusades were never won by some charm and a winning smile.

The best bit of the basilica is the tower, which I have no doubt gives a terrific view across the city, but alas it doesn’t appear to be open to the public. Never mind. The day was brightening and becoming pretty warm, so after a further wander, and some lunch, we went our separate ways for a while, as some of the group visited a modern art gallery set in an old abattoir, and Danielle and I walked briefly before deciding to start drinking.

French Claire’s brother and his girlfriend live in Toulouse, so in the evening they joined us for some drinks and the eating of some duck. Unbelievably, the restaurant we selected had three courses and unlimited wine for €13. Even more unbelievably, none of us horribly abused this free wine offer. Age 33, I am proud to announce I have now reached maturity.

Toulouse treated us well, and was a fitting start to the trip. The following morning we picked up the two cars, and waved goodbye to the city. A Wonder was awaiting, the fortified town of Carassonne.

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