A day in Toulouse

Up until now, each time we have gone to Toulouse for errands and a steak frîtes lunch at our favorite steak frîtes restaurant, we have driven our car. It is only about an hour’s trip, mostly along the toll highway, with speed limit of 130 kph / 80 mph. GPS gets us into the city and to our target parking garage. Not really very hard, but at least one of us has to stay alert and pay attention the whole way. A little piece of our vision of our European life is leaving the car behind, and taking the train.

So that’s what we did last week Thursday. We started our trip with a short 10-minute stroll from our house to the Carcassonne train station. The train trip took all of 45 minutes, zipping through the countryside of wheat and farm fields, and vineyards. There was none of the stress of navigating the hectic city streets en route to the parking garage. We arrived at Toulouse’s main station, Matabiau, relaxed and ready for our day. The station stands right next to the beautiful red-brick city center, with all the shops, parks, museums and restaurants.

Our previous day trips to Toulouse have been all about errands, and of course the steak frîtes. This time, we enjoyed a couple hours in the morning doing a little culture! We visited the Musée des Augustins. From the website:

The Musée des Augustins, the fine art museum of the city of Toulouse, is located in the very heart of the town. Since 1793 it has housed collections of painting and sculpture dating from the beginning of the Middle Ages. Today, the most recent works date from the 1940s. The variety and quality of the works mean that the museum’s collections cover all of the major periods of the history of western art. The Musée des Augustins is particularly rich in sculpture, with the only collection of Romanesque sculpture of its kind in the world, as well as many Gothic masterpieces. We also have an exceptional set of 19th century sculptures.

Part of the museum building began as a convent in the Middle Ages. Construction of the massive church lasted from the 14th to 16th centuries.

When we bought our ticket, as often is the case at the counter, the staff person asked where we come from. We said we live in Carcassonne, but were from Hawaii too. His face lit up, and he exclaimed in English, “I love Hawaii! Elvis! Hawaii 5-O!” And then, “But why do you live here?” And then, “I love the women who are mixed Asian and Western.” OK, that’s direct! We took our tickets with a mahalo, and turned toward the museum.

We passed through a nondescript vestibule room full of squealing school kids, turned the corner, and were greeted by the impressive 14th century cloister. Orderly patches of flower, herb and vegetable plants fill the courtyard.

Within the arcade, gargoyles from lost buildings line up at attention. You never get to see gargoyles up close like this, including the channels for the rain water. They stand on end, looking like they are screaming, or maybe singing.

One gallery is dedicated to Romanesque carved-stone column capitals. The museum commissioned a Spanish artist to design the exhibition, from floor to ceiling. He created a forest of brightly colored columns, each of which supports one of the Romanesque capitals. Vividly colored custom light fixtures hang over each column; they help to indicate the sources of the capital collections. This approach is unexpected because at first look, the exhibition design overpowers the ancient stone pieces, hiding them in plain sight. At the same time, the vibrant surprise, within the muted stone and brick of the rest of the museum, pulls you in. We enjoyed walking among the columns, beneath the canopy of light fixtures, appreciating many of the column capitals. The designs featured twisting animals, nets full of fish, leafy plants, and people caught up in whirlwinds of hunting and fighting. The diversity and enthusiasm of many of the designs made us think about how these columns were perhaps a rare outlet for the sculptors’ creativity, whose other work may have been tightly constrained by tradition and church proscription.

Two grand galleries showcase a hodgepodge of paintings from the 16th to early 20th centuries. Sweeping biblical allegories are neighbors to voluptuous nudes and stern Dutch businessmen. Immediately opposite the principal entrance to the red room stands an immense 19th century painting of the arrival of the conquering Mehmed II into Constantinople in 1453. The artist, Benjamin-Constant, was in his early thirties when he presented this painting in 1876. The theatricality, violence, dynamism, and romanticized view of the Orient stunned the art world and made the artist’s career.

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All this culture made us hungry. We had selected the Brasserie Bibent facing the Place du Capitole, which is the main formal square of the city. The fun, grand, sparkling interior felt deliciously fresh compared to the summer city day outside. The menu was more classic than progressive, perfect for a relaxing lunch in the city. We started with gravlax salmon with celeriac salad and soft-boiled egg wrapped in bread crumbs with tomato and bacon bits. Main courses were roasted pork loin with the smoothest butteriest mashed potatoes we’ve ever had, and roasted lamb on a bed of fresh peas. We shared a dessert of cherries poached in port wine with a small scoop of verveine ice cream. And a small bottle of rosé. Light lunch! No need for supper tonight.

We dedicated the afternoon to some shopping errands. Since it has been hot lately, we have been enjoying our meals at home outside at the table next to the pool. The pool and garden are downstairs from the kitchen and living room. We traipse up and down the stairs with place settings, glasses, plates, wine and all the food. Our mission was to find some unbreakable pool-side table settings, a good stable tray for transport, and a colorful table cloth to conceal the gray concrete table. It is fortunate that we enjoy walking around the beautiful colorful city center, because, in search of housewares stores, we walked from one end to the other, back, and back again. We already were familiar with one large housewares department store called Midica, but we we hoped for some more options. The shopping streets are full of clothing stores, eyeglass stores, cafés and restaurants, food stores, and anything student focused (Toulouse is a big university town). But other than two tiny bed-linen stores, nothing. Either Toulousains live in white spare houses and apartments, or they have hidden their housewares and decor stores elsewhere in the city. We found half of what we were looking for at Midica, and committed ourselves to find the rest at amazon.fr.

Around 7 pm and in the evening sun (it doesn’t get dark here until about 10:30 pm), we strolled with slightly sore feet back to the train station. We bought a bottle of cold sparkling water and drank it on the train platform, waiting for our train. Easy comfortable snoozy ride home, and the short walk up the hill from the Carcassonne train station to our house. Good day!

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PS: We found a painting of Mike and me when we don’t have wifi:

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