Words: Ian Murray

Jusqu’ a l’infine…et au-dela!

Which, as any French junior space cadet can tell you, means: To Infinity and Beyond!

There are a lot of space cadet wannabees in France these days, and not just starry-eyed youngsters. Plenty of ladies who are more of an age when they would be dreaming of going to lunch rather than the launch are mad keen for matters extra-terrestrial.

 

The cause is one Thomas Pasquet, the pretty boy of the French space programme who has become something of a rocket man for France’s female population.

‘As soon as we announced Thomas was coming the internet went crazy with people trying to book tickets,’ explained an over-excited Florence who was our guide to the Cite de l’espace located just outside Toulouse.

‘That’s because he is such a good ambassador for the French space programme and also what we are doing here,’ she quickly added, just in case perhaps we got the impression she herself was a little  starry-eyed over M. Tom.

Pasquet became a national celebrity while spending six months orbiting the earth in the International Space Station. There are plenty of photos of Thomas – at 40 the same age as France’s fresh-faced new President Macron – beaming his lunar smile and wearing his astronaut’s space suit, scattered around the impressive theme park just a short drive from Toulouse city centre.

Naturally there’s a heavy French lean – the European Space Agency does after all launch its rockets from French Guyana – but to be fair the Americans, Russians and Chinese get a good shout out. The only Mir Space Station on Earth (a training model never shot into space) is to be found at Cite de l’espace. Predictably, it’s the toilet facilities that attract the most attention, we were told.

As the nation’s hub for winged flight industry, Toulouse was a natural for the centre of the French space race. The fields surrounding the city were the base for pilot training and fighter plane manufacturing in the First World War. Toulouse’s distance from the fighting at the front made it a safe location for such a vital war effort.

Today the city is famous for the location of Air Bus, the European rival to America’s Boeing. Guided tours of the immense factory where the giant parts are assembled (the wings are made in the UK) are best booked in advance, such is their popularity. And although you are not allowed to get up close and test claims that a fully-grown adult can stand upright inside the fuel tanks located in the wings of the humungous Airbus 380, the tour doesn’t fail to entertain and impress. (Although they are coy to talk money, a basic A380 would set you back a cool $413m before personalised extras such as paint job and engines.)

The presence of Air Bus ensures Toulouse is a modern city with a vibrant, strong economy that acts as a draw for trendy young entrepreneurs, many of them emerging from the city’s universities.

Less than two-hours flight from London, Toulouse is far enough south to ensure the summer warmth lingers long into autumn and arrives early. On a bright day the Pyrenees are clearly visible, even if, as locals informed us, sight of the mountains inevitably means rain is on its way.

Known as the Pink City, Toulouse gets its name from the hue of the bricks used to build its mansions, churches and public buildings. Stone from the Pyrenees was considered far too expensive to transport for all but the super-rich of the 15th and 16th centuries when the city saw its first rise to prominence. Indeed, today the area can still boast it is the brick-making capitol of Europe.

But it was another colour that brought Toulouse its initial wealth and fortune. Dye manufacturers in the region perfected the art of extracting a particular shade of blue from the woad plant and when royalty adopted it as the new national colour – after dropping red due to its association with the Devil – the orders rolled in.

Religious wars and the arrival of indigo put paid to the woad trade after just a century, but that was sufficient time for enough of the city’s super-rich to build the most impressive pink palaces and support a wealth of churches that still dot the boulevards and avenues.

Once hidden behind plaster facades as unfashionable, the pink brick of even modest homes and shops has re-emerged to provide a warm background glow, especially in late afternoon and early evening along the banks of the Garonne River and in the city squares where the Toulousains gather.

As the heat of the day fades, hundreds wander down to the riverfront at the Daurade to stretch out on the grass and sip ice cold beer from the Pecheurs de Sable (sand fishers) bar and watch sight-seeing tour boats and even water-skiers.

Outside cafes and bars in Les Carmes, a bustling, vibrant part of the city, locals meet to swap gossip, show off their purchases from the city’s extensive shopping streets and talk of rugby, the region’s sporting passion.

As night falls there’s dinner Toulouse-style. In a city where the culture is a blend of influences from France and Spain as well as the region’s own distinct Pays d’Oc heritage, cuisine is just as varied and exciting. From French tapas at Borriguito where the tables are pushed to the side and dancing goes on until late, to sublime new creations at Le Murano from one of France’s emerging new culinary super-stars Valentin Neraudeau – who’s TV exposer and gym-bunny looks give even astronaut Tom a run for the ladies’ affections.

After dinner, the stars can appear even closer, and not just thanks to a surfeit of the local wines. Take the metro to the wonderfully named Jolimont observatory overlooking the city where the free night-time tour includes the chance to stare at infinity and beyond through enormous telescopes. All very Jules Verne.

And is that M. Tom waving back? Well, the stellar heartthrob has announced plans to return to the stars. If he does, then I suspect his lift-off will be accompanied by the sighs of enough French ladies to be heard in even the dark vacuum of space itself.

Fact Box

  • Getting there: There are regular flights from the UK to Toulouse. Both Easyjet and Ryanair offer direct flights.
  • Stay: The Hotel Les Beaux Arts overlooks the Garonne river. Quirky art throughout, bike hire available, superb food and opposite one of the city’s liveliest student bars. A five minute walk from river cruise pick-ups. Hoteldesbeauxarts.com
  • More information: Toulouse-visit.com

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