I’m excited to be visiting Toulouse today. It’s easy enough to get there from Quillan; an hour on the train to Carcassonne and another hour from there to Toulouse. The 1 euro fare to Carcassonne is remarkably cheap. It’s another 16 euros for the second leg from Carcassonne to Toulouse and the same fare for the return. The trains are excellent: clean, smooth, quiet, uncrowded. My train left Quillan, with me on it, at 6.04am. Breakfast at Toulouse, then.
Having never been to Toulouse and not having a guide book or internet access, I am a little unsure how I will use my time there. My plan is to find a tourist office soon after arriving and get a map and list of tourist sites. I know that some of the major attractions, like the space centre and Airbus, are outside the central city, so unlikely to fit into my itinerary. However, I think there will be plenty to interest me in the central city.
Now I’m there and sitting awash in an ocean of sound. It’s a chance to think and to stop having to think. I’m listening to an organist being tutored on a pipe organ that the tourist information says is one of the finest around. It does sound amazing. It’s thundering Bach on me. After the final crashing chord with full organ, the sound resonates maybe another four or five seconds. I’m in Saint Sernin Basilica. It is very long and very tall. This must be the chamber for which the pipe organ was invented.
The organ music continues. Not Bach any more. Widor? Messiaen? Because it’s a lesson, I hear passages unexpectedly interrupted by the tutor. It’s impossible for me to hear any of his words – the acoustics are not for speech. How my mum would love to play this organ! How my dad would love to hear her play this organ! It takes me back to my very young days when I would sit on the carpeted sanctuary step while my mum practised the organ at St David’s. Happy, comforting memories. Funny how long-forgotten things are remembered unexpectedly when travelling.
I am finding Toulouse pleasant. It is the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles. I know nothing of Marseilles but I can see that Toulouse is cleaner and more relaxed than Paris or Lyon. I’m near the 900-year-old university of Toulouse. Perhaps I’m in a student part of town. Perhaps that’s why it has a relaxed and optimistic feel to it. I’m heading back outside for lunch and to see more of this town. I wish I had some way to thank the organist.
St Etienne Cathedral on the other side of the old town is, surprisingly, even bigger than St Sernin Basilica. But it’s hard to appreciate its size. In fact what most strikes me, as a visitor with no prior knowledge of this cathedral, is that it has a very strange shape. Apparently its asymmetry results from merging of buildings hundreds of years ago and from part of the plan never being completed. It’s quirky and beautiful. Like St Sernin’s, it appears to be a lively functioning church. The notice boards have plenty of information about events and things.