Our first stop in Toulouse was a national historic monument -- okay, so it also happens to be a bar.
At Le Pere Louis, we stood around a fat wood barrel and drank quinquina, a wine aperitif flavored with an extract of the Peruvian tree, with about three generations of boisterous Toulousians. The walls were long ago painted with scenes of the city and the Garonne Riverp and now wore a deep amber patina from 115 years of exposure to tobacco smoke that shows no sign of going away.
Toulouse prides itself on its food (its specialty is cassoulet), and visitors can stock up on fresh produce at the Victor Hugo Market.
(Robert V. Camuto)
Our friends Christian and Maryvonne were showing my wife, 10-year-old son and me around during our two-day stay in their city. Christian, a doctor, spends most weekdays in Paris and commutes home on weekends to France's fourth-largest city, about 400 miles southwest of the capital. He described the differences between the two cities, starting with the obvious: Toulouse is Mediterranean, warmer and has more days of sunshine, he explained. As a result, Toulousians spend a lot of time outdoors and in the streets and cafes.
"Also, in Paris," he said with a pained expression, "most people are énervé [irritable] most of the time.
"In Toulouse, on the other hand, people are less énervé," he continued. "Toulouse is more relaxed . . . plus cool."
In fact, Toulouse may be the plus cool city in France. It is certainly one of the youngest, owing to a population of some 100,000 university students and its role as the center of France's hot aerospace industry.
On a much smaller scale than Paris, Toulouse's center of inviting public plazas and winding pedestrian streets lined with Renaissance-era mansions can be explored without any need for a taxi or the city's mini-size Metro. Yet Toulouse has ample opportunities for culture, adventure and romance -- with lower prices and fewer tourists.
With the sagging U.S. dollar feeling only slightly more valuable than the obsolete franc, Toulouse and other regional capitals offer something nearly impossible to find in Europe's big tourist-trampled cities: value. Restaurants, hotels and diversions in Toulouse cost about half the price of their Parisian counterparts.
Where Paris has Notre Dame, Toulouse has St. Sernin Basilica, France's most magnificent Romanesque-era pilgrimage church. Like nearly all of old Toulouse, it is constructed of the weathered red bricks that give the city its moniker, La Ville Rose.
Where Paris has the Seine with its grandiose bridges, Toulouse has the Garonne, with views of the Pyrenees Mountains. Long riverboats carting tourists and diners glide along the murky waters of both rivers. But Toulouse in summer also has water-skiers.