Posted on 11/13/03
Despite being prominently marked on the Hostel World map of
Europe, there is not, in fact, a single hostel in Toulouse, France’s
fourth largest city. I got the bad news within seconds after getting off the
bus. It was 10:30AM, I had been up since 6:30AM, after only five hours of
sleep and it was raining. I was in no condition to wander the city aimlessly
looking for a decent hotel or pension. I managed to recall through the haze
of my recently terminated, shallow bus nap that we passed a string of hotels
during the last few blocks before the bus station and every hotel seemed to
have their rates clearly marked on the front of the buildings. I only had
to walk a block in the rain and check three hotels before I found a decent,
two star hotel that was only asking 35 Euros a night for a single room.
I hate showing up in a city knowing absolutely nothing about
it, but having been isolated in Andorra’s stinky pension from poison
fume hell, I had not had the opportunity to nick someone’s guidebook
and read ahead. After unloading at the hotel, I set out to find the tourism
office. Although everyone I met was very helpful and friendly, I was not having
much luck finding the office. The signage in Toulouse was a little vague and
completely contradictory in places. I navigated blind for about an hour, then
I stole a photocopy of a very inadequate map from the lobby of a large hotel.
Using this and freakish dumb luck, I stumbled into the tourism office after
another hour of wandering, though by then, I pretty much had passed judgment
on the place.
Toulouse, was… nice. Just nice. Nothing special, but nice.
If I had to live in France, Toulouse would have gotten a pretty good
rating on my livability scale. It’s a young city (110,000 college students),
affordable, very friendly, good food and relatively small and easy to navigate
once you get the big picture of the canal and river paths that cut through
the city. There are some very nice parks and during better weather a stroll
along the Canal du Midi – the canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean
with the Mediterranean Sea - would probably be a nice evening walk. But there
were no screaming, imperative tourist offerings. No gnarly buildings. Few
picturesque monuments. No massive, beautiful churches or cathedrals. Just
a nice city.
Then there was the unfortunate weather… Toulouse’s
nice was almost blown out of town during the 36 hours that I was there. The
rain mercifully stopped almost as soon as I started my exploration, but then
the wind picked up. I have rarely experienced wind this powerful. I’m
talking garbage cans and café sidewalk furniture blowing down the street.
Like a dipshit, I tried to cross the Pont Neuf – a hulking bridge built
over the course of almost 90 years in the 14th and 15th centuries to withstand
the violent torrents of the Garonne River - during one of the more intense
wind assaults of the day and the ceaseless, brutal air current nearing knocked
me off my feet, over the barrier and into heavy traffic.
Toulouse seemed to have a milder version of “Andorra Tourism
Desperation Disease,” where they give you a pamphlet upon arrival that
writes up and hypes every pebble in the entire city that has even marginal
historical significance. The one thing that did indeed seem super wicked was
the Cité de l’espace, Toulouse’s impressive, gigantic,
interactive space center on the outskirts of the city, but I screwed myself
out of a visit with my timing and haste to move on to bigger and better cities.
My last visit to France had been nine years earlier, predating
my painfully tardy attainment of wine appreciation, so I finally had the opportunity
to test the waters of the cheap, but alarmingly good wine rumor. I aimed for
the mid-point of the wine selection at the corner supermarket. I paid four
Euros for a bottle of Bordeaux and like everything else I experienced that
day, it was nice. I made the decision to swing from one polar opposite to
the other with my former habit of staying in Spartan surroundings and shelling
out huge ching for food to staying in posh surroundings and eating incredibly
savory food for a pittance out of the bakeries. There is a bakery almost every
12 feet on most city streets in France, so finding a bakery is as simple as
stepping out onto the street, taking a few sniffs and homing in on the pastry
aroma. I picked up a quiche with spinach and salmon for three Euros and it
was fantastic. In fact, that meal started a near non-stop bakery diet for
my initial travels through France. I sustained myself on a regimen of baguette
sandwiches, quiche, pastries and inexpensive supermarket wine. Yes, it was
a very grueling existence.
I was having trouble finding things to take pictures of in Toulouse.
It’s hard to take a picture of “nice,” no mater how nice
it is. Actually, it’s hard to take pictures of anything when the occasional
surges of rain and wind threaten to dampen and/or physically separate you
from your $600 digital camera.
With the not particularly affordable accommodations and the
lack of photo opportunities exerting themselves in Toulouse, I chose to break
my personal brevity record in a city and leave Toulouse after only one night
to move further up the coast to the heart of French wine making country, Bordeaux.
Go to Bordeaux