Pretty British for a Francophile. Such was my Twitter bio back in the day, and do you know I still think it sums we up pretty damn well. Ever since a very young age I have been besotted with anything vaguely français; so much so I went on to study it at uni, spending a year living and working in France as part of my studies. Probably the best year of my life (so far) and I came out of the year almost completely different to how I was before – more confident, more mature and a lot more driven. However, as good as that year was, I didn’t really spend a lot of time exploring France beyond my immediate confines of Paris. Sure, I went to the Loire Valley and out east to Strasbourg, but beyond that France remains pretty much a mystery to me. So how can I really proclaim myself a Francophile, when in reality I don’t really know all that much about it? It’s like people proclaiming they love England having only ever been to London; capital cities are not often a great marker for the rest of the country as each region carries its own distinct character and customs.
It’s of no surprise, then, that when planning for an upcoming girls’ trip turned to the beautiful pink city of Toulouse, I absolutely jumped at the chance. Friend trips right now are a bit of a funny one. They’re a great chance to catch up with people I don’t get to see anywhere near enough, and it’s nice to meet on ‘neutral’ ground on a more relaxed setting rather than a rushed coffee in a Prêt somewhere near Carnaby Street. However living in a different country than the rest of the group can make travel arrangements a pain – I either arrive too early, too late, my flights are too expensive or too complicated, and we often go through plans A through F before we finally settle on a location. In this case we planned various itineraries for Sofia, Kent, Dusseldorf and Naples before we finally fell down on Toulouse. And by the time we decided, flights were almost up to 200 EUR and flight timetables meant I spent a little over 24 hours in total in Toulouse. So not amazing value and perhaps not the brightest idea for a relaxing weekend away, but in the name of friendship I committed and I am so glad I did.
I arrived late on the Friday night and quickly grabbed an Uber to our AirBnb in the centre of town. Toulouse-Blagnac is very conveniently located about a 20-minute drive from the city centre, with train services and buses also connecting the metropolis to the airport. Very useful, because even though my flight was slightly delayed I still made it in time for our dinner reservation and a cheeky glass of something bubbly beforehand. For dinner we opted for a traditional cassoulet spread at the very highly recommended La Cave au Cassoulet, which in hindsight was an excellent choice for a girly catch-up and an evening of gastronomic discovery. Set in a romantically lit (read: dark) underground brick-lined cave, La Cave a Cassoulet serves a variety of traditional French fare in a lively atmosphere. All but one of our party opted for the cassoulet à la maison (in true French style the waiter openly scoffed my friend who instead opted for duck confit — she maintains it was a fine choice), which is basically a stew of confiit duck, 3 types of sausage and flageolet beans. Complete with a basket of delicious crusty bread and a rich red wine… Absolute perfection. A word of warning to the wise, however: the portions are huge. We ordered 3 portions of the cassoulet for the 3 of us, but could’ve easily shared 2 and still felt uncomfortably full at the end.
Also here want to add in something of a disclaimer: wining and dining in Toulouse wraps up pretty early. As in, by around 10pm you will be the last people in the restaurant and the waiter will be giving you pleading eyes from across the bar to pay up and leave so he can go home. In fact when researching potential dinner places, we noted that most places are only open 8pm-9:45pm in the evening, so it’s pretty safe to say that Toulouse’s geographical proximity to Spain has not rubbed off on its dining culture. Also, alcohol licensing laws in the city stipulate that supermarkets, newsagents etc. cannot sell alcohol past 10:30pm. So if heading back to the AirBnb with a bottle of wine after dinner is part of your plans, maybe plan ahead earlier in the day. Or do as we did and nip into a somewhat suspicious-looking takeaway and purchase a bottle of “sparkling wine” for under 3 EUR in a paper bag. Winner.
The next day was my only full day in Toulouse, and in true girl-trip style Brunch was the first item on our agenda. Another slight niggle about friends’ trips is trying to accommodate many needs and preferences at once; whether it’s a hankering for a particular dish, or a requirement to only eat at establishments with a certain TripAdvisor ranking, having so many people on board can mean a lot of wandering somewhat aimlessly whilst bellies grow increasingly hungry and moods begin to darken. But not to worry, as the beautiful streets of Toulouse kept a spring in our step until acceptable food could be located. Toulouse is pretty small – I think we did around 14,000 steps and covered the city a few times over – but it is absolutely charming, and I think for a relaxing weekend break (the kind where you just eat and drink and eat again) you really can’t do much better. This weekend was particularly lively; the sun was out – as the red patch on my chest can attest – and it was Pride weekend in Toulouse, and we had a grand old time burning off our Brunch with a little shimmy alongside the parade. For the aforementioned Brunch, we eventually settled for bagels at Sweet Home Café, a cosy café on one of the main streets in the city centre. Delicious, good value and with dishes named after famous USA-inspired songs, it was the perfect setting for a morning boot and chat.
The rest of the day was pretty much dedicated to discovering as much of Toulouse as we could. We crossed the city centre, mooched along the banks of the Garonne and walked through ornamental gardens – a pretty dreamy day and I can definitely see why Toulouse has earned itself the moniker la ville rose (mostly for the red-bricked buildings, but it definitely gave me a rose-tinted perspective on things). We then stocked up on crisps and fizzy wine (what else?) and headed back to the apartment to get ready for our second – and final – dinner, and for some chats about religion, sex and everything else in between. It was truly wonderful to be back with my old pals as we all share the same basic approach but still come from very different backgrounds; it is so refreshing to have conversations that constantly cause me to rethink my views and to strive to better articulate my opinion. It is my ladies and their brains that force me to do better.
Dinner that night was a full 3-course experience at La Madeleine de Proust, a brasserie-style restaurant decorated to look like a children’s playroom. Sure, it may somewhat unnerving to bite into your fillet steak whilst staring into the eyes of a somewhat demoralised Jack-in-the-Box, but that just added to the fun and overall ambience of the place. A great meal and a great end to my whistestop tour of Toulouse.
So there we go; 24 hours, 3 meals and a whole lot of fizzy wine, both legal and illegal. Not bad going, all things considered. Now, onto planning the next one.