A Travellerspoint blog

France

Hot in the city

A couple of days in Toulouse bracketing a visit to Andorra

sunny 33 °C

This is to be my first journey outside of the UK since I finished my RTW trip in December and, even though it will only constitute a week in Western Europe, I'm feeling that tingling that accompanies any impending departure. I haven't taken a budget airline flight for approximately a decade, and there's a mounting sense of disbelief as I navigate my way through the online booking system, realising how the airline is making it next to impossible for a passenger to pay only the tantalisingly low price in the adverts. Hold baggage, selecting a seat, and checking in at the airport will all add to the cost. I'm starting to feel proud of myself for avoiding all these additional extras, but then I reach the payment stage and find that every possible payment option will incur an administration fee. Still, I shouldn't complain at a return fare that comes in at under £100.

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My intended destination is Andorra, that small mountain principality nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. I will be visiting a friend, AD, who I first met in Ushuaia in the very south of Argentina in 2008. He is Israeli but spent half of his childhood in Argentina. His background is in physics, in particular nanomanufacturing. Those facts do not explain why he is now teaching science in a secondary school in Andorra. Our friendship formed due to both having been part of, and then rejecting, the rat race. In our different ways, we're now both searching for a more satisfying alternative.

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There is no airport in Andorra so I have to choose between Toulouse and Barcelona as my jumping-off point. I opt for Toulouse, having never been there. AD has also only briefly visited the city so we agree to meet up there and spend a couple of days before heading for Andorra for the bulk of my time.

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I leave York on a mild afternoon, boarding a trans-Pennine train service that trundles its way to Manchester Airport with a selection of suitcase-wielding passengers. The rituals of the security check, buying food at inflated prices, and sitting around waiting are all carried out, reminders that the overland style of travel I favoured during my RTW trip is preferable in most ways.

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A scant two hours on the plane sees us descending to Toulouse and the pilot gives the unwanted tidings that the outside temperature is 31C. This is at 10PM. Exiting the aircraft informs me that it's extremely muggy too. Not being a fan of either heat or humidity, this isn't a good first impression.

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I catch a bus into the city centre, driven by a young woman in a most un-bus-driver-like short skirt. I know little about the geography of Toulouse, other than the name of the stop where I need to get off and the directions from there to the hostel, so I ask the driver to let me know when we reach the stop. She assures me this will be no problem. Fifteen minutes later, as I start seeing signs for the train station, I suspect we've gone too far and get off. As I disembark, I catch the driver's eye in the rear view mirror, but it would appear she forgot my request seconds after I made it.

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I only need to retrace a few hundred metres back along the route, but it's sweaty work. Finding the hostel is straightforward, though the dorm lights are off - not because everyone is sleeping, but in order to reduce the heat. The lack of both aircon and a fan, and the reluctance of the sultry air to sweep a breeze through the open windows, means the atmosphere is sauna-like. Four chatty young girls confirm that an Israeli guy is also here but has wandered off somewhere. Seconds later, AD appears, sporting an even thicker beard than the one he had when I last saw him in Edinburgh just a couple of months ago. It's great to see him, and we immediately leave in search of a bar to catch up on recent events.

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AD has only just started learning French, and mine is poor despite many years at school, but it's still annoying when the waiter swats our attempts aside and insists on pursuing the conversation in English. With a large, cold beer gradually working its way through my system, the heat of the night seems to abate slightly. Though AD is from the Middle-East, his time in Andorra has made him a fan of mountain climates - sunny, warm days, cool nights, and low humidity are his preferences, so the Toulouse weather is as unpopular with him as it is with me. We decide to only stay for one full day.

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As we sit outside the bar, I remember that the World Cup final must have finished in the last hour or so. It doesn't take long to determine who won, as the streets fill with beeping cars trailing Spanish flags behind them. Vuvuzelas are blown, "Viva Espana" shouted, and red football shirt-clad Spaniards raise their arms in triumph. This will continue through the night.

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Noise isn't the only thing that keeps me awake. The thick air of the dorm combines with my excitement at being in a new place to ensure I have little sleep. There are also plenty of mosquitos and it would appear that the great love of my blood exhibited by the Asian, African, and South American mosquitos I met on my previous travels is matched by that of their French brethren. BBC Weather had forewarned me about the temperature and humidity here but the mosquito menace is unexpected and unwanted.

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The following day is fresher though still hot, and AD and I venture out for some sightseeing. Toulouse is the home of Airbus Industries, but it's the older elements of the city that prove most appealing. The wooden shutters and ornate iron balcony railings reek of southern Europe, the many cafes one of the things I love about France. We take every opportunity to have a break, stopping for coffee and chit-chat in shaded plazas. The parks in the city are stocked with trees, flowers, and fountains that give some relief from the weather. The heat couples with the nation's chic fashion sense to ensure an interesting parade of Frenchwomen.

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My last experience of France was Paris last December, which was my first ever visit to the capital and left me totally in love with the place. Toulouse seems to have significantly more social problems. There are many homeless, drunks, and beggars. The area near the station is awash with hookers, even during the daytime. We see several crazies, one of whom approaches a nearby cafe table and begins singing loudly just inches away from the face of a customer. A drunk guy slumped in a shop doorway is cuffed by the police then taken away in their car. Even the wall-mounted condom machines, found on streets rather than in bars, seem more sleazy than practical.

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AD and I are both fans of eat-as-much-as-you-like buffets, and the helpful girl at Tourist Information points us in the direction of one, in a restaurant called Flunch. I would strongly advise that you don't go there. It's a half-hearted effort at best - you only have one helping of meat, and the unlimited vegetable dishes are predominantly carbs. On our visit, fellow diners included a chap with an affected sneezing style which he aired at regular intervals, a fat woman stuffing herself with chips while her child roamed the tables screaming and hitting other customers with a balloon, and a homeless man who grabbed leftover plates before the wait staff came to take it away. One group of diners accosted the homeless guy - I assumed they were asking him to leave, but in fact they were pointing him towards a microwave oven that he could use to reheat the half-eaten food. This was comfortably the most disappointing eating experience I've had anywhere in France.

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We head to the Place St-Pierre for the evening. Though it's out of term time, the area is alive with student-age kids. A couple of them at a neighbouring table decide to bawl out "Danny Boy", though I'm unclear if that's because they heard us talking in English or just felt a sudden urge to sing it. It's a lively atmosphere that dimly recalls my own student days of twenty years (twenty years!!) ago.

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We spend the next few days in Andorra (blogged separately) but circumstances dictate that I have to spend another full day in Toulouse while waiting for my flight back home. It's a Sunday, meaning little is open and I nurse several Diet Cokes for an age in one of the expensive, buzzing cafes looking onto the Place du Capitole. I conduct some pottering based around the loose premise of finding a couple of empanada shops - sadly, they're both closed and there is no indication on their doors as to what days and hours they are open.

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Summer does not seem to me an appealing time to visit Toulouse, and I wonder if its charms are more readily accessible in a cooler season. There's a good chance I'll be back again the next time I'm in transit to Andorra, so should have the opportunity to test that hypothesis out. This time, though, I board a bus to the airport, and look forward to the colder air of North Yorkshire.

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Dull but possibly useful info
i. I live in York, so the best combinations of cheapness/convenience to Toulouse are BMI Baby from Manchester, or Jet2 from Leeds-Bradford. BMI Baby flies on Wednesday (6:55AM), Friday and Sunday (both 7PM), returning on Wednesday (10:35AM), Friday and Sunday (10:40PM). Jet2 flies only on Saturday (10:40AM), returning on Saturday (7:55PM). For the days I wanted to fly, BMI Baby was much cheaper.
ii. There are many trains each day between York and Manchester Airport. The last train to York departs at 12:48AM, so even if you have to catch the late BMI Baby flight back from Toulouse, you'll still have enough time to get the last train home.
iii. The train station at Manchester Airport is only about 15 minutes' walk from the furthest terminal.
iv. There are regular buses from Toulouse Airport into the centre of town, costing €5. Just follow the signs in the airport.
v. In Toulouse, I stayed at a hostel called La Petite Auberge de Compostelle, paying €18 for a bunk in a 6-bed mixed dorm. I wasn't very impressed, mainly because there was no aircon or fan to help alleviate the heat/humidity, and leaving the windows open left us prey to mosquitos. In addition, you have to pay an extra €4 for sheets if you don't bring your own sleeping bag/sleep sheet - in almost every hostel I've stayed in anywhere in the world, you're requested to NOT use your own sleeping stuff because of the risk of bringing in bed bugs or other nasties, so I'm not sure why the reverse is true here. The dorm also contains a kitchenette, meaning everyone else has to smell any food that you might be cooking, plus if you arrive late at night then consideration for other guests means that you can't use the facilities. There's also no common area, so the only people you're likely to meet are those in your dorm. On the plus side, the hostel's in a good location and it was the only one listed on Hostelworld.
vi. If you're a fellow empanada-lover, try Empanadas Argentinas at 3 Rue des Gestes, or Casa Empanada at 45 Rue des Tourneurs. Both are south of, and close to, the Place du Capitole. Then let me know what they're like.
vii. For information about getting to Andorra, see my Andorra blog.

Posted by mohn 20:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

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