Before coming to France I hadn’t heard one utterance of the city of Toulouse, so much so that my pronunciation of the name even muddled out of my mouth coated in unfamiliarity when I first heard of it. Granted, I came to France geographically uncoordinated and unable to decipher one word out of one hundred in conversation, but to have been ignorant to a hub so grandiose was unfathomable.
I first heard of it from locals of the village I’ve been staying in when prompted to point me towards art supplies, and as far as I knew a “big city” to them was the next town over, an hour away I was told, perhaps the size of my college rather than hometown high school.
The hour train-ride passed in progression with the French novel I borrowed for practice – I managed my way through one page, kind of. Disembarking with the eagerness of a visitor aware of a 24-hour time frame, I anticipated another means of public transit to get to the city center, but was directed north by foot only a fraction of a kilometer before I was in the heart of the city.
Toulouse, if envisioned from above, is concentrated around several circular centers with streets beaming in every direction – cars admissible, but ill advised unless you’re willing to risk maneuvers around bicyclists, animals both leashed and free roaming, and pedestrians, all likely without the luxury of your side view mirrors as you’ll probably be forced by narrow streets to tuck them in.
I would say to spare no expense on the abundance of incredible food available, but at that point you’d be nickel and diming, as that’s about all you need to spend to enjoy “the best meal of your life,” which became the running joke after every dining experience. My mouth waters simply remembering the Mediterranean Sandwich at an incredibly average looking walk up stand where clients are accustomed to calling the cook “chef” – the same man who also takes orders and delivers your beer, and if time permits, even sitting to have one as well.
After lunch I popped into a multi-tiered all-purpose store to stock up on new watercolor paper, paint, and pastels, and wove my way towards a courtyard with a glamorous carousel, which caught my eyes and ears as children squealed with delight when their parents coughed up the coins to board.
In an old city novel to a newcomer, inspiration is plentiful, and I suggest taking a moment to sit and admire the people, the architecture, the language, the mannerisms, and to be humbled by the sensation of being a minority observer. When you’re ready, call on your inner extrovert and engage in conversation with passerby’s; hope to catch a student studying English or Spanish, and if Spanish, that they’re coming from a city that isn’t dominated by Catalan, if you’re into the same South/Central American accented Spanish language categorical as myself.
Though bars were aplenty, finding psychedelic mixology bar Moloko down a side alley was no less than a miracle by the small sandwich board advertisement that edged onto the sidewalk. You know how Miss Piggy said “never eat anything bigger than your head”?” Well thank goodness I never heard the same expression with cocktails, because every one of their inventive, fruity, tart, shaken, stirred, and dressed drinks would have been blacklisted. The ambiance was of 60’s glam, quasi punk ironic something-or-another, touting a colorful disco ball light spinning circles inside a stained glass wonky shaped lamp shade beside a stage for karaoke, a tiki bar, mannequins, and plenty of fluffed leather seats drawn together in intimate corners.
I met with others for dinner on a patio outside of a record shop, owned by an underground restaurant, Le Cri De La Truffe, around the corner with a cave-like candlelit hip ambiance downstairs. Much like other French restaurants, they offered a modifiable prix fix three-course meal layering entrée (the appetizer), plat (entrée), and dessert (best part) with wine pairings.
Still within walking distance along the enormous river slicing through town is a field which seems to perpetually host festivals, and a glance at any of the show posters strewn about the city will reveal what artists are available at the time. To my delight, Rio Loco was beginning the night I arrived, and with a cultural theme to each evening, this one was devoted to European music. At an entrance fee of 6 euros for a multi stage event with street performers, art, games, and tens of thousands of attendees, I wasted no time after dinner to skip towards the venue. Along the bridges over the river, the sun was setting and kids sat along the ledges, huddled around the freestanding metal binoculars scattered at certain intervals to voyeuristically observe the festival from afar. Being gifted a ticket from the front of the line, I bounced in and around for the next few hours with every Frenchman and woman dancing uninhibitedly, as they all appear to be.
When the concert ends, it seems assumed that everyone should buy beers and cigarettes and hover towards the pedestrian path along the water, finding seats along the stadium steps below bridges and behind buildings to smoke spliffs and chat until shooed away by the police.
By two in the morning my new friend and I started our walk home, but were stopped in the street by a duo with a bottle of red wine soliciting us to sit in the cathedral’s courtyard to polish it off. By three there were six of us speaking three languages, by four there were eight and a case of beer, by five I was asleep on a couch.
In the morning we walked to The French Coffee Shop (how to stake claim to a name so generalized is beyond me) with a menu of the most unusual and decadent drinks I’ve ever feasted my early eyes on – Nutella, Oreo, Cookie, Chocolate – crafted cocktails of the coffee variety and slathered in whipped cream and endless accouterment. We claimed one of the leopard print couches and giggled between gargles, catching one another up on the details one or the other of us had forgotten from only hours prior.
Toulouse has a stunning series of botanic gardens connected by bypasses, and I ducked into several sections when at each I was sure that I couldn’t possibly find a more beautiful place to paint, until I found the next spot, and the next spot. In one particular alley of towering luminous trees is a Vietnamese food cart with a few folding tables and chairs shaded in front. We nearly ordered one of everything and were delivered at least four cafeteria trays of food so madly delicious that I laughed as I licked my fingertips, “no, THIS is the best meal I’ve ever had!”
To close the trip on the most appropriate note I sat at a bar across the street from the train to await its arrival, drinking a Hoeegarden Blanche in the sunshine, watching boats rise and fall in the lock, and thinking about how I can make my way back to Toulouse.