The gardens of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum are themselves a work of art.
Americans have a longstanding love of travel to France, with Paris, Provence and Normandy’s historic World War II landing beaches drawing their primary attention. Many, however, are likely unaware of the tourism treasures found in the city of Toulouse and its UNESCO heritage-filled region of the Midi-Pyrenees in the country’s southwestern Spain-facing corner. During Travel Agent’s recent visit for a few weeks of exploration of the region and neighboring Bordeaux, the potential for Americans to enjoy southwest France’s many cultural riches was evident. Toulouse is a lively university city with the third-highest number of students in France, yet the city and its environs seem currently most popular with domestic French tourists who far outnumbered international visitors during our stay.
Sandra Lampee-Baumgartner, the general manager of the ornate 57-room Grand Hotel de l’Opera, a member of the Chateaux & Hotels Collection housed in a former convent facing the lively Capitole Square of Toulouse, told us only five percent of the hotel’s guests come from the U.S., compared to 15 percent from the United Kingdom. One positive sign came from the resort having recently hosted a group from the Los Angeles Yacht Club. A site inspection of the hotel revealed an ambiance akin to a stylish French townhouse with the added advantage of a Michelin-star gourmet restaurant called Jardins du l’Opera. Fine dining here is popular with patrons of opera and ballet performances at Theatre du Capitol, Toulouse’s esteemed opera house, just across the street.
Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi
Fifty miles northeast of Toulouse is the city of Albi, where the Cathedral of St. Cecile and its central neighborhood were designated in 2010 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Only 25 of the 1,000 groups visiting the destination in 2012 originated from the U.S. or Canada, according to Albi Tourism Office representative Emmanuel Detry-Marron. Across Albi’s cathedral square is the 13th-century Berbie Palace, a majestic former bishop’s palace that houses the Museum of Toulouse-Lautrec, named for the city’s native son Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).
The Toulouse-Lautrec museum exhibits the collected works and a visual biography of the famed artist, including a fascinating photo retrospective of his work in creating publicity posters for the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The photos are juxtaposed with displays of the original posters themselves, created in the 1890s and now considered the earliest works of modern commercial art. Yet Detry-Marron at the tourist office noted that only 6,000 out of the 400,000 visitors to the museum each year are Americans.
Allowing a few days to explore Toulouse is a best way to begin or end a trip to southwest France and not simply because it has the most frequent, convenient flight connections from its Blagnac Airport to Paris and Europe’s other gateways from North America. The political capital of the Midi-Pyrenees is also its undisputed cultural capital and we found several travel experiences that proved the point.
Among many Toulousian museums we visited, our favorite was the Bemberg Foundation, founded in the 16th-century mansion Hotel d’Assezat by the affluent Argentine art collector Georges Bemberg in 1995. Bemberg, who came from a German family but lived in Paris and was educated at Harvard University, decided near the end of his life that the mansion in Toulouse was a fitting site for his art collection, despite his having never lived in the city.
Works in the collection include Italian portraits by Titian and Tintoretto, a complete room of works by the French impressionist Pierre Bonnard and other pieces by Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Camille Pissarro. An array of other French, Dutch and Italian master painters dating from the 16th through 20th centuries are also represented. A sublime, unexpected moment came when we observed a professional operatic soprano briefly practicing an aria while testing the haunting echoes of the Bemberg Foundation’s majestic interior courtyard.
Another of Toulouse’s artistic highlights is the Musee des Augustins, a former Augustinian monastery where museum representative Genevieve Ponselle told us that this is the only place in the world where 14th-century Gothic sculptures, most of them religious subjects given to the city by a 14th-century bishop, are exhibited within a building also dating from the 14th century.
The museum has a Renaissance courtyard added to the monastery in the 17th century, a 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette by her artist at court, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, and a 1674 sculpture of King Louis XIV by the Toulousian sculptor Marc Arcis. There are also 19th-century paintings by Eugene Delacroix and Toulouse-Lautrec, who seems to be the favorite-son artist of the Midi-Pyrenees with his works in many museums.
Grand Hotel de l’Opera is one of the most famous boutique hotels in Toulouse.
UNESCO Sites and Bach
Not to be missed in Toulouse is a walk along the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Canal du Midi, the waterway amazingly built in the late 17th century during the reign of King Louis XIVth to create a water link between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the southeast. Visitors can rent either self-drive boats or guided tours to explore the canal but, unfortunately, the canal was closed to boat traffic due to unusually high rain waters during our spring visit.
A second UNESCO World Heritage Site in Toulouse deserving a look is the Basilica of St. Sernin, a monumental church dating from the 11th century but built on the site of another church dating from the 4th century. This was one of the last pilgrimage stops in France for many thousands of Europe’s medieval pilgrims traveling over the Pyrenees Mountains on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine in northwest Spain. This was the third-most-traveled religious pilgrimage route after Jerusalem and Rome during the Middle Ages. Another important religious site in Toulouse is the Couvent des Jacobins, a chapel containing a crypt with the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century monk considered the most influential of all Catholic theologians. The outdoor interior courtyard here with its bell tower, towering cypress trees, and resident singing birds is a peaceful sanctuary that will be memorable even for non-believers.
Our accommodations in Toulouse were at the Citadines Wilson Toulouse, the city’s representative in the well-run Citadines chain of French tourist-class apartment hotels. An advantage of the property was its central location near the bustling Wilson Square and the indoor Victor Hugo food market, as well as the weekend Marche Crystal street market along the Boulevard Strasbourg on which the hotel is situated.
The property’s benefits included a well-stocked galley kitchen for in-room cooking if desired, a generous continental breakfast included in the room rate, close proximity to the train station for connections to other regional cities, free Wi-Fi in the lobby area, and great service from Assistant Manager Nathalie Armanet ([email protected]) and her staff. At the nearby Toulouse SNCF railway station, there are choices for enjoying southwest France by heading in any of four directions, either for closer day trips or longer itineraries.
Bemberg Foundation, Toulouse