Both are full-blooded cities of southwest France, with accents forged by cassoulet, fighting and rugby football. Toulouse is bigger, Carcassonne more visited. So which is the short-break favourite?
ROUND 1: VISITING
No question – Carcassonne’s Cité is the southwest stunner. There’s no more perfectly-preserved medieval town anywhere. Nineteenth-century restoration got a few things wrong (the northern French roof tiles are a give-away) and purists cavil, but details matter less than the impact of the whole. On top of its hill, the arrangement of ramparts, towers and wriggling streets appears to have arrived direct from a middle ages myth. It is an astonishing sight, almost Disney-perfect. It is also packed – with cafés, commerce selling plastic armour and tourists buying it. Purists complain again. They really are a pain in the neck. The truth is that, in its 12th- and 13th-century heyday, the old town would have throbbed with merchants, taverns and troubadours. Turbulence is traditional. If you’re elbowed aside by a fat Frenchman today, well, you would have been in 1200, too.
Don’t miss the Château Comtal, the fortress-within-a-fortress, or the nearby St Nazaire basilica, its Romanesque nave leading to an outburst of light and colour in the Gothic choir. And if you really want the stone streets to yourself, stay late when the crowds thin out. The sense of centuries is palpable.
Stand-out monument in Toulouse is St Sernin, the grandest Romanesque church in Europe. The white stone and pink brick exterior rises to an extraordinary octagonal bell tower. Across town, the 13th-century Les Jacobins, last resting place of St Thomas Aquinas, has wondrous light and ribbed vaulting like you never saw before. It makes palm-leaf patterns. The cloisters remind me that I must get a set built at my house.
Then there are the Renaissance townhouses, expressions of the mega-wealth generated by the woad business. The Hotel-d’Assézat on Rue de Metz is a belter, and also contains a cracking art collection. Who would have thought there was so much money in woad? That said, nothing in Toulouse quite rivals the Cité. The round goes to Carcassonne.
ROUND 2: STROLLING
The Cité done, you’ve almost exhausted strolling possibilities in Carcassonne. Down the hill, the ‘new’ town has been the focus of urban affairs since the Cité itself was effectively abandoned 700 years ago. It remains a chequerboard of age-worn streets packed so tight they can barely breathe. Feisty or scruffy? Have a look and decide for yourself.
Strolling in Toulouse should start on the Place du Capitole, a central square vast enough to declare independence. From there, the city squeezes itself into a labyrinth of narrow, pink-brick central streets barely able to contain the swirl of urban energy. Walking weaves unpredictably past mansions and horse-butchers, student cafés, churches, ethnic jewellers and bookshops. It leads to markets, academia and tree-clad squares where locals loll in unexpected numbers. Further on is the broad sweep of the Garonne river; behind, the more intimate Canal du Midi.
Then you burst back into the Place du Capitole, where the grand pink-and-white town hall should really be running a Third-World nation. From a café terrace under the arcades, you’ll see most of the Toulousain population flow past. Should you wish to chat with fellow customers, bone up on rugby. It’s the mainstay of 50 per cent of conversations round here. Toulouse wins this category, at a stroll.
ROUND 3: CULTURE
Carcassonne has a Fine Arts Museum on Rue de Verdun and, up in the Cité, a slightly dodgy Museum of Torture (Rue du Grand Puits).
Nothing to compare, though, with Toulouse’s riches. The 14th-century Augustins convent on Rue de Metz (+33 561 222182; www.augustins.org) is not only lovely to look at but also contains an outstanding collection of medieval sculpture. There are few finer collections of Asiatic art in southern France than that in the Musée Georges Labit on Rue de Japon (+33 561 146550; www.toulouse-tourisme.com). On the left bank of the Garonne, les Abattoirs (76 Allées Charles-de-Fitte; +33 562 485800; www.lesabattoirs.org) have switched from slaughter to contemporary art full of fascination.
And then, 15 minutes out of town, there’s the entirely brilliant Cité de l’Espace (Ave Jean Gonord; +33 562 716480; www.cite-espace.com), a hands-on space museum that is as lively as science gets. Take the N°37 bus. All in all, a walkover for Toulouse.
ROUND 4: SHOPPING
Toulouse – by a street. The thoroughfares around the Place du Capitole have everything - except, perhaps, suits of plastic armour. For these, you must journey to Carcassonne.
ROUND 5: FOOD
The key thing to eat, whether in Toulouse or Carcassonne, is cassoulet, the bean, pork and duck stew. This embodies the French southwest in all its aromatic meatiness and will, if eaten correctly, require your removal from the table by block and tackle. Best version in Toulouse is perhaps at Le Colombier (14 Rue Bayard; +33 561 624005; www.restaurant-lecolombier.com; €23).
Best anywhere, though, is just outside Carcassonne at the Château St Martin Trencavel (Montredon; +33 468 474441; www.chateausaintmartin.net). The surroundings are manorial and the dish brilliantly prepared, on a €32 menu. Owner-chef Jean-Claude Rodriguez takes cassoulet so seriously that he’s founded an academy to safeguard it from attack. Carcassonne is an obvious, though narrow, winner.
ROUND 6: WINES
The Côtes-du-Frontonnais – local brews of Toulouse – are improving, but Carcassonne wins again with the nearby Cabardès wines, among the most underrated in France.
ROUND 7: NIGHTLIFE
Unfair, really. Toulouse is a big city, with students by the ton. Obviously, it is more boisterously provisioned. Start off in the bars of the Place St Pierre – meeting place for sportsmen, intellectuals and everyone in between - and move off in pretty much any direction. Over in Carcassonne, nightlife is an atmospheric evening amble through the Cité – or, perhaps, coffee and a final drink down in the lower town on the sometimes lively Place Carnot. Toulouse takes the round easily.
Toulouse edges it by the odd point in seven. But, clearly, both should be seen. So why not take a long short-break to Toulouse, and include a side day-trip by bus or train to Carcassonne?
STAYING AND EATING
A good upper-middle range option in Toulouse is the Hotel des Beaux Arts. It’s more perkily contemporary than you’d guess from the 18th-century façade. Restaurant-wise, and should you fancy something fancier than cassoulet, Michel Sarran (21 Blvd Armand Duportal; +33 561 123232; www.michel-sarran.com) is among the best in town, as he damned well should be with dinner menus from €98.
In Carcassonne try Hotel le Donjon (doubles from €105 online). Slotted into the Cité, it is historically stylish enough for most people’s needs. And Le Parc (80 Chemin des Anglais; +33 468 718080; www.leparcfranckputelat.com; menus from €48) will feed you classily in a light modern setting.