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Les Carmes, Toulouse - France

An old quarter in a city that wears the culinary and architectural influences of Occitanie and Spain on its sleeve, and loves its duck – and rugby – discovers Alex Mead

Travel Time 1hrs 10min

Why go?

The beating heart of France’s Occitanie region, with Andorra and Spain on its doorstep, roughly halfway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and with the Pyrenees just down the road… There’s little Toulouse doesn’t have going for it. Famed for the rose hue created by the sun dancing on its terracotta bricks – hence the moniker ‘Pink City’ – it’s also known for its passion for all things duck; spectacular architecture; the epic Basilica of Saint-Sernin; being a stop-off for pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela; and as the home of Europe’s most successful rugby team (it’s also a host city for this year’s Rugby World Cup).

The city is accessible enough to explore on foot over a couple of days, but the essential neighbourhood is Les Carmes, the Old Town, bordered on one side by the Garonne, spliced through by a Roman road, and home to an endless array of architectural wonders, both religious and private mansions, all with their own vivid stories to tell.

Wandering from neighbouring Saint-Étienne to Les Carmes, passing through place Mage and along rue de la Dalbade, the streets and squares are rich in history at every turn. The covered market (see far right) has been central to the area since the 13th century, and the people who once lived here are forever remembered in street names: net makers, merchants, cutlers and polinaires (metal polishers). It was the site of a Carmelite Convent until it was destroyed during the French revolution, but the area is still home to Notre Dame de la Dalbade, a 15th-century cathedral in the southern gothic style. It’s also been a hub for parliament; and in the more refined Saint- Etienne, the great and the good have set up home in splendid townhouse mansions made from only the finest stone – one, in particular, is said to be made using stone that was originally intended to form lions’ heads in one of the city’s bridges.

What to do

Where to stay

The ease with which you can get around Toulouse means you don’t need to stay in the heart of the Old Town, but if you want to get immersed in its history, book an apartment at La Tour Croix Baragnon, housing four spaces within a 16th-century former private mansion from the Toulouse Renaissance era. Traces can be found of an even earlier era, particularly in its 14th-century gothic windows. Elegantly kitted out, they do justice do their stylish setting.

Step it up to five stars with La Cour des Consuls Hotel & Spa, which manages to weave together its 16th-century origins – although it actually stretches across two properties, the second being a youthful building from the 18th century – with the guest expectation of a modern luxury hotel. A courtyard is hidden behind the neo-classical front, and it’s also home to a Michelin-starred restaurant, with an enviable wine list to match the much-vaunted food.

On the doorstep of Les Carmes you’ll find the characterful Hotel des Beaux Arts overlooking the Garonne, inexpensive but full of charm and nice touches, with a reassuringly creaky staircase to reflect its years of experience. The perfect place to enjoy a drink with fellow travellers during one of its happy hours.

Similarly, Hotel des Arts is right in the heart of Toulouse, and although three-star, has everything you need for a comfortable stay in a hard-to-beat location. Just a dozen rooms, all individually decorated, and offering a great breakfast.

Where to eat and drink

Place de la Trinité and its famed fountain marks the northern boundary of the neighborhood. It’s hard to go wrong here, but start with a glass at Chez Mamie, then head to rue des Filatiers, home to Croq’Michel, for the best croque monsieur by Michelinstarred – and celeb – chef Michel Sarran.

At the end of the street lies the 125-year-old Marché des Carmes, where the locals shop. Discover the region’s foie gras, saucisson, and duck every which way and sample tapas, charcuterie and cheese boards with local wines. Or call into Cécile, located under the market and accessible from the outside, if only to try the veal pork pie with foie gras and morel mushrooms.

Safe bets for coffee, tea and cake are EK Pâtisserie, The Bakery Corner, Au Poussin Bleu, and Maison Pillon for chocolate.

For dinner, Une Table à Deux, opposite the Paul Dupuy Museum in rue de la Pleau, offers regional produce in a very reasonable £52 six-course tasting menu.

Or make a foray into central, upmarket Saint-Etienne and dine beside the imposing cathedral at La Gourmandine Côté Cathédrale.

For the best wines, it’s Maison Sarment or Le Bar du Matin on place des Carmes, and for cocktails make for popular haunts Tempête or L’Agence.

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