If you're planning on going to the 2023 World Cup in France, make sure rugby-mad Toulouse is on your itinerary. RW took a trip there to feel the pulse of the city
Tickled pink in Toulouse
Ah, Toulouse. La Ville Rose. Known as the Pink City because of its red-brick architecture. Home of the five-time European champions and one of the nine host cities for next year’s Rugby World Cup.
If you’re thinking of visiting France at that time, make it part of your itinerary. Toulouse doesn’t have a ‘tourist season’, it’s a living, breathing city all year round and has a dynamic energy to it. Its people worship rugby to the bottom of their bootlaces. During France 2023, amateur clubs in the area will open their doors to visiting supporters, who will be able to watch training, chuck a ball around and get a taste of grass-roots rugby.
A large LED clock was installed in the city centre on 8 September to mark one year before the start of the tournament. It counts down the days, one by one, and reflects the simmering excitement of the locals.
New Zealand will be playing here, against Namibia. Fiji and Georgia will both play Portugal, who dramatically pipped USA in the Final Qualifying Tournament. Chile will be here, on their World Cup debut, and so too Samoa.
And Japan play two matches here. They will be based in Toulouse for the whole of the pool stage, staying at a luxurious hotel with a gleaming golf course a few miles north in Seilh. It’s near Brennan’s Snug, a bar popular with expats and owned by former Toulouse and Ireland forward Trevor Brennan.
All these teams and their fans coming here? Toulousians will drink to that.
Walk and talk
There’s no better way to discover a city than pounding the pavement. Penny Dickinson hails from Yorkshire and is a Toulouse Volunteer Ambassador for the Rugby World Cup. She runs the excellent Toulouse Walking Tours and in a few fascinating hours will show you the city’s most famous landmarks.
There’s the bustling Place du Capitôle, with its majestic town hall; the Toulouse Rugby Festival will be played in the square next June. There’s the opulent private mansions that were built by rich merchants during the ‘golden age’ of the 15th and 16th centuries, when Toulouse’s pastel trade was at its height.
The medieval Basilique Saint-Sernin is France’s most complete Romanesque structure. A UNESCO World Heritage building, the relics in its crypt reputedly include part of Jesus’s crown of thorns.
Saint Sernin was the first Christian bishop to come to this part of France. He was martyred after a mob that was about to sacrifice a bull decided instead to tie him to the animal and drag him to his death.
If you stay at Hôtel Saint-Sernin, as RW did, see if room 30 is available. It has a superb view of the basilica’s gothic tower, added in the 13th century, and the less attractive steeple that was added a couple of hundred years later. Our friendly duty manager came from Kyiv, with which Toulouse has been twinned since 1975.
Toulouse’s river is the Garonne, which originates in the Spanish Pyrenees and heads out to Bordeaux. You can take a boat trip that goes up the Canal de Brienne, which provided a shipping route from the Med to the Atlantic through Toulouse.
WateRugby is staged on the river every year. Played on a floating pitch, to score a try you must jump into the river because that constitutes the in-goal area! Due to the World Cup, this year it will be held from 29 June to 2 July instead of its usual mid-September slot.
Raising a glass
Dickinson has done tours for rugby fans groups, Gloucester and Wasps among them. Good rugby pubs in the city include Chez Tonton in Place Saint-Pierre, which has a young crowd and a penchant for pastis. The Danu, Brennan’s former bar, and The Black Lion are popular sports bars.
If wine is your thing, you’re in for a treat. Toulouse lies in Occitaine, the biggest wine region in France. Pic Saint Loup was a personal favourite but the choice is vast.
In Rue de la Bourse you’ll find Le 5 Wine Bar, the self-proclaimed “best wine bar in the world”. Here customers help themselves to a selection of local, national and international wines by inserting a card given to you on entry and choosing from different-sized measures.
Nearby is L’Alimentation, another wine bar that does tasty sharing plates.
The three covered markets contain a treasure of foods. Jessica Hammer, an American expat, runs food and drink experiences via her business Taste of Toulouse, and her most popular is a tour of the largest market, Victor Hugo.
Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy her Chocolate & Pastry tour. While her Wine Bar tour, launched this year, allows you to sample local tipples in a convivial atmosphere.
Cheese is very popular, as you would imagine. A couple to try are the famous Roquefort, from the Aveyron region, and Rocamadours.
Dishes to die for
Recommending restaurants is a fool’s errand, so many good eateries are there in the city. For what it’s worth, we savoured croque monsieur and Toulouse sausage at La Gourmandine Côté Cathédrale, in the heart of the old town. The sausage comes with a pomme purée and should be on your must-try list.
Au Bon Graillou, above the Victor Hugo market, is renowned for its grilled meat and fish, and the sirloin steak here was everything you could ask for. Dinner at Aux Pieds Sous la Table featured creative seasonal dishes such as a leek & muscle soup and mushroom ice cream.
At Le J’Go, in Place Victor Hugo, there are arty pictures of David Bowie and Jim Morrison on the walls. We sampled what the menu described as a “perfect egg” in a leek sauce, black pudding, and lamb in garlic juice and white beans. The beans form part of cassoulet, a slow-cooked stew for which Toulouse is famous and another dish not to be missed.
Other recommendations include Le May and Les Caves de la Maréchale, while Le Bibent (‘Drink Good’) in the main square is a good place to go for a drink between meals. It has historic monument status – it’s said that three students met there to plot the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914.
Finally, Maison Good is a trendy restaurant that opened last year and is co-owned by French internationals Romain Ntamack and Pierre-Louis Barassi, along with three of their childhood friends.
You can be very happy eating and drinking in Toulouse but there are other attractions too. Catch the metro to Jolimont and then a No 37 bus and you’ll reach La Cité de l’espace. The city is considered the European capital of space and aeronautics, and here you can step into the life of an astronaut, enjoy exhibitions and contemplate a rocket.
The planetarium is good and the IMAX cinema even better, with its film about how Earth protects itself from asteroids.
To get to La Halle De La Machine, take the metro to Rangueil and then bus No 23. This remarkable collection of theatrical machines are exhibited to the public in a warehouse. “It’s like a living museum,” says Julia, one of the machinists who helpfully explained the different shows they offer. “We’re not Disneyland, the audience aren’t consumers.”
Most striking are the huge spiders and the 14m-tall, 47-ton minotaur that requires five operators. Youngsters, in particular, will love riding the giant machines.
RW took in a Toulouse match on our visit, a Sunday night win against La Rochelle. The noise, the colour, the energy – it is a wonderful experience.
A stop-start bus journey was required out to Stade Ernest-Wallon but at the World Cup, games will be staged at the more conveniently located Stadium de Toulouse. Built to be a 1938 Football World Cup host venue, the historic stadium staged four matches at France 2007.
RWC 2023 matches in Toulouse
Sun 10 Sept Japan v Chile, Pool D (noon)
Fri 15 Sept New Zealand v Namibia, Pool A (8pm)
Sat 23 Sept Georgia v Portugal, Pool C (1pm)
Thu 28 Sept Japan v Samoa, Pool D (8pm)
Sat 14 Oct Fiji v Portugal, Pool C (8pm)
A tourism pass gives you travel on the entire public transport network – metro, tram, bus and airport shuttle – as well as free entry to city centre museums and other reduced rates. A tourist train leaves from Place du Capitôle and goes round city sights, and there’s a free electric bus that does a loop of the city “every ten minutes” – there are no stopping points, you just hail it and it will stop to let you on. Then press a button to get off.
If you’re caught short, here’s a tip: the best public toilets in Toulouse are in the underground car park in Place du Capitôle.
Toulouse may be France’s fourth-largest city, with well over a million people in the metropolitan area, but it is remarkably clean. There is almost no litter and dog poop bags are provided at points across the city.
The city is close to the Spanish border, and a long way from Paris. Until 1271, when it was annexed to France, it was independent and it still has that independent feel today.
It’s a city with a mind of its own and a passion for rugby. Catch it if you can at the Rugby World Cup. You will not be disappointed.
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