Bravo Toulouse, the French city hitting all the right musical and culinary notes | France holidays

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From rubbish comes rhythm, trash turned into tunes. At La Halle de la Machine in Toulouse, I watch Ignacio Herrero, one of La Halle’s staff members, make music out of recycled bits of junk.

Toulouse map

This hangar-like space in the southern district of Montaudran is best known as the home for the giant animatronic Minotaur Asterion and its equally enormous spider companion Ariane. However, exhibits demonstrated by staff also include a makeshift orchestra: old klaxons turned into an organ, a huge pinwheel of abandoned guitars, a cascade of battered drum cymbals, an accordion powered by a contraption that in a previous life operated windscreen wipers. The ingenuity, innovation and whimsy of it all are enchanting – music and engineering harmoniously coming together in a way that would have had Heath Robinson bursting into song.

Toulouse has always been one for breaking boundaries: La Halle de la Machine is next door to L’Envol des Pionniers Museum, which celebrates early French aviation, and three miles from the space-themed Cité de l’Espace science museum. Since 31 October it’s now an official Unesco-designated City of Music, in recognition of Toulouse’s exceptional musical institutions, music education and festivals.

Dragon and spider animatronics outside La Halle de la Machine. Photograph: Alamy

Music is as much a part of the city’s DNA as it was when the medieval counts of Toulouse were ardent patrons of those Occitan-singing troubadours who provided the soundtrack of the middle ages. There aren’t many places where the city hall shares its space with the national theatre and opera house, in this case the Théâtre du Capitole, but it’s what happens behind the pink neoclassical facade of the Capitole, Toulouse’s most imposing landmark. The Christmas market is in full swing during my visit, filling the elegant arcaded Place du Capitole with glittering white wooden chalets, the scent of mulled wine, and stalls selling fantastically gooey aligot, the Aveyron region’s signature dish of cheesy, garlicky mash.

At the Théâtre du Capitole I catch a captivating performance of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses by the Toulouse-based Gemelliensemble I . It’s the last in the run, but gives a taste of the theatre’s rich programme of opera, classical music and ballet. With baroque opera ringing in my ears, I wander over to the student quarter near one of Toulouse’s three universities. The cloisters of its gothic Couvent des Jacobins make an atmospheric setting for concerts including the Piano aux Jacobins festival, and Toulouse’s conservatoire, which is training the next generation of musicians.

Hotel Les Capitouls Toulouse Centre - Handwritten Collection
Hotel Les Capitouls … ‘it’s not often you walk into a hotel reception and see posters of Joy Division, New Order.’ Photograph: Laplanche Arnaud

When I reach Place Saint-Pierre near the Garonne River , I’m firmly in student territory. I’m not sure why the bar Le Saints des Seins calls itself the saint of breasts, but it’s popular for live music and DJ sets. There’s a marginally more grownup vibe a few minutes away at Flashback Café, whose DayGlo interior brightens up a chilly December night with its vividly coloured inflatable sofas, giant screen for gamers, and stage for live bands and DJs. I’m sorry I won’t be around for its “ugly jumpers, moustaches and mullet haircuts” theme night. I’ve also run out of time to head further along the river to Le Taquin jazz club, an intimate space that hosts local and international jazz musicians, as well as funk and world music artists.

Two of my favourite Toulouse cultural institutions – the art collections within Fondation Bemberg and Musée des Augustins – are closed for refurbishment, the former until February and the latter likely to reopen in late 2025.

I stayed at one of Toulouse’s newest boutique hotels, the central Hotel Les Capitouls. It’s not often you walk into a hotel reception and see posters of Joy Division, New Order, the Stone Roses and the Haçienda nightclub, but something about 1980s and 90s Manchester has inspired the hotel’s French designer, Thierry d’Istria, to pay homage. As well as posters, cassette tapes and other musical paraphernalia have been turned into artworks in the rooms and public areas. They’ve even named the bar Le Wilson, although I expect it has more to do with nearby Place Wilson than Manchester music maverick Tony.

Exterior shot, at night, of Les Halles de la Cartoucherie, which opened in Toulouse in September 2023 and which is a food hall and co-working space.
Les Halles de la Cartoucherie is a work-culture hub built from the ruins of a former munitions factory. Photograph: @remysirieix

A recent addition to Toulouse’s cultural – and culinary – scene opened in September in La Cartoucherie, an eco-district close to the 11,000-capacity music venue Zénith Toulouse Métropole. Les Halles de la Cartoucherie came out of the ruins of a former munitions factory and has already become a honeypot. With its industrial heritage proudly on show, Les Halles is part food hall (with stalls offering everything from cassoulet to west African cuisine, as well as a butcher’s and food shop) part co-working space and part fitness centre (with squash courts, gym and a climbing centre) with spaces for courses and workshops. In spring, its ultramodern music venue will open for concerts and cultural performances.

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Judging from the packed tables of people devouring dishes of Peruvian ceviche, Sri Lankan curry and Lebanese meze among others, the formula evidently works. Eating well in Toulouse is easy, and such a pleasure. I’m reminded why I fell for Toulouse years ago when I walk through Victor Hugo food market, one of the largest covered markets in France, and the place to find some of south-west France’s best produce. I can’t keep away from the stalls selling regional cheeses, including the holy trinity of rocamadour, roquefort and cantal.

A performance by the River Garonne.
A performance by the River Garonne. Photograph: Rémi Deligeon

The displays of charcuterie take me back to an earlier evening in my visit, when Jessica Hammer of Taste of Toulouse took me on a wine-bar tour, a highlight of which included the platter of cured hams and cheeses at Maison Sarment. Oh, and the wine, of course, including the underrated Côtes de Gascogne and Gaillac so typical of the south-west. Hammer, a wine expert and former cheesemonger from Michigan, fell in love with Toulouse six years ago and hasn’t looked back. In a place brimming with so many of the joys of life, surrounded by such mellow beauty, it’s hard not to be seduced by Toulouse’s song of the south.

This trip was provided by the Toulouse tourist board. The Hotel les Capitouls has doubles (room only) from €159

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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