Toulouse – day 6

me park bridge

We packed up and left the AirB&B but still had most of the day before we had to fly back. So we wheeled everything over to the BoatMonsters’ boat to store it there in the meantime. Here I am wheeling my suitcase through a garden in the center of town– the same one we walked through the previous day where people were tango dancing in the gazebo near the big fountain. We would spend the later morning in this park as well with the BoatMonsters. I distinctly remember hoping my massive sweat stains wouldn’t show in this photo, because it was HOT out there.

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The BoatMonsters had another great recommendation for us, so we all headed over to Bistrot de l’étoile for a fantastic lunch. This is a casual restaurant “for normal people” which serves fixed menu 3-course lunches and is frequented by local business people. The BoatMonsters go every year, and made a name for themselves by sending the owners some anti-Trump memorabilia for their massive collection of wall knicknacks. They were greeted warmly this year.

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Here I am trying to subtly photograph the meal without bringing too much attention to us. My salad was great– as I mentioned a few posts back, the area has fantastic produce. Those are eggplant croquettes, and in the foreground, a pale ale.

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Another salad, with a mushroom stuffed with a deviled egg situation and another eggplant croquette.

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Our refreshing table wine, a bread basket, and NachoMaid.

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Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster about to enjoy their starters. It wasn’t just salad; we ordered fish, meat and veg for a main and then a “cafe gourmand” for dessert. That is a cappuccino or similar, with a small sampler of desserts. I remember a tiny créme brulee, a little chocolate truffle, a tiny square of cake, and something else which, taken altogether, was quite a lot. The BoatMonsters are good travelers and their recommendations were excellent.

After lunch we walked back over to the park in the center of town and sat around in the shade, digesting and chatting. NachoMaid, CarrotCakeMonster and I decided to check out the Capital Building– again at the recommendation of the BoatMonsters– and its famous late-19th century murals.

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The entrance to the Capital.

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One in a long room of Impressionist style murals by Henri Martin, illustrating the stages of life and also the seasons of the year. This was enormous and made a strong impression in person.

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Henri Martin, showing a later season and stage of life.

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A long gallery showing paintings related to France’s military history by many different artists. It was being set up at one end for a wedding.

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NachoMaid strolling through the gallery.

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A painting in a different gallery of the Capital, this one featuring painting and sculpture about the military history of France and Toulouse, including old folk tales. This is by Antonin Mercie.

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This is meant to be the Athena guarding over Toulouse, and I believe she’s floating over the town square behind the Capital where we visited the flea market. It appears to be dusk after the vendors have left, so she’s probably not shopping. This is by Destrem, called Minerva Guarding over Toulouse.

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A view through one of the windows of the gallery showing an inner courtyard of the Capital building. This would be a good place to make a speech.

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Another by Henri Martin, but it was blocked off for the wedding and I couldn’t read what it depicted, but it’s surely an old folk tale about Toulouse’s military history.

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A depiction of Napoleon’s army marching (sneaking) into Cairo at night. by A. Rixens.

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One of a series of sculptures of women representing various abstract ideas like achievements in math and science, etc. because it’s a plaster sculpture I thought the inscriptions were especially attractive. You can’t really do this with stone carving.

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One of several ceiling murals, this showing France (the woman on chariot pulled by lions) preparing to fight, aided by Mars. This entire gallery would have been completed about 15 years after France was defeated by Germany, so I suppose it’s about rallying morale. Forty years after the completion of this series of murals, though, Toulouse would become a stronghold of French resistance against the Nazis.

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NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster are waiting impatiently for me to finish looking at the military history paintings. They’re waiting in the Henri Martin room; the paintings above them are Autumn and Winter. We left and went wandering around downtown Toulouse.

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A view of “normal Toulouse” via back balconies. I love how the people on the ground floor drew in yellow on their window.

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NachoMaid waits outside Briocherie Croustine.

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Inside Briocherie Croustine, a row of giant nougats is guarded by a man on his phone, and on the other are a series of bins of dried fruits.

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Nougat Speculoos; I’ve only seen this flavor in gelato in Berlin. It’s what Germans think of as quintessentially Italian, and here it is in a nougat. The photo doesn’t convey how huge these things are.

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A violet flavor in front, topped with candied violets. Violet is a famous Toulouse export; there are also a few violet-themed gift shops in downtown Toulouse.

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CarrotCakeMonster helps himself to some dried candied fruit. I strongly dislike candied fruit and “gummy” snacks of any sort, so this is his chance to load up on candy I won’t steal. Nougat, on the other hand, is fantastic.

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Mangoes, bananas, pomeloes, hibiscus, and farther down apples, apricots and citrus.

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NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster got cold beverages just to take advantage of the air conditioning while I checked out this vintage poster and reproduction store. The other side was a stationary and gift store.

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Oddly enough, the last thing we visited in Toulouse before leaving was this huge fabric store. It’s locally famous, apparently. It’s also air conditioned.

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Goodbye, Toulouse. Our trip to and through the airport was uneventful, as it should be.

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In-flight entertainment. I’m editing out blurry photos of Toulouse, probably. Or reading more of the Complete Works of Jane Austen that I downloaded before the trip. The short stories she wrote when she was a disgruntled tween are mean and terrifically funny. There is no “happily ever after,” instead everyone dies at the end, and you don’t feel at all sorry for them.

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Our cat was happy to see us. We paid for a cat sitter, and it was money very well spent. We got photo updates while we were away, and when we got back the house smelled normal and the cat wasn’t a complete maniac.

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The “rock on, Berlin” gnome I saw in the window of a local bank (LBS, on his cap). I’ve wanted one of these gnomes ever since I saw him. And I think he’s a good “welcome home” symbol.

 

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Toulouse, day 5

Although I’ve taken a six-month hiatus from posting, I’m picking the Toulouse trip right back up where I left off (Day 5 of 6). My apologies to the BoatMonster family, who generously provided the most bloggable part of the trip (and our favorite) by taking us out for the day on their boat. I got a whole post prepared back before the hiatus, then had technical difficulties and lost it all. It takes forever to edit these photos and get posts prepared, so I felt defeated and put it aside for a while. Then life got very busy very quickly. We’ve been having quite a difficult time this winter so I wasn’t in the mood to blog about sunny France for a few months, but lately I’m really enjoying pulling up these old photos and documenting the trip.

So here we were on Day 5– six months ago now– meeting the BoatMonsters at their boat in the dock in downtown Toulouse to take a day trip down the canal.

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Nacho Maid and I on the boat while it was docked at the Capitanerie. This was where the BoatMonsters were staying while NachoMaid, CarrotCakeMonster and I were in town. They got to know their boat neighbors, some of whom return yearly and have old friends at the dock.

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NachoMaid and I sit in the sun while we inch slowly away from the dock and surprisingly quickly we have passed the town perimeter and entered farmland.

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We pass by a huge spiral-shaped bike ramp that we rode on the previous night. It much more fun going down than up.

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Houseboats, both new and old, line the canal.

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A typical stretch of canal, so beautiful. You can see between the trees on the left that we’re still not quite in the country, but it feels like a green oasis.

Once we were well out of town, we stopped at a nice shady spot on the bank for a picnic of delicious French food.

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CarrotCakeMonster helps tie the boat to a tree.

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We disembark. That’s a field of sunflowers on the other side of the bank.

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NachoMaid awaits food. I didn’t get any photos of the actual picnic, because I was busy eating.

After the picnic we continued along the canal.

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Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster taught CarrotCakeMonster and I to drive the boat, and here I am taking my turn. NachoMaid stands at the bow looking for floating debris in the water which must be pushed aside with the pole he is holding so it doesn’t scrape the boat or get caught up in the mechanical business (I don’t remember which was the issue). The boat puttered along slowly and was extremely easy to drive in a straight line. CarrotCakeMonster and I didn’t do any fancy maneuvers like turning it around or parking. Mr. BoatMonster told us we each did a greeeeat job and were sooo good at it, and we eventually caught on that it meant he got to go relax while we took care of the driving for a while.

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Here we are approaching a lock.

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We had to stop and tie the boat up for a bit while we waited for the lock to be ready to enter. The BoatMonsters jumped ashore and secured everything in place while we waited.

We went through one lock during this trip, which took around 40 minutes and provided enormous entertainment for bystanders. Locks are like steps for boats, where they can go up and down to match the changing elevation of the land and of the water level in the canal. I’m going to show the process of going up a level.

The walls of the many locks in the Canal du Midi are mostly oval, from a bird’s eye point of view. This was adapted from da Vinci’s writing about the strength of rounded shapes, and it was an advancement in engineering for the time. The hydraulics were in part informed by ancient Roman bath towns in France which were, at the time of the Canal’s construction, being traditionally maintained by peasant women who were also hired as laborers for the Canal and shared their knowledge. Other engineering input came from the military and from field experimentation and learning on the go.

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The light is green, the gates are open, and we can enter the lock. You can see water spilling over the front gates, and the water level is at its lowest. I took this photo and nearly all other photos of the lock because CarrotCakeMonster was busy filming the lengthy process and alternately napping. Unfortunately I can’t upload that sort of video to this blog. But we’ll make you sit through it next time we’re in your town visiting, I promise, like an old fashioned vacation slide show.

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Entering the locks. You can see the open gate flush with the wall.

The boat enters the lock and the huge metal gates close behind it. The lock slowly fills with water until it is level with the next stretch of canal, then the front gates open to allow the boat through. Then the next boat enters coming the opposite direction, and this time the lock slowly empties and lets the boat out at a lower elevation. And so on and so forth.

Step 1 is to tie the boat so it stays centered as the lock fills and the water swirls. The BoatMonsters are very practiced at handing up the rope from the very bottom of the lock to the rim using long poles.

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Mr. BoatMonster loops the rope onto a hook on a pole.

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Mr. BoatMonster hoists the rope up to the rim of the lock.

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Mrs. BoatMonster carefully transfers the loop of rope.

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Mrs. BoatMonster fastens the rope to a little iron anchor at the top of the lock. They repeat the process with three more ropes on all sides of the boat. Now Mrs. BoatMonster must wait at the top for the water levels to rise and she can step right on the boat. Waiting at the top means chatting with curious observers and learning their personal histories of sailing and travel. It is not a station for introverts.

Once we were secured in place the doors closed behind us and the lock began slowly filling.

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The open lock doors behind the boat. NachoMaid poses.

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The lock doors have closed behind us and the water is beginning to rise. Mrs. BoatMonster makes some friends.

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The water level is rising.

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The lock is nearly full.

Meanwhile, as the water rose, the ropes had to be continually adjusted and held tight. This is a team activity.

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NachoMaid steadies the ropes while the water level is low.

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We’re nearing the top and Mrs. BoatMonster is holding the slack.

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NachoMaid holds the ropes tight so we don’t bonk the sides of the lock.

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We’re at the top and NachoMaid and Mr. BoatMonster untie the boat. You can see from my foot how much I’m helping in this activity.

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While the water rose and the BoatMonster family expertly managed the ropes, CarrotCakeMonster and I sunbathed on the top of the houseboat. It was divine.

Here’s a view of the water rising at the front gates.

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Water rushes in. I sunbathe. These sandals are Crocs, in case you’re curious, and I recommend them 100% for walking around on cobblestone all day, messing around on a wet boat and being able to rinse off the grime at the end of the day with soap and water. I still have this T-shaped tan line on my feet 6 months later.

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Here’s a close-up of the gate mechanism. These used to be hand-cranked with a big crank at the edge of the lock, but now it’s mechanical. Look at the little vertical black parts sticking up at the top: they’re notched, and as the crank turns they rise up and down on gears. This somehow makes the gates and hydraulics function, but I didn’t give it any deep though beyond that.

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Here’s the little house where the lock worker used to either live or be stationed (I’m not sure) back when the whole thing was hand-cranked. There still are some workers stationed at certain locks, though not at this one, and there’s quite an etiquette built up about how to interact with them.

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The lock is full!

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The gates are opening! You can see beyond the lock that a boat is moored in the shade on the bank of the canal. Many people have houseboats moored along the sides of the canal; I don’t remember the exact rules, but one can travel the canal and tie one’s boat up at various locations, as well as near various Capitaneries.

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The gates are open; we go through.

This particular lock happened to be the location of the restaurant where we’d eaten the previous night along our bike route. It looked just as charming during the day. The restaurant sign simply says the name of the lock and the distances to the next locks.

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The restaurant we passed where we’d eaten the night before.

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The restaurant sign reads Écluse De Castánet (Castanet Lock), Distances, De L’Écluse De Bayard 12177 Méters, De L’Écluse De Vic 1705 Méters. So I suppose if I wanted to recommend this restaruant– and I do– I’d recommend “the restaurant at the Écluse de Castánet.”

Having achieved one traversal of a lock, we puttered down the canal a little way and stopped, chilling out under a shady patch of plane trees, napping, chatting and brewing coffee. Then we turned around and went through the lock again on our way back to the Capitanerie.

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NachoMaid enjoys some coffee.

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This peach beer was delicious. Who knew? Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Here I am driving the boat under a picturesque old bridge, without scraping the sides. That’s NachoMaid lounging in the sun. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The Canal was stupid beautiful.

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If you look closely at the background you can see that CarrotCakeMonster is driving the boat over a four-lane highway. The Canal passes over the highway like an aqueduct.

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Flowers at the edge of a harvested field.

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CarrotCakeMonster is satisfied with the boat trip.

The end of the trip was a blur because we were exhausted, even though CarrotCakeMonster and I hadn’t done much all day besides sunbathe. We said our heartfelt Thank You’s to the BoatMonsters back at the Capitanerie and made our plans to meet back up the next day.

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We walked home from the Capitanerie through a grand garden in the center of town. A group of people were tango dancing in the gazebo on the left.

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Walking back to the apartment, a typical Toulouse street. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The docent at the Musée de Veux Toulouse had recommended the view from the Pont Neuf, so CarrotCakeMonster and I headed back out to check it out. There was a devil sitting in one of the bridge’s alcoves. It was late evening and we were too exhausted– physically, mentally, spiritually– to explore the other bank of the river, where there was a cluster of grand historical buildings and some sort of massive municipal beach party, but I guess you can’t do it all. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

CarrotCakeMonster and I met back up with NachoMaid at The Hungry Bean for dinner, on the recommendation of the BoatMonsters. It’s sort of a casual tarte buffet for hippies, where you can get slices of various savory egg and vegetable pies and various sweet tartes as well, and some side salad. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos.

We headed home afterward only to find, late at night, that we had an unexpected and critical need for dessert! We had nothing satisfactory in the apartment, so we took to the streets and found nothing open and serving anything except alcohol.

Luckily one bar/burger stand was shuttering its door and just as the worker was removing the last of the items from the display case– the desserts– we squeezed through the half-closed door and bought the last three items right out of her clutches. They were key lime and banoffee flavored cups of custard served in the tiny minimalist beer and wine glasses I’ve seen used in Madrid and Toulouse, and they hit the spot.

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Here I am using a condom machine as a cup holder, because I’m classy that way.

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We headed home once more, satisfied. This is the knocker of a door we passed.

Toulouse, day 4

We really must have stayed up too late the night before, because we had to peel ourselves out of bed to meet Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster for lunch. They’d invited us to a fancy dessert house called Flower’s; all the desserts are lined up in the window to draw in passers by.

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Desserts at Flowers; the elevated tart has sweet hazelnut or walnut paste filling; a currant and blackberry crumble is behind it; then a custard tart with a huge meringue top; also in back, a chocolate tart with chocolate icing and a layer of hazelnut; a chocolate in the front with some sort of orange business inside, a red berry on pistachio paste tarte, and just out of frame a banoffee tarte. Yes, this is all from memory, I don’t forget this sort of thing. Banoffee was a common flavor around Toulouse, showing up at ice cream stands, burger joints and fancy patisseries alike; it’s a bit like tiramisu, but without the cream layers and soaked in rum. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The BoatMonster family enjoying their meals. They have some sort of fish, salad with cheese and Asian-inspired salad variations. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Of course in the US we have multiple-course restaurants with set menus, but “make it a menu” in the casual sense usually means upgrading your sandwich with chips and a drink. In France most sit-down restaurants offer a menu consisting of entree (i.e. appetizer), main course and dessert, often with wine (or coffee, if it’s a brunch place like Flower’s). You get two or three choices for each (most places nowadays even offer vegetarian) but it’s essentially the recommended way to eat a meal in its entirety, so if you’re unsure what or how to order in France, the menu is a good bet. And it’s usually a pretty good deal.

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My lunch has fans. The set lunch menu at Flower’s was salad or a savory tarte, dessert and coffee. Mine was some sort of delicious fresh salad, toast, and a pot of mildly tangy melted cheese that fell somewhere between brie and limburger. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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…and our desserts and coffees. We got the pistachio creme tarte with raspberries. It was excellent. But not quiiiite as good as the fruit tart I made myself for my birthday last year. That was a tart for the ages. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

After an excellent lunch Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster left to pursue houseboat and canal-related endeavors, while NachoMaid, CarrotCakeMonster and I wandered out into Toulouse with vague plans to tour the Capitol if it was open (it wasn’t) and the art museum or air & space museum if either was nearby (they weren’t). But we decided to hike to the art museum anyway, and on our way through the city we stumbled upon the Musée de Veux Toulouse (Museum of Old Toulouse). It’s the kind of small, sundry museum that I enjoy very much.

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The biggest draw of the Musée de Veux Toulouse is touring the building itself, which was a 16-17th century mansion that has been historically preserved. The courtyard and its arches look Italian; the clunky rectangular wooden spiral staircase feels like being inside an old ship; and the interior rooms remind me of touring antebellum homes in the American South. Look how inviting this private enclosed courtyard is! One of the best parts of walking around Toulouse is peeking into the private courtyards of old buildings when someone has left the gate open. They’re so peaceful and luxurious.

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A look down the well in the courtyard. Waaaaay down there you can see a reflection in the water. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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NachoMaid standing in front of an old oxen yoke on display. The egg shape sticking up on top is covered in bells. I don’t know why I didn’t take more photos inside, but they showed pottery and archeological remains from the prehistoric Toulousians, the Celts, the Romans, the Rennaissance and Victorian era. Also exhibits on woad dye, paintings and photographs of Toulouse and its landmarks through the centuries, mannequins dressed in traditional outfits and Napoleonic uniforms, antique furniture and fittings for the house and other bits of historic ephemera.

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As a special exhibit the museum had assembled portraits by Toulousain artists from its collection. They were all new names to me, and I can’t find any traces of the existence of these paintings online. It is so frustrating that so much of the shared heritage of world art is not accessible to the public but stored away in some private collection, church library or museum basement. Anyway, I thought this method of shading was novel. This drawing is a portrait of Georges Gaudion, by Luce Boyals, 1924.

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The Studio of Luce Boyals, by George Gaudion (spelled differently in this label), 1930. The woman behind the easel is the one who drew the portrait above; the drawn portrait is of the artist who painted this canvas. They were both working artists when they met, and they married in 1920 and often painted together. Gaudion also taught chemistry, music and jazz. A little over a decade after this was painted, they both died in different accidents while hiking in the mountains, 4 years apart. Thanks to the museum’s website for the biographical info; they note that little was known of these artists and their works were not valued after their deaths until a pair of local art history students’ research recently put them back on the map.

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Self Portrait by Dominique Baron, mid-1800s.

This video of a woad-making demonstration showcases the architecture and courtyard of the Musée de Veux Toulouse nicely:

We finished up at the Museum of Old Toulouse and continued to the Musée des Beaux Arts. It is housed in an old church which has alternately served as a convent and abbey throughout history, now renovated as a museum. The central courtyard is maintained with traditional fruit trees, roses and herbs that the monks and nuns would have cultivated. All of the wings of the museum branch off from this central courtyard; it’s a wonderful ground plan for a museum.

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The colonnade around the central courtyard.

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The ornamental quadrant of the courtyard garden.

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A row of howling drainpipe gargoyles lining one side of the courtyard colonnade. Of course they reminded me of my cat. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A view of the bell tower from the courtyard. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster opted for a midday nap instead of touring the museum.

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Some doors in the museum.

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An ancient Celtic or medieval epitaph from a tombstone (I don’t remember which, sorry) from the tombstone collection lining one spooky Gothic underground passage.

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Having finished with the tombstones and the elaborately carved medieval column capitols displayed in an oddly Verner Panton 70’s style, I returned to the colonnade to find CarrotCakeMonster relocated to a more comfortable chair.

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CarrotCakeMonster and some like-minded visitors.

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This was his view. The building with the chimneys across the courtyard is a row of beautiful apartment buildings visible over the museum entrance, not part of the old abbey.

To my great dissatisfaction, the large collection of artwork 1700-early 20th century (my favorite general era) was completely closed so they could fix the big Victorian skylights. Of course that explanation only made me want to see the space as well as the art. All that was left to see was Gothic and medieval art. Ancient art is… fine, but I’m honestly never as impressed as I know I should be. Ancient architecture is another story, I can’t leave any ruin unexplored (who can?). However they did have a large exhibit in the former big church hall (chapel?) about the Renaissance in Toulouse. They had some very impressive tapestries, religious paintings, swords and manuscripts.

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Because of the darkness of the old church alcoves, it was tough to get a good photo of this angry cherub in the middle of a huge religious painting. So I have recreated it here:

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My faithful rendition of the angry cherub in all his fat flying wrath. The painting, which depicted a boilerplate Madonna & Posse in Heaven scene, didn’t make it clear why he was so pissed off; there were other cherubs flying around near him that seemed just fine.

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Returning to the courtyard to find CCM deeper asleep.

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Returning to the colonnade yet again after poking around the gift shop and wishing the modern wing were open, I found CCM in an even more relaxed position.

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Seconds before he woke up to a camera in his face.

I don’t recall how we filled the remainder of the afternoon– trying to find a public bathroom maybe, or eating cheese in our apartment, but we eventually found ourselves walking over to the BoatMonsters’ houseboat to meet NachoMaid and borrow the BoatMonsters’ bikes and ride up the Canal du Midi to have dinner at a canal-side restaurant in the next town over.

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Here we are walking to the canal to pick up the bikes. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The inside of a WWI memorial on the way to the Canal. Toulouse is famous for defending France and for patriotism in general: in ancient times, in Napoleon’s armies, against the Germans in the 1800s, in WWI and II, and Toulouse was a major hub in the WWII resistance. The Museum of Old Toulouse illustrated this as well. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A close-up of the incredible relief carving in the WWI memorial. It didn’t come across very well in this photo, but the liveliness and freedom of composition isn’t something you see often in relief statuary.

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A beautiful boulevard lined in plane trees leading to an enormous old garden in the center of town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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More of the tree-lined boulevard. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

And here we are biking along the canal. These are the old tracks trod by mules pulling boats down the canal; today they are bike and jogging trails. It takes you out of the city of Toulouse in about a fifteen minute bike ride, then you’re riding past fields of sunflowers and countryside. The canal is unbelievably beautiful.

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Me biking. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A nice view of the canal.

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Taking a break, because we needed one. I don’t know why CarrotCakeMonster’s bike’s gears were fixed in such an odd way, but he had to peddle about twice as fast as NachoMaid and I the entire time. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A seed pod along the way with perfect little star shaped openings.

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NachoMaid waiting or us to finish our break.

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An especially pretty field next to the canal.

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Another view of the same field.

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Me biking past CarrotCakeMonster. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Thirteen kilometers later, we arrived at the restaurant… and it was closed. Indefinitely. Until the guy who ran it could hire the staff he needed. Meanwhile he was enjoying a beer in the yard with a neighbor. But luckily we’d just passed another restaurant about a km back, a picturesque old building next to a canal lock. It turned out to be so good that we completely forgot about our first choice being closed.

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Attacking the appetizer, which was way too much food for the three of us. The salad had little pieces of duck gizzard in it; duck comprised most of the menu here and around Toulouse. The drink is rosé with grapefruit syrup (sooo good). This photo is taken seconds before I discovered that I really dislike fois gras. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A view of the full lock (the water level goes up and down to hoist boats up and down uneven elevations) and a little house beyond it. Lock workers used to live in those houses and hand-crank the locks when boats came through, but now it’s mostly automatic. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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More appetizer. The weather was perfect, the view was beautiful, we had worked up a hard-earned hunger, and the atmosphere was just the right mix of fancy and friendly. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Talking. Being a very slow eater usually in the company of very fast eaters, I enjoyed the multi-course system in France because I got to hang out without being rushed or guilted and still finish the meal with everyone else. We didn’t get any photos of the main dishes because we were enthusiastically eating them. Dinner was absolutely excellent– and there was a lot of it. No one went hungry. CCM had grilled duck with potatoes gratin, NachoMaid had fish with potatoes gratin, and I had some sort of duck drumstick with an amazing risotto. Very astute readers will notice I ate meat while on vacation; I do occasionally eat meat while traveling, as I have a weak spot for anything novel or a local specialty I’ll never see again. Je ne regrette rien. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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My dessert: crème brûlée. CarrotCakeMonster ordered fruit salad for dessert, and we ended up splitting the two to mix together. A very good combination. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

When we were finished we were so full that biking home seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. But there was no other way to get back. So we took quite a few more breaks on the way back than the way there, balancing our flashlights and bracing our tired butt muscles.

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We encountered a pair of gigantic snails while taking a break near a bridge on the way home. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We were physically tired when we got back but not ready to go to sleep, so we went bar hopping– as much as you can really do when your comfortable drink limit is one. We watched some people play darts at one end of an English pub while a drunk girl had a dance party of one at the other end of the pub, then we went to a hipster dive bar with an arcade machine. I guess I could have stayed to watch two grown men play Street Fighter, but instead I took a walk that I don’t remember at all except that it was especially nice. We all met back up and went back home.

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NachoMaid braces himself against the nightlife. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Me locking up, going out to a bar dressed like Martha Stewart. Turns out no one cared; I really don’t think it matters what you wear to a bar or club. All that generally matters, even in Berlin mega-club culture, is if you’re entertaining and if you have drugs you’re willing to share. We didn’t have any, and we were too tired to really interact with anyone around us. So we called it an early night.

 

 

Toulouse, day 3

NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster hatched a plan at lunch the previous day to rent a car and drive to a little town called Mèze on the coast almost two hours away from Toulouse. The morning of the car trip, we realized we’d both left our American driver’s licenses in Germany (and we don’t have German driver’s licenses– that’s 200 hours of German driving school, a pile of paperwork, and about €2,000 when we can take the subway or taxi just as well). But luckily NachoMaid had his license with him.

We picked our rental car up from the airport, which I won’t describe because the process sucked far more than it needed to thanks to Europecar’s unholy marriage of clownish European bureaucracy with middling corporate crappiness (though the actual workers were nice enough). A few hours later, we were on the road!

But not before picking up a few slices of tartes and cakes from the airport restaurant and singing Happy Birthday to NachoMaid in the retro-modern airport lounge. I hope NachoMaid got a second chance at a proper birthday cake later in his vacation, because airport cake is probably the worst cake in France. Sorry about that, NM.

NachoMaid is a superb driver. Driving in France doesn’t seem especially difficult or different from the US, especially as Southern France has a relaxed vibe that starkly contrasts with the boulevards of Paris, and as we spent most of the trip on an uncongested country highway. It was the ultimate scenic route, with cathedrals, historic towns, stone farmhouses and castles scattered through fields of sunflowers. We could see the Pyrenees in the distance (or the Massif Central, I’m not sure). We listened to Alice Coltrane on the stereo.

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If you look closely, there’s a medieval castle in the background. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A field of sunflowers, one of many in the region.

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Some fields. The drive was mostly through some very scenic countryside.

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A few fields and trees.

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A church or cathedral in a small town on a hill.

CarrotCakeMonster ran into a slight problem once we got to the beach. Though every clothing store in Europe is currently decked out in summer beach displays, I cannot fathom CarrotCakeMonster actually entering one in his leisure time, much less willingly shopping for swimwear. He already owns several swimsuits, but he has a peculiar habit of planning pool and beach outings so that when he arrives at the water’s edge, and not a moment sooner, he announces that he has no swimwear and will go in search of some. Whatever the local gas station or bodega has on offer will do, and this time he wandered off and returned ten minutes later wearing some neon orange swim trunks that I like even better than the snug orchid pink trunks he procured last year from a pharmacy in Toledo, Spain. If I could simply walk into the first place I see and find shoes and clothes that fit me, I’d probably live this way too.

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The town across the bay is Sète. According to GoogleMaps, Sète boasts something called a “Super Public Bath.” Meanwhile the beach in Mèze displayed a super public parade of Speedos. I recently found out that New Zealanders call Speedos “budgie-smugglers.” Budgies are small birds. I guess the elderly men of Mèze must shop at a different bodega than CarrotCakeMonster. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Local student sailboats. The beach was everything I hoped it would be. We swam, got sunburns and loafed until we grew hungry and restless.

We’d been recommended especially to eat mussels at The Pirate, a hokey looking restaurant with extremely good seafood. But it didn’t open for another hour or two, so we bought some beer and strolled around.

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The main drag in Mèze. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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It took us longer than it should have to figure out that “vapor boats” are steam boats.

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Strolling along the shore. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A photo by the main docks, taken by CarrotCakeMonster.

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We spied on one of the acts in that night’s music festival while they rehearsed. All day we could hear the pre-opening acts projected over the sound system all over the town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Having a beer while we waited for the restaurant to open for dinner. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Having a beer, waiting for dinner. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Waiting for patriotically for dinner.

Tired, hungry and sunburnt I lay down on a park bench to rest while unbeknownst to me NacoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster snuck onto one of the jousting boats. Let me explain: Mèze is famous for the sport of boat-jousting, where two boats row toward each other with a person on a platform on the front of each boat, and as the people pass they try to knock one another off the platforms. Here is a video:

The jousting boats were sitting unattended, so here is NachoMaid committing his crime. On CarrotCakeMonster’s behalf, I’ll point out that the beer went straight to our heads because we don’t drink often at home. I don’t know what NachoMaid’s excuse was, birthday madness perhaps.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster roused me from the bench just as two cops strutted toward the now-empty jousting boats, so we moved along quickly to The Pirate, which had finally opened for dinner.

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Waiting for dinner at The Pirate. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Judas: the beer that betrays you. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster wearing the pot he’s meant to use to discard empty mussel shells. I think he looks like Tom Waits in this photo.

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Mrs. BoatMonster had coached us previously on how to order une grande carafe d’eau: “uhgruhkrahfdOHsvooplay.” Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Our lovely bottle of water, which I think might have previously been a vodka bottle.

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NachoMaid strikes a noble pose in front of his moules (mussels) in curry sauce and french fries. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster also got mussels in curry cream sauce.

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An incredibly fresh salad with anchovies, fresh grilled tuna and eggs. The region has famously tasty local produce; even the lettuce was impressive during the entire trip. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Moules aftermath. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We dithered around trying to decide whether or not to stay in Mèze for the music festival and call it a very late night (or early morning), until we found out how much the entrance fee cost, and immediately started home. It’s just as well in retrospect, since the raging thunderstorm we drove back through would have been headed directly for Mèze.

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The sun setting on Mèze. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The music festival was just starting; you can see the white tents in the background.

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Getting one last coffee for the road. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Walking back toward the car. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We drove back through a thunderstorm and got back very late.

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NachoMaid drives us home. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Scenic plane trees. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Watching the scenery. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Though he tried, CarrotCakeMonster never got a decent photo of lightning. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Driving through a small town on the way back. This is a ridiculous speed trap, just like it would be in the US. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The Gothic church tower in the small speed trap town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Arriving home very late. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Toulouse 2018- day 2

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There are several worthy marchés in Toulouse but everyone says Victor Hugo market is the best. It’s open every morning and spans an indoor warehouse and its outdoor perimeter, with a large restaurant on the second floor. But first, coffee.

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Believe it or not, I actually know what all this stuff means from working in a coffee shop. And it actually makes a difference. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

The Marché Victor Hugo was a little overwhelming.

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Skinned rabbits at Marché Victor Hugo, with eyes and little tufts of fur.

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Intestines. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Cow tongues in front, tongues of some smaller animal in back.

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Spices in the outdoor section of the market. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Looks like large sausages wrapped in bread.

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One of many lobster tanks.

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Cubes of quince jelly. The Fromagier forbade the pairing of our purchases of soft sheep’s cheese and stilton with quince jelly, and in doing so puffed out his cheeks and made a particularly French “pffft!” gesture of condemnation. He was very friendly and helpful, even though we could do little but gesture at the cheeses and say, “what is…?” Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Me walking down one of the aisles. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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NachoMaid on the balcony terrace of the restaurant above the Marché Victor Hugo

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CarrotCakeMonster on the balcony terrace of the restaurant above the Marché Victor Hugo

After leaving the Marché CarrotCakeMonster had to find a quiet spot to take a meeting online, so we found him a picturesque grate over an air duct in the middle of a garden in a park, where he nestled in and took a very dignified call with his colleagues.  Meanwhile I stumbled upon the famous flea market in the square behind the Capitol.

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One of the most famous landmarks in Toulouse, the square behind the Capitol. There has been a market in this square for many decades. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Finding some sunglasses for NachoMaid. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Vintage books for sale.

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We bought this book about ancient obscure medical practices, CarrotCakeMonster got a blue checkered belt, and NachoMaid bought one of his favorite Asimov books in French to help him learn the language. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We headed back home to make a late lunch from what we bought at the market.

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Pain au raisin

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fresh bread

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“salad herbs.” We weren’t really sure how to use these, but CarrotCakeMonster mixed them up in a simple vinaigrette.

Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster called and invited us to meet them at the famous Basilica Saint Sernin for a free organ concert that night. We took ourselves on a tour of some Toulouse architecture on the way over to the Basilica.

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A beautiful bay window over a restaurant.

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Most old buildings in Toulouse are made from clay brick, giving the entire city a yellow-orange cast.

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A glimpse of a beautiful courtyard through an open gate. I love this mosaic pavement made of river stones turned on their sides. Toulouse is located on the Garonne river. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A beautiful tiled art deco building

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A detail of the tile covering the art deco building pictured above

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A window on the Capitol building

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More windows on the Capitol

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The many turrets in Toulouse are not for defense, but a way to show off wealth in the 15-1600s. Toulouse became very wealthy in those centuries through the manufacture of a blue plant dye called pastel or woad.

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An ally way

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This is a good representation of just how hot and sunny it was. Toulouse is about an hour’s drive north of the coast, but it has the hot dry climate of the Mediterranean. We all got tans. But then again, all of Europe seems to be in a heat wave; it was just as hot when we got back to Berlin– so maybe the heat was uncharacteristic.

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Wisteria growing over a gate in an alley.

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Old wood beam construction.

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More seafoam green Toulouse ironwork. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The tower of a church on a major shopping and tourist road.

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A balcony garden

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Painted ironwork on a gate

The Basilica itself is clay brick and stripped completely bare in comparison to the cathedrals in Italy and Southern Germany which were absolutely dripping with gilded metal work, sculptures and paintings. The bare ochre arches made the entire space feel like being inside an incredibly elegant terra cotta pot– warm and inviting, and strangely reminiscent of the Grand Canyon (but in reverse).

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Little stars painted on the ceilings of a side chapel in Saint Sernin Basilica.

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Another side wing of the Basilica. Different areas of the church date back to different eras (the oldest from the 1100s); the Basilica was formerly a convent or monastery.

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The main area of the Basilica. The front has beautiful murals all over the ceiling.

The organ concert wasn’t amazing, though the instrument itself is very impressive and the player did a good job. An excited man talked on and on in French (perhaps it would have been interesting if I could understand it) about the history and mechanics of the church organ, and when the concert was over the organ player walked out of an obscure little door near the ceiling, wound around some hidden passageways, and some time later emerged out of another obscure little door on the ground, then came over and stood quietly with his hands clasped while the other man spoke many, many more words. He looked exactly how an organ player should look.

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The organ player

Then we went to dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by the owners of our AirBnB apartment.

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Paté. I discovered on this trip that I don’t like paté on its own, and also that the cat food industry has completely ruined it for me as well.

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smoked salmon with egg yolk, onions, and capers.

Despite my fears of receiving a petite pile of vertically stacked food when I was so hungry, it was actually too much food. We split a bottle of wine that went straight to our heads, went home.

 

Toulouse 2018: Day 1

In the middle of writing about our 2017 visit to Madrid, CarrotCakeMonster and I took a trip to Toulouse, France. I hope it won’t be too confusing that I’m bouncing between 2017 and 2018 from post to post. Madrid was last year, Toulouse was last week.

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Coat of Arms of Toulouse

Our old friend from the US who comments here as NachoMaid (and whose nym I cannot improve upon) invited us to meet up with his parents in Toulouse as they traversed France’s canal system in their houseboat as they do every year. Certain readers may remember NachoMaid from last year, when he visited us in Berlin while CarrotCakeMonster’s parents were also in town. For some reason I couldn’t get in the spirit of my usual hurricane of pre-vacation research, but luckily Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster were very well-informed and happy to share their recommendations. And as different travelers have different vacationing styles, we looked forward to our first fully NachoMaid-style vacation: unplugged, improvisational, and operating on a casual trust that whomsoever wanders off will eventually show up again.

Our first real taste of Toulouse was trying to find our AirBnB apartment, then hunting down a snack for CarrotCakeMonster. The French are leisurely eaters, but eat strictly during meal times. So the restaurants are open only for lunch (12-2) and dinner (6 or 7-10ish). We were in that desolate late afternoon hour, but CarrotCakeMonster located a cafe selling a board of fancy sandwich meats. The man selling it was plainly disgusted that CarrotCakeMonster spoke no French at all, and ate inelegantly.

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The sandwich meat.

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The stern cow on the label.

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It looked like rain, so NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster grabbed the last parapluie in the shop nearby.

After settling in our AirBnB apartment, we took a short walk through the rain to visit Mr. & Mrs. BoatMonster at their boat in the canal’s dock.

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That short orange object to the bottom left is my head, wrapped in a makeshift rain jacket from my scarf.

The Canal Midi is an engineering marvel of the 1600s, connecting the Mediterranean coast with the Garonne river, which in turn flows into the Atlantic across southwestern France just north of the Iberian Peninsula. Pierre Paul Riquet– who wasn’t a professional engineer but a tax collector– adapted ovular rather than rectangular locks from Da Vinci’s writings about rounded forms being stronger than rectangular ones (as well as ancient Roman examples). Amazingly, Riquet (who had originally proposed the canal) had no technical training and learnt on the job by conducting field experiments. Further technical expertise was gained from peasant women laborers who came from ancient Roman bath towns and who had traditionally operated the ancient Roman hydraulic systems still in operation. The construction was all done by pick-axe and simple tools, but the workers were paid well, offered benefits (sick leave, holidays, etc) and men and women were payed equally– all unheard of at the time.

The canal actually flows over other rivers, like an aquaduct (and today it flows over highways, too) and through the world’s first canal tunnels. The water level was controlled via two separated channels at the water’s source in the mountains, with runoffs and spillways built into the design. Mules hitched to small barges trod pathways at either side of the canal, and a beautiful parade of plane trees on either side shade the water and help hold the river banks in place. Though Toulouse was already an old wealthy city by the 1600s, the construction of the canal helped to ease the financial blow when indigo trade replaced Toulouse’s traditional export of woad or “pastel,” a labor-intensive blue plant dye. (Thank you Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster, Musée de Vieux-Toulouse, and Wikipedia for the history).

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Pierre-Paul Riquet

Today the canal is mostly used for leisure, traversed by houseboats and péniches (the small mule-drawn barges of the 19th century) and its banks traced by joggers and bikers. Houseboats can rent affordably in the docks and tie up most places along its banks. People visit year after year and get to know each other. By the time we arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Boatmonster had already been traveling the canal for several weeks and just arrived in Toulouse.

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Mrs. and Mr. BoatMonster’s boat in the dock, with sun shades because it was very hot during our time in Toulouse.

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This creature is an otter.

The rain cleared up, so we walked to a nearby Italian takeout place with great food, and got some pasta salads and pizzas to take back to the boat and share for dinner. We meandered back to our place as the sun set.

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A grand building near the canal with Toulouse-style pale blue-green iron work and window trim.

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Typical Toulouse residences in the historic part of town.