48 hours in: Toulouse
Don't stop at the city limits. The rose-red capital of south-west France is a perfect base for some of the best skiing in the country, writes Simon Calder
La Ville Rose, the rose-red capital of south-west France, is more than just elegant, tranquil and historic; it also offers easy access to the best Pyrenean ski resorts in France, Spain and the tiny high-altitude principality of Andorra.
The only direct scheduled flights from Dublin to Toulouse are with Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) from March to October. Alternatively, Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Carcassonne, about an hour's drive or train ride from Toulouse.
If you're flying in direct to the city, the Flybus shuttle (0033 561 417 070) runs every 20 minutes between Blagnac Airport and Matabiau station (1), calling at various city-centre points for a one-way fare of €5. This includes connections by Metro or bus to any other point in the city.
The ancient yet modern kernel of Toulouse is on the right bank of the Garonne, at the point where the river's northern trajectory shifts sharply (and temporarily) to the west.
At the city's heart is the large, handsome Place du Capitole (2). The expansive building that gives the square its name has a façade dating from 1750. Behind it, on Square de Gaulle, the city's main tourist office (3) occupies an old round tower made of the city's characteristic pink brick; Toulouse acquired its alluring tones largely due to the absence of local stone. The office (0033 561 110 222; toulouse-tourisme.com) opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday; 9am-6pm on Saturdays and 10am-5pm Sundays. It shuts between 12.30pm and 2pm at weekends.
The city centre is squeezed between the broad Garonne river and the 17th-century Canal du Midi. Across the river, the quarter of St-Cyprien comprises an urban wedge with a bit of edge. Most places of interest are easily walkable, but the two-line Metro de Toulouse provides a smart, efficient alternative for a flat fare of €1.50 and €2.70 for a return. An all-day pass is €5 while a two-day pass costs €8.
The Metro station for Matabiau station (1) is known as Marengo-SNCF.
An excellent budget choice is the newly refurbished La Caravelle (4) at 62 Rue Raymond IV (0033 561 627 065; hotel-caravelle-toulouse. com), which entered service in the same year (1962) as the iconic French twin-jet. The plane is the theme, and the rooms are plain, but good value at €75 for a double, excluding breakfast, and even better with a weekend special rate of €59, including free Wi-Fi.
The Hotel Mermoz (5) at 50 Rue Matabiau (0033 561 630 404; hotel-mermoz.com) has more aviation credentials; it celebrates the short and heroic life of the French aviator Jean Mermoz. It has clean Art Deco style, plus pale-pink and tangerine tones that transport you back to the mid-1930s when M Mermoz was at his prime. A standard double is €130, with breakfast a further €14 per person.
The economy-class option is the one-star Hôtel Anatole France (6), in the square of the same name (0033 561 231 996; hotel-anatolefrance.com), which maintains a small-town ambience despite its central location. Double rooms cost as little as €45, without breakfast.
While the main commercial street is Rue d'Alsace-Lorraine, the old quarters of Toulouse have a much better range of boutiques. A favourite souvenir is crystallised violets; the city's link to the flower began when Napoleon's soldiers brought it back from Italy.
The Marché des Carmes (7), in the place of the same name, is bursting with locally produced goodness: bread, vegetables, poultry (including industrial quantities of foie gras de canard) and a spectrum of fruit. It opens 8am-5pm daily except Sundays, but is at its liveliest in the morning. There are plenty of lunch options here.
Take a hike
Tread the cobbles of the south-north street that has been the main axis of Toulouse for centuries. Start at the Place des Carmes (7); the rue des Filatiers wobbles a little as it heads north, with the street expanding and contracting as you progress.
At the triangular Place de la Trinité (8), stand by the fountain in the middle to admire the neo-Classical flourishes of number 57. Just north, Esquirol Metro station stands where the Roman forum was located.
The soul of Toulouse resides at the Place du Capitole (2), a vast (mostly) pedestrianised square with a zodiac planted on the pavement in the centre, rather than a statue. It was completed only in 1851, by which time it had gone through four name changes. Wander inside the Capitole itself to see if you are allowed access (depending on events) to Henry Martin's elaborate depictions of 19th-century Toulouse life.
Rue du Taur provides a sequence of lovely façades (and some tatty shops) as it leads north; pause at the corner of Rue du Senechal (9) to admire a superb view of curving decrepitude, full of the luxurious residences built in the 15th and 16th centuries by the merchants who made fortunes in the pastel trade -- a blue dye much in favour until indigo arrived. Round off your hike at Place St-Sernin (10), with the bulky Basilique de St-Sernin (00 33 5 61 21 80 45; basilique-st-sernin-toulouse.fr) -- a key stop along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. This is Europe's largest Romanesque church, and was completed in 1220. It takes its name from Toulouse's first saint, Sernin, who was dragged through the city streets to his death by a bull (taur) around 240AD.
It opens 10am-6pm daily (Sundays from 2pm), admission free.
Dining with the locals
Bar Le Tchin (11), at 22 Rue St-Bernard, is a perfect for an aperitif with a good range of beers and cocktails, as well as good food.
Le Florida (0033 561 239 461; leflorida-capitole.fr) is a grandiose traditional brasserie on the Place du Capitole (2) that dates from 1874. In La Cantine upstairs, you can tuck into the city's signature dish of cassoulet: sausage, pork and a leg of duck served in a steaming pot of haricot beans.
Within the warren of lanes close to the river, make for Le bruit qui court (12) at 11 Rue Jean Suau (0033 561 236 828; lebruitquicourt.eu; 7.30pm-11.30pm daily except Sundays), which specialises in the gastronomic riches of Midi, such as slices of duck served on raspberries.
Sunday morning: go to church
St-Etienne Cathedral (13) on place St-Etienne is a strange place of worship. Builders from the 11th to 20th centuries have imposed their own strong ideas on how the city's cathedral should look, and the result is a whimsical mish-mash of styles, combined with the sense that two non-matching halves have been welded together; all church architecture is here. Mass at 11am.
Out to brunch
Beaucoup Café Bar Restaurant (14), beside the river at 9 Place du Pont Neuf (00 33 5 61 12 39 29), makes the best effort with brunch, with a €16 offering from 10am Wednesday to Sunday that includes a main course, pancakes, juice and a coffee.
Allow plenty of time to breathe in the beauty of the Musée des Augustins (15) at 21 Rue de Metz (00 33 5 61 22 21 82; augustins.org) -- a 14th-century monastery, appropriated by the revolutionaries in 1793. The museum radiates calm despite its city-centre location and the current redecorating works that see some of the galleries closed to visitors (and admission halved).
The artists match the space for sheer quality: Delacroix; Debat-Ponsan, with a voluptuous massage scene; and, appropriately, Toulouse-Lautrec's Passing Conquest. It opens 10am-6pm daily (until 9pm on Wednesdays).
For most Irish skiers, the Pyrenees means Andorra, four hours away by Novatel bus (andorrabybus.com) from both Toulouse airport and Matabiau railway station. The twice-daily bus serves the leading ski resorts, of which the most snow-sure are the high-altitude twin resorts of Pas de la Casa and Soldeu, both with access to the Grandvalira ski area. Most hotels in Andorra are full of packaged skiers, with the Himalaya (sold through Inghams) one of the more interesting places to stay.
Closer, though with less certainty of snow because of the lower altitude, are the more characterful resorts of the French Pyrenees. A favourite is to combine the lovely spa town of Luchon with a modest ski area -- a telecabine whisks you from here to Superbagnères, at an altitude of 1,800m.
Buses to Luchon run infrequently from Toulouse, taking slightly under two hours. Stay at the wonderfully retro, one-star La Petite Auberge (0033 561 790 288; firstname.lastname@example.org), where I paid €40 for a double without breakfast.
The neighbouring Vall d'Aran area is equally easy to reach, yet because of a ruffle in the geo-political frontier it is Spanish territory, even though it is on the French side of the Pyrenean watershed -- and much easier to reach from Toulouse than from the Catalan capital, Barcelona.
This valley is the location for Baqueira-Beret, one of Spain's largest winter resorts. If you base yourself in the town of Vielha, you will find a wide range of good-value places to stay, some excellent restaurants and easy access to the pick of the slopes. The resort is ideal for intermediates and, with an overwhelmingly domestic clientele, anyone who wants to steer clear of Irish skiers.
If, instead of turning west off the E09 superhighway to reach Andorra, you keep going, you will soon be within reach of Font-Romeu, which also has the distinction of being the sunniest place in France -- or at least that is what the locals will tell you.