The Michelin guide sums up Toulouse: "Once the capital of all the regions united by the Occitanian dialects (langues d'oc), Toulouse is now the sixth most important city in France." The site has been occupied since before the Romans. They made it an intellectual center; and it has remained that, and a capital city, ever since. The French aerospace industry is based here; the pilot and writer Saint-Exupéry helped launch its first flutterings after the First World War. Michelin gives the city its highest rating: three stars. Worth a journey. Alain hurried to see Toulouse, as soon as we started staying in Valros. He is a collector of major sights. He compiles lists of important art he has to examine firsthand. A tour with Alain through France is a connect-the-dots journey among masterpieces of sculpture, painting, decorative arts (his specialty) and building (his avocation). His own home is a masterpiece, a Victorian merchant-class mansion in Muncie, Indiana that he is restoring with infinite care and knowledge and tank trucks of sweat, one back-breaking and ambitious renovation after another. Alain only bothers with the good stuff. And he is very excited about Toulouse. Simone and I are excited, too. The Valros house still needs a few more furnishings to be truly comfortable. And Toulouse has the closest Ikea, which are few and far between. Toulouse was an important pilgrim waystation in the Middle Ages, on the road to Santiago de Compostela. The city's top-rated attraction, St-Sernin, is "the most famous and most magnificent of the great Romanesque pilgrimage churches in the south of France," according to Michelin. Millions of medieval travelers passed through, seeking God's blessing.
|A battle-by-battle account of Languedoc's thirteenth-century Albigensian crusades, published in 1999 by a very fine travel writer in a rented Peugeot who retraced the marauders' routes.|
But Ikea draws a different sort of pilgrim: someone looking for good design at cheap prices. That's the store's philosophy and value proposition. Still, buyers must beware. With Ikea, as those who have purchased from the catalog sometimes rue, photographs do lie: it's best to see the goods for real, to weed out the flimsies. It's two hours to Toulouse and two hours back. Driving 90 mph nearly all the way. We hope to be on the road by dawn. But it's close to 10 a.m. before we start rolling. Dressed for the city. It's raining by the time we park in the underground garage at the Place du Capitole, beneath City Hall. Raining and chilly. There's a saying about the predominantly red-brick construction that distinguishes Toulouse: "Pink at dawn, red at noon, purple at dusk." Today it all looks like damp mud. St-Sernin is closed for lunch, the usual two-hour suspension of business. French schools also close for two hours each midday. Simone calls it civilized. But I wonder: Can any economy be world-class that does not eat at its desks? Rion Klawinski, author of Chasing the Heretics, reports falling "in complete love with Toulouse. I knew it for sure two hours after I hit town, sitting in a glacerie on the Place du Capitole in the heat of late afternoon, spooning pistachio ice cream into my mouth and gazing at the citizenry parading past my table. During the next two nights and three days I only grew more enamored, seeing Toulouse through the eyes of an idiot lover whose judgment has been burned to a crisp by the first flashes of blinding romance." That's the effect we're seeking. Maybe a dose of the past will help. The Musée St-Raymond, the city's archaeological museum, is a two-star attraction in its own right; it's just a few steps from St-Sernin. The museum has recently undergone restoration. Which means a thorough dusting at a minimum: the building houses a huge collection of small objects, particularly from the Roman period. The museum's most outstanding feature at this very moment: it's open during lunch and has toilets. The self-guided tour starts on the top floor and wends down, into the basement, lined with sarcophagi. It's not a museum of obvious wonders: the star of the show is a gold trinket a few inches high. It's a museum for contemplation. One floor features dozens of carved heads, of Roman gods and dignitaries. It's an eye-dulling mob. And depressing. I'm looking at dead heroes, dead aspirations, dead worship. Tumbled into the mud. Resurrected with a little cardboard card. And all so repetitive. The skies weep.
|On the autoroute to Toulouse, a roadside rest area offers a stunning view of Carcassonne.|
But we have our umbrellas. And we soon find a busy brasserie with outdoor seating inside a clear-sided pavilion. Propane heaters are flaming. The service is fast, precise. At several tables we hear Americans, but no one looks like a tourist. These are serious visitors: here on business, here to teach. Maybe living here. They look comfortable, at home. After lunch, we strike out toward the Rue de Metz, down narrow pedestrian-only back streets. Our objective: shopping for interesting women's clothes. Simone buys very little big-time clothing in the States, the stuff she needs to dress to impress. We always wait for France. For many years, our fashion destination of choice was Joëlle Discours in Paris. Madame Joëlle designed a small line for each season, and it was all perfect: understated, timeless, with authority and flair, a celebration of richly textured fabrics, fitted as if Simone were the mannequin, and easy to mix and match, since Madame color-coordinated across her entire line. We'd buy several suits each visit. But Madame Joëlle couldn't make a go of it and closed. We heard that she was working as a contract designer for other houses. Simone is a frequent speaker, a visiting professor, a book author, and a consultant to non-profit organizations across the country. She specializes in fund and board development. To put a finer point on it, she specializes in telling the plain truth and kicking trustee ass. It's oh so much easier to do those things if you're dressed to intimidate. If when someone blurts "Where did you get that jacket?" you can say Paris. And they're reduced to a quiver.
|A medieval illustration depicting the surrender of Carcassonne in 1209 to the northern French crusader Simon de Monfort; and the expulsion of the city's populace stripped of all their worldly possessions, as the surrender terms dictated.|
In Paris, we finally found another designer Simone liked: Maryse Cépière. Gorgeous wool knits. And now as we window shop in Toulouse, here they are again, in a new store: Maryse Cépière knits. With a tiny tea room to one side. And enticements of interior decor upstairs. We almost run toward the door. The two saleswomen are in their indeterminate late thirties to mid-forties. A few little wrinkles where secrets are buried. They greet us happily. We greet them enthusiastically. Let the trying on begin! For forty minutes Simone pops in and out of garments. With four people, the store is crowded. There's no real dressing room, so she changes in front of us. Everyone stands around and comments. Since I don't speak French, I'm immune to the sales blandishments. Every few minutes the woman helping us lofts an eyebrow at me, reinforced with a Tres jolie, n'est-ce pas? or Ça lui va bien. Yes, Simone does look good in these. We can't decide whether the faux peplum works or not. Simone hates her hips in knits. The sweater in exaggerated blue herringbone looks good on the saleswoman. She strips it off, her auburn hair surging through the neck, for Simone to try on. We leave, hot and exhausted, with two new suits. And stop in a patisserie for a small box of sweets we use to revive us as we crawl back toward the car. It's mid-afternoon. The weather's clearing. Next stop: Ikea.