Steel birds hatch here

ASHWINI PHADNIS | Updated on: Jul 07, 2011

Famous for producing hi-tech Airbus planes, Toulouse in France bowls you over equally with its charming historical past.

Even as your aircraft lands at Toulouse Blagnac airport in Southern France, you can immediately sense that you have arrived at a place where aircraft are built.

From a left window seat one can glimpse a formidable line-up of aircraft ranging from the supersonic jetliner Concorde to much smaller ones. As your aircraft taxies to the parking bay, you are more than likely to see the Beluga — a funny-looking double-decker aircraft — standing in a corner. This big bird is used by the Toulouse-headquartered aircraft manufacturer Airbus to transport parts for assembling a wide variety of planes.

Given its association with Airbus, it is no surprise that Toulouse is mainly famous for the aircraft produced here and the resulting economic boom it has experienced over the past few decades. Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, after Paris, Marseille and Lyon.

Although the first impression is of a small town with a near-uniform architectural style, Toulouse surprises with its 2,000-year-old history. Located near the Pyrenees, mid-way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it was once the site of an ancient Roman settlement. In fact, many of the buildings in the modern-day city hark back to the red-brick Roman architectural style. The sunlight reflecting off the bricks and tiles have earned Toulouse the popular tag of La Ville Rose, or Pink City.

Located on the banks of the Garonne river, Toulouse is 590 km from Paris. Traffic here, as in many parts of Europe, follows right-hand drive, completely opposite to what we have in India. I was thoroughly baffled, and then amused, whenever I asked for directions and found myself walking in the wrong direction and getting even more lost!

The heart of Toulouse is its historical downtown area. The main square, called the Capitol, is quite small and dotted with shops selling clothes, jewellery, leather items, perfumes and even cakes. In many ways it resembles Delhi's Janpath, except that instead of open stalls the shops here are air-conditioned and better maintained. You can easily walk around the small square as you do your shopping. A leisurely stroll along the Canal du Midi is equally pleasant. Adding to the charm of the square are the many cafes where people are seated in groups or alone, basking in the sun and enjoying a cup of coffee, or just watching the world go by. Like everything else in Toulouse, the Capitol too has its share of history. It has a palatial town-hall and a theatre dating back to 1736 — the Theatre du Capitole provides a magnificent setting for opera and ballet productions.

For a real taste of Toulouse, however, you will have to traverse the many lanes radiating out of the Capitol. Here you find several neighbourhood markets, both open-air and covered ones, that are a virtual paradise for food and drink lovers. The region produces and sells wines, foie gras and a large variety of cheese. And for those who may feel a little homesick, there are shops offering a range of international cuisine — from Indian to Lebanese.

A common sight is of people — old and young — seated outside on comfortable chairs and enjoying a meal while life goes on around them.

Some of the shops sell knick knacks while others sell upmarket brands. The local brands hold their own, with impeccable quality at reasonable prices. It was a delight to discover in one of the shops, that too an upmarket one, linen suits at a fraction of what they cost in India.

History buffs have plenty to look for here. The Basilique Saint Sernin, for instance, dates back to the 11th century and was partly restored by the famous French architect Viollet-le-Duc. The 240-km Canal du Midi connecting the Garonne river to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At the end of it all, Toulouse does not let you forget that it is Airbus country, as you make your way to the airport for a return flight. Among the many shops at the departure terminal, what stands out is the one selling Airbus merchandise including aircraft models, T-shirts and sweat shirts. And lest you forget your place, there is also a model of an Airbus A-380, the world's largest passenger aircraft, hanging outside the shop.

Published on July 07, 2011
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