04/12/2016 - 04/14/2016
Our departure from Andorra proved to be as easy as our entrance had been. There was no border control, but some stern-looking French soldiers with guns flagged us down as we entered the country. I'm pretty sure it was the minivan that got their attention. They asked me a few questions, and fortunately my French was adequate to understand and answer them so we got waved on without too much delay. It was less than six months since the Bataclan, so I wasn't surprised to see some extra border security. We stopped briefly in Ax-les-Thermes so I could get some food for Mei Ling and the kids, since lunch hadn't worked out as planned. I decided to hold out until our first real stop, Foix.
Foix was a pleasant introduction to France. It was a small, relatively quiet town with a pedestrian center and a hilltop château. We had a lunch of savory croustades and then found an Orange store where I got a French SIM card while the kids took a playground break. We were somewhat relieved to learn that the Château de Foix was closed on Tuesday, relieving us of the obligation to climb the formidable staircase up the hill. We settled for photos and got back on the road to Toulouse.===
As we drove into Toulouse, I was immediately struck by the greenness and energy of the city. There seemed to be parks and tree-lined squares everywhere I looked. Our apartment was tucked deep into the old town, and once we left the main boulevard it seemed like we were navigating endless small roundabouts and squares, all of them dotted with outdoor cafes and full of pedestrians. We eventually located our Airbnb at the end of a narrow alley and unloaded the bags and the kids into a charming second floor (first floor for Europeans) apartment. The building and hallways looked like they hadn't been touched in a hundred years, but the interior was very modern if a little cramped. Fortunately our host offered to help me park the Iceberg, which as it turned out would save our vacation from disaster.
Although the garage was just a short distance away, actually getting there required another long navigation through the maze of alleys and roundabouts. We finally arrived at the underground garage and I drove down the spiral entrance when my new copilot suddenly told me to stop. He wasn't sure the Iceberg would clear the roof of the garage. It looked fairly high to me and we decided he would get out and watch as I inched the van forward. As I started to advance towards the entrance, an attendant rushed out and waved his hands frantically at me. No way. I was still unsure that the van wouldn't meet the 1.8m limit but at that point there was no choice. Our host walked backwards behind the van and guided me as I reversed back up the spiral. Eventually I extracted the Iceberg from the garage entry and we reversed course through the maze and ultimately found another garage with a 1.9m limit. Our host jumped out again and watched me gingerly enter the garage, clearing the 1.9m roof with only a couple of inches to spare. There's no doubt in my mind that if he hadn't been with me I would have slammed the van into the roof of the first garage, ruining our stay in Toulouse and possibly our whole vacation. Fortunately, we wouldn't need the Iceberg again until we left Toulouse.
The parking Odyssey had kept me away from the family for well over an hour, but fortunately the kids hadn't torn up the apartment by the time I returned. There was a ladder to a loft that we had to block off with furniture so Ian wouldn't try to climb it, but otherwise the place was more than adequate for our needs. Once we were able to unpack a little and extract everyone from the apartment, it was too late to do anything but head to dinner. It was starting to drizzle as we left and this progressed to a steady rain. Fortunately we had the plastic covers for the gondola stroller to keep the kids dry. I had a few popular restaurants picked out for dinner but it quickly became apparent we weren't going to get in to any of the top choices in the center of town, which were packed despite it being Tuesday. As our options dwindled and the rain strengthened to a downpour, it became apparent that dinner had become an issue of sustenance more than gastronomy and we would have to eat at the first restaurant we found with room to accommodate us. We shortly passed a restaurant that was nearly empty, which turned out to be Auberge du Tranchoir. Despite our foreboding about the lack of patrons on such a busy restaurant night, the meal turned out to be much more decent than we had a right to expect. We also got our first taste of what would turn out to be our favorite local wine appellation, Minervois.
By the next morning the rain clouds had completely cleared and we were ready to explore Toulouse. I had no appetite whatsoever to retrieve the Iceberg from the garage so I made a list of every conceivably interesting place in the center of town and geared up for a long day of walking. Naturally, our first stop was the city produce market Les Halles, It was a beautiful market with a dizzying array of cheeses, meats, and pastries. We bought some oysters at the seafood stall and slurped them down at the bar a few yards away with glasses of cold white wine.
There were no real restaurants downstairs, but fortunately I knew from my research that there were some on the second floor known for cooking fresh food from the market. We took the freight elevator at the back and found a long hallway full of restaurants with open kitchens and great menus. After much deliberation we made our choice and had a delicious meal of magret de canard and grilled seafood and of course a bottle of red wine. All the wine so early in the day was a little much for Mei Ling whose face soon matched the color of her glass, but the experience was well worth it.
===We set out for fresh air and relaxation at the Jardin Japonais, passing by the lovely Romanesque Basilique Saint-Sernin without venturing inside.
The Jardin Japonais is a large park of which the actual Japanese Garden is only a small part. It is a beautiful and well-kept green space with lush grass, tall trees, and brightly-colored flowers everywhere. The Japanese section was immaculate and peaceful. It was one of the most beautiful parks I've seen anywhere in the world.
After walking around the gardens, we found a great playground for the kids and an ice cream stand nearby.
From the Jardin Japonais we headed southward past the university, first encountering the end of Canal de Brienne as it emptied into the River Garonne and then the river itself. The boulevards along the river were lined with the classic Toulouse apartment buildings with immaculate facades and wrought iron balconies. The Garonne was wide and peaceful, with the famed Pont Neuf bridge a solid link between the two banks.
In the interest of saving time, we didn't cross to the opposite side but instead followed some narrow streets back inland to the Couvent des Jacobins, where the manicured courtyard with tall poplars was worth the small price of admission.
From the Couvent we traveled south again through picturesque streets to central Toulouse's other large green space, the Jardin des Plantes. This was another beautiful park with a duck pond and some carousel rides for the kids.
I could see from Google Maps that there was another green space at the north end of Jardin des Plantes called Grand Rond which wasn't mentioned in my guidebook. This turned out to be another good-sized park in the center of an enormous, impassable traffic circle. Fortunately there were pedestrian bridges arching over the road connecting the Grand Rond to the Jardin des Plantes and yet another park with a duck pond called Jardin Royal.
The sun was starting to go down and our bellies were rumbling. Fortunately we were close to my chosen dinner destination Chez Navarre, which was highly recommend by Lonely Planet for local Gascon cuisine. We weren't that impressed by the food but at least we were able to eat peacefully in the mostly empty restaurant. Afterwards we snapped a couple of pictures at the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne and then headed back to the central pedestrian zone. where we searched fruitlessly for a place to buy diapers for an hour before calling it a night.
We'd managed to see pretty much everything in central Toulouse during one full day of walking, so our only goal for our last morning was to eat at the other major market in the center, Marché des Carmes. The market was less showy than Les Halles but the produce and and meats still looked delicious.
We asked one of the vendors to recommend a restaurant at the market for lunch, and his choice provided us with a pleasant repast of market food including the usual magret.
We slowly made our way back to the Iceberg in its garage, pausing frequently to take pictures that would keep our memories fresh of our new favorite city in France.