Toulouse vs Carcassonne

by Anthony.Peregrine

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.

CONCLUSION

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.


 

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.