Toulouse, Nimes, Montpellier: Stars of SW France
Three dynamic and exciting cities make Southwest France Shine in 2020
By Sarah Heath
Three cities in southern France stand out in 2020, both for their historic charm and legacies plus for the interesting attractions that have been built there to bring new visitors and continue to keep France at the vanguard of tourism.
Toulouse has long been known for being the headquarters of Europe’s aviation business, with Airbus located here and the city is full of engineers and other smart workers who make the airliners that fly all over the world right here.
Toulouse, the capital of the Occitanie region in the southwest of France, is characterized by its rosy brick buildings, its proximity to the mountains and the sea, and for being France’s fourth-largest city.
As a starter, its two-thousand-year history and its cutting-edge aeronautics industry are not likely bedfellows but here they sit comfortably together in the city of Toulouse.
Food will forever be of huge importance to the French and the people of Toulouse are no exception. This is duck country and a food paradox all on its own! Foie gras, cassoulet, and magret de canard are diet staples here and sound seriously unhealthy.
But allegedly, duck fat is far more healthy for the human body than beef or lamb fat and restaurants such as Chez Huguette Café Cantine du Bon Vivre in the Place Wilson serve up every conceivable variation of dish made from our feathery friends.
Even the fries are cooked using duck fat! The welcoming owner greets everyone as a long-lost friend and although the dishes are rich, they are not overwhelming in quantity. Admittedly not fantastic for vegetarians but even the Goat’s Cheese Salad is delicious!
Place Wilson which I call the ‘round square’ is built in a curved shape around a circular park and is full of similarly enticing restaurants plus several cinemas, many of which show films in English as well as French.
Victor Hugo Market
Place Wilson leads to another gastronomic bit of heaven – the Victor Hugo Market Named after one of France’s best-known writers, it is Toulouse’s largest covered market and home to over 80 different food stalls.
The freshness and quality of the food sold here are staggering and sends saliva glands into overdrive. Fruit and vegetable stalls piled high with jewel-colored produce and emitting tomato-ey and citrus-ey aromas.
Twenty different kinds of bread at just one baker’s stall. Fresh seafood driven through the night straight from the Atlantic coast in time for opening.
Herb-infused oils and sun-dried tomato paste turn your head into a walking cookbook as you visualize the dishes you want to create at home with the ingredients you’ve bought.
Luckily there is no need to wait to sample some of the wares. At midday, five upper-floor restaurants serve a great-value local lunch experience with a robust red wine.
Or the seafood stall which sells a dozen oysters accompanied by a glass of Chablis.
Some of the world’s most expensive food items can be enjoyed at market price and eaten leaning up against the stall’s counter! No white tablecloths here.
But Toulouse has a lot more to offer than just food.
To reach the museum of contemporary and modern art on the other side of the River Garonne means crossing the Pont Neuf (the new bridge).
Having been completed in 1632, I did query how old “old” as if “new” meant already being in existence for almost 400 years! Once upon a time, it would have been new…..
This art gallery is found at Les Abattoirs, yet another amazing building which also serves as an arts center. As the name suggests, it had a slightly more gory history as the city’s municipal slaughterhouse between 1831 and 1988.
As a vegetarian, not something I wanted to dwell on too much. It has been transformed into a place of culture and enjoyment in the year 2000 thanks to the local government who were determined to use a spacious and bright place which had lost its original raison d’être.
Luckily for us. There are temporary exhibitions such as the current “Viva Gino! A Lifetime of Art” exhibition of works from the collection of Italian Gino Di Maggio, but there are also permanent exhibits from the 1950s, mostly by southern European artists.
As with many art galleries, some pieces you love – and some you hate.
Picasso’s gratitude to Toulouse for looking after the thousands of Spaniards who fled across the border during the conflict prompted him to bequeath a magnificent stage curtain, The Remains of Minotaur in a harlequin costume, to the city.
The Halle de la Machine
The Halle de la Machine is slightly out of town but easily accessible (by train to Montaudran station and by several bus routes).
It is a vast warehouse containing weird and wonderful mechanical inventions. From an immense mechanical spider that can seat several people to a contraption made from a wheel of rotating guitars that are plucked as they pass a fixed plectrum, the exhibits are fascinating in their ingeniousness!
The giant spider and the minotaur are the larger models which paraded the streets of Toulouse in November 2018.
Bolts and screws combine with metal piping and bits of a bicycle to make “musical instruments” and an outdoor demonstration has a flame-throwing gadget that somehow creates a pump to shoot water out of a huge tube!
Guides show how each item works because, with many exhibits, it isn’t at all obvious! Absolutely worth seeing for the craziness!
And further out of the city center, it’s all things aeronautical with La Cité d’Espace, Airbus and Aeroscopia.
Nimes, France: A New Museum from Roman Times
Renowned for its antiquity, the city of Nîmes, located on the border between Provence and Occitanie region, in southern France,” has been capitalizing on its former glory.
Its newest sparkling addition is the €62 million Musée de la Romanité, or Museum of Roman Civilisation. Commentators see its attraction being on a par with the opening of the Caves of Lascaux Centre in the Dordogne or La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.
Named for a Spring
Nîmes owes its name to a strong spring rising out of the foot of the surrounding countryside on the northern side. The spring was sacred and the Romans called its god Nemausus.
Its walls were built by Augustus Caesar and although the city has had a troubled history, the peaceful 21st-century place committed to modern life has not forgotten its past.
The new eye-catching museum is next door to the 2,000-year-old arena regarded as the world’s best-preserved amphitheater, modeled on the Colosseum in Rome.
Two Bullfights a Year
It seats 24,000 and houses concerts and the last vestiges of the ‘corrida’ bullfight, still held twice a year and which divides the city into those passionate about it and those resolutely against it. Some feel it is the last echo of a pagan ritual.
The oval-shaped building also hosts the annual Roman Games when it comes alive with chariot races and battles. Small carvings of Romulus and Remus alongside wrestling gladiators can be seen on the exterior, as well as intricate bulls’ heads etched into the stone over the entrance.
Montpellier, France: Hip City of Méditerranée
Montpellier, the capital city of Herault, Occitanie was once a tranquil fishing village. Now it’s a cool city with a hip vibe.
With an average of 300 days a year of sun, a historic center, architecturally thrilling new town, fabulous bars and restaurants, sandy beaches, plus culture by the bucket load – Montpellier offers something to please absolutely everyone.
Place de la Comédie – the heart of Montpellier
Don’t miss Café Riche in the square, it’s an institution and favorite meeting spot for locals. Cool down with a refreshing Perrier water whose source is between Montpellier and nearby Nimes.
MOCO in Montpellier
MOCO, a brand new contemporary art center, opened its doors in June 2019, showing temporary exhibitions from international collectors.
The city has an art “ecosystem” which pulls three major venues together to bring a diverse and enormous range of contemporary art to the city. There are two exhibition centers and an art school.
The first is the Hôtel des collections, in the former Montcalm hotel, a 19th-century mansion, with exhibitions of international collections (public or private); second, La Panacée, free contemporary art center located in the former historic Royal College of Medicine; and the third is the ESBA (Montpellier Superior Fine Arts School).
Montpellier for Architecture lovers
The city has been growing for a while. At first, the growth went north towards the hills. But, in a calculated decision to control the rate of growth and make it something special, the town is spreading south to the sea.
The initiative was hatched in 1977 by then-Mayor Georges Frêche. The goal was to create the perfect city.
The architectural team started with a blank canvas and turned the outskirts of Montpellier into a real-life laboratory of architecture. It is a total contrast to the old town and yet, it works.
The Antigone neighborhood, named after the ancient Greek play, was erected principally during the 1980s. It has plenty of grand neo-classical style buildings and wide-open boulevards, including the central axis, nicknamed the Champs-Elysées by locals.
The most innovative architects in the world have designed buildings here but it’s happened in a very organized way.
It’s not a messy hodgepodge of looks, there’s a consistent theme being woven through this new part of Montpellier. Wide-open spaces, building height restrictions, even the look has to a certain extent been controlled although architects have been given a free hand overall. The New York Times listed Montpellier in its top 100 architectural cities to see before you die.
Tip: Don’t miss L’Abre Blanc, in the Port Marianne district, on the bank of the river. Designed by architects Sou Fujimoto, Nicolas Laisné and Manal Rachdi, it’s bold and architecturally stunning. Gourmets will love the chef’s brasseries by Charles Fontes (La Réserve Rimbaud) and Eric Cellier (La Maison de la Lozère) on the ground and first floor. There are an art gallery and terraced tapas bar with fabulous city views on the 17th floor.