Toulouse Old Town was built from clay bricks. One can enjoy the special atmosphere when walking through its narrow pedestrian streets leading to the Capitole or along the banks of the Garonne.
Throughout its long history, Toulouse has produced many buildings, characteristic of their era, which have been built all around the centre of the city. Some, having escaped fires and destruction, now stand proudly, surrounded by newer buildings. The Old Town is located mainly around the Capitole as well as in some suburbs, which have been preserved from modernisation.
The Pont Neuf
The Pont Neuf is the oldest of Toulouse’s bridges. Linking Esquirol and the Cours Dillon on the opposite bank, it was finished in 1659… after nearly 90 years of work!
Started in 1542, this new bridge was constructed to replace the two old and dangerous bridges linking the two banks. The construction of the new bridge was supposed to be quick and to finance it a local and temporary tax was raised. However, it was harder than expected to construct a bridge on the tumultuous Garonne. Its slippery bed, its devastating floods and also conflicts between the craftsmen of Toulouse and Paris made construction difficult. Washed away several times by the Garonne, the construction project was initially overseen by the Toulousains, in particular the architect Souffron who completed some of the piles as well as the first arch. But, with the accumulation of difficulties and delays in the work, the project was handed over to a Parisian architect, Le Mercier, who delivered the completed bridge in 1659.
With its 7 arches and a total length of 220 metres, the Pont Neuf still stands proudly on the Garonne, resisting its multiple floods. Although it has been slightly modified since 1659 -the triumphant arc was removed to make way for cars- its main characteristics haven’t changed.
The Assézat town-house (Hôtel Assézat) is a fine Renaissance building which was built from 1555 for Pierre d’Assézat, a rich manufacturer from Toulouse.
Made of red bricks, the town-house is a good example of Renaissance architecture of Languedoc, with its elaborated decoration of the inner courtyard.
After its restoration in the 1980s, the Assézat town-house now houses the Bemberg Foundation, an important art gallery of the City of Toulouse. There can be viewed the paintings and drawings of artists such as Rogier van der Weyden, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and many others.
The former convent of the Jacobins is a remarkable complex in Toulouse entirely made of red bricks. The Gothic sanctuary was built by the Dominicans at the time of the Cathars in the 13th century. The complex was the site of the University of Toulouse from its foundation in the 13th century until the French Revolution.
Although the exterior looks austere and massive, the interior shows an unexpected lightness and grace. This is where the visitor can marvel at the famous palm-tree and its 22 ribs supporting the polygonal choir.
In the church are kept the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who was a much revered Dominican.
The adjacent cloister features four galleries and houses various cultural events all year long.
The Augustinian Convent
This Augustinian convent (Couvent des Augustins) was first founded in Toulouse in 1286. It was constructed outside the city, however this location did not meet the needs of the monks’ community and it was sold and another convent built in the centre of the city. The construction of the present convent commenced in 1310, on the corner of Rue des Musées and Rue des Arts. Finished in 1341, the Church has been painted in the same style as churches in Northern Spain. The church comprises three chapels which open onto a unique nave, characteristic of the Southern Gothic architectural style. Its bell tower is octagonal in shape, giving to the building a touch of originality. The cloister was finished 90 years later, in 1396, completing the set of buildings.
Architectural works continued for this building, after the destruction of its roof by a massive fire in 1463, as well as in 1550, when lightening struck the bell tower, causing a floor and a half to collapse below. Due to a lack of money, those floors were never rebuilt and the tower is shorter.
The number of monks slowly decreased, declining from about 200 during the 14th and 15th centuries to less than 30 during the French Revolution. The convent was then desecrated in 1789 and became Toulouse’s Museum of Art in 1795.
It continues this function nowadays, housing paintings and sculptures. In 1950, the building was renovated. It is now possible to enjoy at the same time the beautiful collection of the museum as well as its remarkable structure. Every Wednesday night, it is possible to enjoy an organ recital in the museum’s church.
Rue Saint Rome
This street was one of the main streets during the Middle Ages. It was called the “Grand-Rue”, then “Carriera des Bancs Majours”, in reference to the fish market which was located here until 1550. It was an important mercantile axis and this is still obvious today.
Pierre of Serta tower (# 2-4) was the dwelling of Pierre Serta, who was a Capitoul, one of the city’s masters. Built in 1533, it was used as a staircase between the two blocks adjacent to it. The shape of the tower is quite unusual: it is a square tower, connected on one side to a round tower, which contains the staircase. Inside, the tower is divided by brick floors.
The Dumay town house is an interesting edifice that now hosts the museum dedicated to the old town of Toulouse. It was constructed in 1585 by Antoine Dumay, whose wealth came from his position as the queen’s doctor. In 1948 the town house was donated to its current owners, an association whose aim is to teach the public about the history of Toulouse. The museum focuses mainly on artists from Toulouse and pottery.
The private town house of Pierre Comère (n°3) was commissioned at the beginning of the 16th century for a Capitoul. Pierre Comère bought it a century later, in 1616. He gave to this building a very specific style compared to the other town houses found on the street, as it has a brick front and windows framed by a succession of bricks and carved stones.
When you enter the street from Capitole square, you can observe the beautiful timbered houses, a symbol of another time when Toulouse was not a ‘pink city’ and was made out of wood. Most of those houses ad buildings have been destroyed over the years by the massive fires that have ravaged the city.
Place du Capitole
What would be the Pink city without the Place du Capitole? If there is one building in Toulouse not to miss and worth visiting, this is it. The Capitole complex hosts the City-Hall and the national theatre. In fact, this is the heart of the city of Toulouse. If nothing remains nowadays of the original building, the current Capitole reflects the successive transformations of the space. The oldest element is the Keep (the ‘donjon’ also known as the ‘Archive Tower’) built in the sixteenth century. Thanks to the Capitole and the Capitouls, the complex contributes in making Toulouse one of the most beautiful cities of France.
Find out more about the Capitole of Toulouse.
The gardens of the Grand-Rond are located at the end of Rue François Verdier. The three gardens (Jardin des Plantes, Jardin Royal and Jardin du Grand-Rond) are connected by footbridges, with the Jardin du Grand-Rond as the central garden.
The Jardin du Grand-Rond was created between 1752 and 1754. It was at first a giant round-about, covered with grass, where the Toulousains played boules. Over time, the garden was modified, with the installation of statues, the construction of alleys for a nice stroll under the trees… Today, the central part of this garden hosts a small bandstand where people practise dancing during weekends.
The Jardin des Plantes used to be the Botanic garden of Toulouse. The first Botanic Garden was created in 1730, before being removed to its current location next to the Grand-Rond in 1794 because the soils were of better quality. More than 1,300 species have been planted in the garden, which was used by the medical students as a source of healing plants. Today, the garden has lost its botanical and research objective, but it is still a very nice place to walk and to discover its magnificent trees.
The Jardin Royal was established in 1754 and between 1861 and 1863 was the first public garden of Toulouse to be transformed into a landscaped garden. It was later transformed back into a formal garden, its current form. This old garden shelters some very rare species of trees, such as magnolias, cedars of Lebanon, hackberries… It is well known as a “remarkable French Garden”.
Cathedral St. Etienne
Located next to the Grand Rond, Saint-Étienne Cathedral is a very unusual church as it is considered to be unfinished. This fact is particularly obvious when looking at its entrance.
The story of this building starts in the Roman era when a temple was built on its site. Over time and with the emergence of Christianity, the worship of pagan gods ceased and the first church emerged. Over the years, the bishops and archbishops of Toulouse tried to develop their very own projects for this cathedral. However, with the occurrence of terrible events such as the Wars of Religion, the Black Plague and brutal cuts in the budget, none of them were able to get their project completed. This explains why Toulouse Cathedral seems like an odd architectural edifice today.
The front entrance is a good example of this mix of projects. The main part, on the right, was built in the 13th century by Bishop Folquet. Named Bishop of Toulouse during the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars, Folquet was previously a troubadour who became a man of faith. His project was to reinforce the old cathedral and to make it larger in order to demonstrate the power of the Catholic Church. The clock on the left was added during the 14th century, slightly modifying the work of Folquet. Until the 15th century, the front of the Cathedral was untouched. The rear of the sanctuary – the choir, the sacristy and many other parts were successively altered according to the ambitions and finances of the bishops. In the 15th century, bishop Pierre du Moulin envisioned a cathedral as a church with one style. He commissioned the drilling of a new frontage onto the oldest part. This frontage was supposed to be the first part of a three-piece massive frontage which has never been built… Later on, archbishop Jean d’Orléans added the bell tower to the cathedral.
The basilica is an important pilgrimage site along the Way of Saint James and was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998 along other churches on the Way of Saint James.
Built mostly in bricks in Romanesque style, the church dates back to the 11th century when it replaced a previous basilica of the 4th century. The 67 metre high bell tower was added in the 15th century above the transept crossing.
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- Albigensian = Albigeois (m)
- Augustinian = Augustins (m,p)
- bank = rive (f)
- basilica = basilique (f)
- bell tower = clocher (m)
- brick = brique (f)
- bridge = pont (m)
- cathedral = cathédrale (f)
- church = église (f)
- cloister = cloître (m)
- convent = couvent (m)
- garden = jardin (m)
- museum = musée (m)
- old town = vieille-ville (f)
- river = rivière (f)
- square = place (f)
- street = rue (f)
- tower = tour (f)
Featured image: Toulouse Old Town © Ceridwen – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons