Toulouse – just for a day

Chasing Cathars

Toulouse was our first stop on a recent road trip exploring the south of France. Since we’re a bit nerdy we needed an over-arching topic, an excuse so to say, for why we would spend 12 days driving from one medieval wonder to the next. Shortly before I read about the Cathars, an early – and frankly rather crazy – Christian sect that intersected brillantly with the fierce sense of pride and independence that shapes the region until today.
Without going in too much detail (that will come later) the Cathars – that never called themselves that – believed in a dualistic world, where everything physical, eg reality – was created by an evil god, and only the spiritual world is Gods domain with a capital “G”. Just like other christian communities they propagated a lifestyle of poverty, nonviolence and vegetarism. One of their staunchest supporters – at least for a while until he got a better from the king of France – were the Dukes of Toulouse, that rivalled the French crown at the time. In the early 13th century the French inquisition started a crusade to get rid of the Cathars, that is sometimes referred to as the Albigensian Crusade. Depending of what source one consults this crusade lasted between 20 and 35 years and there is an apocryphal story that’s probably made up but illustrates the mindset of these crusaders handsomely. in 1209 papal troups under the legate Arnaud Amalric where closing in on Bezier, demanding the surrender of 200 known Cathars. When the city declined the siege began. After an unsuccesful sortie the sacking of Beziers commenced, leading to one of the worst atrocities of an era rich in violence and hypocrisy. When asked how to tell the good (Catholics) from the bad (heathens, heretics, Cathars) Amalric supposedly said “Kill them all, God knows his own”. Like I said, it’s probably just a story but gives you an idea of the mindset of these people. Of course this conflict was about religion on the face of it, but in the end, like all of them, it was about power, wealth and influence. It is no coincidence that a lot of the region’s most magnificent churches and palaces were built just after the crusade – the spoils of war paid for it.

Evening light over the Garonne river, Toulouse

Anyway, back to topic. For us, Toulouse was just a convenient starting point for our roundtrip, so we decided to schedule just one day – a decision I came to regret, Toulouse is an overall amazing place. We booked a cheap hotel close to the central station, mainly because it had free parking and was just a short walk from the historical centre. To get there though we had to walk through a mixed neighbourhood (that’s an euphemism, in case you were wondering. It was poor, there were pushers and prostitutes, and it was all very lovable and lively.)

Because we really didn’t have that much time, we opted to just start walking in the direction of the Garonne river and see what sights we would stumble upon. It turns out a lot. Most of historical Toulouse concentrates on a vaguely triangular piece of land maybe 2km on a side, with all the modern bits outside of that. One of the first things we noticed,was that many of the majour landmarks were made out of bricks – veritable mountains of bricks. Where in other parts of the world I have visited, the most common medieval building material would be lime- or sandstone, here almost everything is made out of the cheap standardized bricks in shades varying from ocker, through yellowish tones to a luminous red. Toulouse being a river city – the Garonne is an impressive stream here – clay was readily available, but cost was not the only reason to forgo the more prestigious stones. In the middle ages the south of France was a wild country, hard to control. Outside the towns and cities it was hard for the ruling nobles to actually execute their power – France is just to big and even today cities and villages are sometimes dozens of kilometers apart. So, highwaymen ruled the roads in large parts and transporting stones from the nearby Cevennes mountains or the Pyrenees was a long and ardous business and a lot of the transports wouldn’t have reached their destinations withour armed protection. That was a problem even 500 years later, in Louis XIV’s tightly centralized France, although in his case, he couldn’t get the timber he needed from the mountains to the port cities on the English channel to build his fleet. So he bought it in the Balticum, but that’s a different story.

Another thing is the large percentage of young people. Toulouse is a student and high-tech city and since we arrived on a Friday, come evening thousands of 20-somethings populated the bridges and plazas by the river to have a beer, smoke weed or just catch up.

Hotel-Dieu Saint-Jacques

Back to Sightseeing though, first stop: the Hotel—Dieu Saint-Jacques, a hospital dating back over 800 years. As the name suggests (~Dieu=God) this hospital was a religious institution, even if saying that about any old building in Toulouse is a bit redundant, because it is true for most of its biggest hits, so to say. The former is hospital has long been secularized but the last patients only left in 1983. It always stuns me, that there are institutions that can survive for that long. Today it is home to a number of big research institution and the museum for medical history.

Hote-Dieu de Saint Jacques

Couvent des Jacobins

Second on the list is the Jacobins Convent (Couvent des Jacobins). The name is in fact a bit misleading, because Jacobins refers to two different groups of people. The older definition is just another name for the monastic order of the Dominicans – the 2nd refers to a group of followers of the French 18th century revolutionary Robbespierre that met in the Dominican monastery in Paris – and there are a number of increasingly adventurous conspiracy theries involving freemasons and Templars. Anyway, right after Duke Raimond VII. Signed the peace treaty of Paris, effectively ending the Cathar Crusade, the order started building a convent not far from the Garonne. It stands to reason that it was at least in part paid for by the Cathars, that were either dead or in hiding, leaving behind most of their wordly possessions.
The whole compound consists of a number of buildings arranged formal garden with a cross-coat all the way round. The church itself is a massive 80m long open space with a vaulted ceiling and a shrine for the remains of Thomas of Aquin – although the head was lost in the turmoil of the French Revolution when it was first looted and later secularized along with everything else of the disbanded Dominicans.
The cross-coat/cloister had me instantly thinking of every middle-ages movie I’ve ever watched, even though it had little beach chairs along two sides for the weary pilgims on the Santiago de Compostela. But with a little luck you could snatch a moment with no one in sight and imagine yourself in Name of the Rose. The feeling was helped along by a man and a woman, solemnly walking along the line of elegant columns chanting. They entered a side chapel filled with congregants. I don’t know anything about sacral music but it was beautiful and had power. I am far from being Christian or religious in any other way, but the combination of those very old buildings, music and the pilgrims did somehow still felt sublime in a way I can’t quite describe even months later. At a later point of this roadtrip I even cried a little for the beauty of a church, the dedication and craftsmanship involved. Maybe it’s that; the sheer effort it took? And even now, 800 years later, people take it upon them to walk hundreds of kilometers, sleeping uncomfortably, to pray in these places, all for an old fairytale.

Saint Sernin

Anyway, we have another ridiculously large pile of bricks to cover. Saint Sernin, named after the first bishop of Toulouse and built on the foundations of a 4th century basilica, sports a octagonal bell tower that’s even higher than that of the Jacobins. Construction started in the 11th century but the time line is extremely complicated and historians still argue about it, so I will spare you any details. Just like many other places of worship it owes its importance – and wealth – to the bones of dead saints – relics. In this case most of them generously donated by Charlemagne himself, enabling a successful business culminating in the building you see today a couple of centuries later.

Drip grafitti

Last, but most definitely not least I wanted to show you this unique form of graffiti tags. You can find them everywhere in Toulouse. What makes it special is the technique used to create those otherwise unremarkable tags. It seems like they just used a brush or something else and simply dripped theis names in paint on the sidewalk.

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