Stylist’s sub-editor Meena Alexander finds the best of all worlds in France’s Pink City.
As my long-suffering loved ones will attest, making decisions is not my strong suit. The words “What shall we have for dinner?” send me into a cold sweat. And when choosing a European city to spend a long weekend in, I tie myself in knots – do I want elegant French boulevards or sun-soaked Spanish squares? As it turns out, you don’t have to choose.
Enter Toulouse. With all the rich history, chic shopping streets and impressive architecture you’d expect from an ancient French city, it also sits just 75 miles from the Spanish border and has soaked up a laid-back Latin feel by osmosis. The view from my room at the Hotel Des Beaux Arts sums it up: the snow-capped Pyrenees seemingly photoshopped behind sunbathers sipping pastis on the banks of the Garonne. The hotel itself is part boutique bolthole, part contemporary art gallery, with a reception full of quirky pop art (including a gold gnome making a rude gesture) and each of the 18 rooms decorated by a different French artist. It’s also minutes from the old quarter, where quiet streets explode onto buzzy squares and wrought-iron gates open onto private mansions that once belonged to rich merchants – the most famous, the Hôtel d’Assézat, is open to the public.
Although the main sights are all within a square mile, I recommend a tourism pass: £24 gets you a guided tour, two days’ entry to all museums (including the beautifully cloistered Musée des Augustins) and unlimited use of public transport (toulouse-visit.com). La Ville Rose, or The Pink City, named for the pink stone used in its buildings, is classically beautiful – when the sun reflects off the bricks, the entire city is cast in a coral glow – but let’s talk food.
Eating in Toulouse is an experience. To my relief, there are rarely lots of options on the menu – Toulousains stick to what they know, and what they know is meat (vegans, be prepared for blank stares). A must-try is the hefty cassoulet at Toulouse institution Emile (restaurant-emile.com), an eighthour labour of love bursting with white beans, sausage and duck. For full culinary immersion head to the Victor Hugo market to sample what are hands-down the best cheeses, pastries and wines I’ve ever tasted (go first thing and you’ll catch students having end-of-night oysters – so much classier than a kebab). The market can be hectic, so tap up passionate Francophile Jessica for a food tour (£60, tasteoftoulouse.com).
By the time I arrive at new Michelin-starred offering Le Cénacle, I’ve been won over by the city’s multitasking charms. The sommelier asks if we’ll be drinking red or white. “Let’s have a bit of both,” I say without hesitating. Toulouse, you’ve changed me.
Rooms at Hotel Des Beaux Arts from £85 per night; hoteldesbeauxarts.com. EasyJet flights from Gatwick to Toulouse start at £59 return