Friday, 1 April 2011

In praise of my neighbourhood.

I've mentioned often enough that we live in Toulouse, yet, beautiful as much of the city is, there's practically no part of it I'd care to live in outside of the Carmes neighbourhood where we have our flat. Carmes was the original site of the city, a Carmelite convent back in the days when virtually every large building had at least a quasi-religious function. The city spread towards what is now the geographic centre, the Place du Capitole with its impressive Capitolium (hundreds of pictures on the internet), spawning monasteries and convents in its wake - les Augustins and les Jacobins to name but two. They're all museums now and the original Carmelite convent is no longer there but what is it about Les Carmes that makes it the most sought-after neighbourhood in the city?

Basically, it has the lot: beautifully maintained old buildings, a wonderful - though expensive - covered market, scores of cafés and individual boutiques, a library, excellent schools (including a bilingual French-Occitane pre-school and primary), all located a stone's throw from the centre and the park complex, yet seemingly a million miles away, such is the village feeling of the area. The only chain here is a branch of the wine merchant Nicolas, and even then, he's surrounded by three independent, family-run wine sellers who also do a roaring trade. Rue Pharaon contains a selection of the best restaurants in the region - La Braisière, Le Petit Bacchus, Les Mangevins to name just three, as well as possessing a specialist cobbler and shoe supplier (a beautiful shop, right out of the nineteenth century), numerous art galleries and bookbinders. There's also a gun shop and a spray paint emporium for those with the IQ of mayonnaise. The celebrated Toulouse chocolatier Pillon has its workshops, restaurant and points of sale here, as does the institution Le Domaine de Lastours, specialising in fine liqueurs, cigars, chocolates, teas and coffees. A breath of the empire, in short. There are countless other independent hardware shops, bakeries, jewellers and gift shops, but I'd just recommend you to take a trip to Toulouse and investigate the neighbourhood yourselves; you won't regret it.

From Place des Carmes, you can walk to the main shopping centre in less than five minutes. You arrive at Rue de Metz, cross over and realise that all good things must come to an end. It's like an urban version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: you step out of paradise straight into South Central LA. I'm exaggerating, of course; the dead centre is also architecturally striking, but now you're in the world of Zara, endless mobile phone shops, perfume chains and opticians. Vacant-looking couples wander seemingly aimlessly through the old streets with tacky branded shopping bags on their shoulders. For me, it's living hell and I can never wait to exit this purgatory and cross the rubicon that is the Rue de Metz to rejoin civilisation.

As my work is in the most central part of Toulouse, I experience both neighbourhoods every day. There's no nicer feeling after clocking off than hitting Place des Carmes for a quick coffee before climbing the two flights of stairs to be with the family. Better to have too little room in a place like this than too much in a warzone.

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