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Toulouse, Haute Garonne, France

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Toulouse, having a population of over 750,000 people, is the fourth biggest city in France (after Paris, Lyon, Marseille). It is situated in the Haute Garonne department in the Midi-Pyrenees region. In the south west of France, the city is about 150kms from the Spanish border, and the Mediterranean is just over an hour away.

Toulouse has a rich and bloody history. It was a centre of the Cathar1 faith and many of its residents were slaughtered in Catholic witch hunts. While the west of France was under British rule and the North under French, the Counts of Toulouse had their own territory. This featured much of the Languedoc region (east towards Provence) and the Catalan region (towards Perpignan and Barcelona). The city was annexed to France in the 14th Century.

Toulouse found wealth in 'Violettes', a type of purple dye that became rather fashionable with the ruling European classes in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The land owners of the city built themselves 'hotels' that today act as grand town houses. Due to a shortage of stone, the modern city was built in red brick, giving it the name La Ville Ros, which makes Toulouse a very beautiful and southern-looking city.

Modern Toulouse is monstrously busy, being the home to over 100,000 students, making it the second largest university town of France. The presence of students also gives Toulouse a bustling nightlife with numerous famed nightspots (Bodega Bodega, Bar Basque, etc). The river Garonne flows dreamily throughout the city and makes it a wonderful place to relax on long summer evenings. The city centre is a maze of ancient streets all focusing on the magnificent Place du Capitole, the city hall and former Parliament of the Counts.

Toulouse is now the European centre for the Space and Aeronautics industries. Airbus's headquarters are by the airport and thus there are many permanent foreign residents of the city; the British predominate, with exiled Spaniards not far behind. Toulouse also houses Meteo France, British Aerospace, and many other international companies. The University of Toulouse is especially renowned for its science faculties thus the city is something of a scientific and technological centre for the French nation as a whole.

As with most French cities, eating out is a joy in Toulouse with Chinese, Maghreb2, Spanish, Italian, Irish and French restaurants in abundance. A favoured eating spot is the Sherpa Tea house on Rue du Taur off Place Capitole, which serves amazing savoury crêpes and huge bowls of coffee. Also search out a pizza restaurant at the far end of Rue Gabriel Peri towards the station.

Toulouse has terrible traffic problems emanating from the idiosyncratic French driving style ie, bad. The use of flashing orange lights to symbolise 'go if you wish to endanger your own life, your passenger's life, or other drivers' lives' certainly makes driving in Toulouse an interesting experience. A fun game to play is 'spot the undented car' which is nigh on impossible on all but the newest Citroën Picassos and Scenic RX4's.

Toulouse is a not an often-visited city, so enjoy it before it becomes overrun. While there, be sure to visit St Sernin Basilica, Museé des Augustins, Capitole, Cité de l'Espace, and simply wander the streets in an adventurous mood.

1Cathars were an heretical Christian sect.2The Maghreb countries are Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

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