Cloudless blue skies, pink-orange brick, a scruffy university student here and there — you must be in Toulouse.
Toulouse is known throughout France as "La Ville Rose" for its sunset-colored brick buildings that are unique in the country. Wander around the gorgeous city center for a while and you'll see glimpses of other brick-built places in the world — Belgium or Britain or New Orleans. But really, you could not be anyplace but Toulouse. The strong sunlight bouncing off the hot bricks; the lively, tree-shaded squares; the tapas bars and the rugby shirts all tell you that you are in southwestern France, home of the Stade Toulousain rugby club and less than a two hours' drive from the Spanish border.
The city is also known for its university population — the third largest in France, with over 110,000 students. This keeps Toulouse youthful, while the town's biggest employer, Airbus, keeps it well-off. Evidence of the wealth of les Toulousains is everywhere — in the boutiques along the chic Rue de la Pomme, in the high quality of ingredients at the covered market Victor Hugo and in the fabulous apartments overlooking the banks of the Garonne.
I spent a fair amount of my time in the city rubber-necking at the winsome balconies of the prettier homes. Some of the best were found around the Carmes district and along the sun-dappled walkway that leads to the Jardin des Plantes.
Toulouse is definitely a wonderland for fans of home design and architecture, but it is also a treasure-trove for historians. The university dates from 1229, the Basilica Saint-Sernin from 1080 and — to quote Paul Simon — there are literally "angels in the architecture."
My favorite aspect of Toulouse, however, is its geographic location — half-way between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and nestled along the River Garonne, the Canal du Midi and the jaw-droppingly picturesque Canal de Brienne.
In an hour and a half, a Toulousain could be swimming in the Mediterranean. In a few hours, he or she can ski the slopes of Andorra or surf the waves of Biarritz on the Atlantic Coast. And on those weekends when the poor Toulousain is stuck in town? Well, there's always jogging along the canals or lounging on the riverbank . . .