Finding Chez Nous In Toulouse

In which a search for an apartment reveals the city's history.

During our visit in July 2014 to explore Toulouse for the first time, my wife’s research institute provided us with a relocation expert, Audrey, to guide us around and help us find an apartment and navigate other tasks like setting up a bank account and enrolling the kids in school.

We met Audrey on a steamy July morning. As much as the first summer evening left me totally enchanted, we had arrived in the middle of a blistering heatwave, or canicule, now one of my favorite French words despite the uncomfortable connotations. We had heard the French were very formal, so I felt obliged to wear a long-sleeve shirt and suit pants, which were quickly soaked with sweat as we wandered through a variety of apartments.

As an American looking for an apartment in a Medieval European city, it was difficult to distinguish the subtle differences in the façades of the places we visited in a way that a French person could no doubt quickly identify. Every street we visited felt like stepping into a postcard. Even after 6 years in Toulouse, the feeling of being a tourist in the town where I live has never fully dissipated.

While all the neighborhoods seemed equally wonderful and historic to our eyes, Audrey clearly had opinions. She attempted to explain the differences, though indirectly, meaning the subtext was not immediately clear. Neighborhoods to the north of the Capitole tend to attract more students, she said. The neighborhoods to the South are more tranquille, she said. This neighborhood was more populaire, while that one was more bourgeois. She obviously pegged us to the latter.

What makes Toulouse so distinctive is an architecture dominated by bricks that came from material found in the region. Toulouse, and the Southwest of France including Albi and Carcassonne, experienced an economic boom in the 14th and 15th centuries thanks to the trade in pastel. This blue dye made from plants had become immensely popular after the king had adopted blue as the official royal color. Merchants built grandiose homes, hôtels particuliers, with towers and courtyards, as the city flourished.

One of my favorite in Toulouse is the l'hôtel d'Assézat, built by Pierre Assézat, who had become fantastically rich thanks to the Pastel trade. He began construction in 1555 and it remains remarkably well preserved today, and home to the Bemberg Museum. Anytime I walk by Assézat, I can’t resist walking through the magnificent portal and standing in the courtyard while staring at the collection of columns, grotesques masks, and brick patterns that make this such a wonder.

Eventually, the arrival of indigo from the Far East gutted the Pastel market. That meant that by the 19th century, Toulouse did not have the same wealth as cities such as Bordeaux and Paris, which razed nearly their entire city centers to get rid of their musty old Medieval looks and rebuilt them with widened streets and white, limestone exteriors that dominate to this day. Toulouse was stuck with its brick façades, a mark of poverty at the time but which today distinguishes this city and much of the Southwest from the homogeneity of most large French cities.


Home sweet home

Over two days, we visited more apartments and houses than I can remember, but gradually we began to get a sense of the city. Walking north from the Capitole, we followed Rue de Taur to the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, a red-brick, 12th-century church named in honor of the unlucky fellow sent by the Pope in the 3rd century to convert this Roman city. The locals didn’t go for it and eventually attached Sernin by rope to a bull (taur) which dragged him through the streets until he died. He left behind a legacy of martyrdom, a lovely Romanesque brick church built later in this honor, and the bull which is now a kind of mascot for Toulouse.

Just past his namesake church, I was delighted when we passed through the exterior of a rather plain building and discovered an entire free-standing house hidden within a courtyard. Three floors, though the interior was a mess with a musty and moldy smell which ruled it out. Just outside the city center, we visited a standalone house with a small backyard and garden, and that had been freshly remodeled inside to create an open kitchen. Tempting for sure, but the problem was that it was too similar to the home where we had lived in Oakland for 13 years. It just didn’t feel French.

Eventually, our hunting brought us to the Ozenne neighborhood and an apartment on Rue Perchepinte (“painted pole”). The neighborhood is nicknamed the quartiers de antiquaries in part because there are a dozen shops dedicated to crafts such as restoring ancient books, porcelain, and various other precious, historic objects.

Toulouse would offer a radically different ambiance than our Oakland neighborhood. Though we loved it dearly, when we bought our North Oakland house in late 2000, we found out after closing that it was located next to a crack house. Not a metaphorical one, but literal. In addition to regular drug dealing, the sewage pipe on the side of the neighboring house had a massive hole that the owners had attempted to cover with a flattened beer can and a coat hanger. Every time they flushed their toilet, a fountain of sewage sprayed out and ran down our driveway. In Toulouse, we would live across the street from a shop where an older man sits in the window during the evenings while painstakingly restoring paintings.

The remarkably quiet street, situated east of the Carmes market, led past a small plaza called Place Sainte-Scarbes with a small fountain topped by a statue of the Roman goddess Diane.

The street led further on to the Saint-Étienne Cathedral, one of France’s more unusual churches. So many architectural sites in France are all about the perfect realization of an artist’s dream. Cathedral Saint-Étienne is a majestic testament to failure. Dating from 1073, the original church is an early bit of Gothic design. In the late 13th century, the local bishop wanted to replace it with an even larger structure. The idea would be to tear down parts of the ancient structure in stages and gradually build the new version. But the project was only partially complete when the bishop died and money ran out. So today, the cathedral is a mutant of the old and new structures, an anomaly even more obvious from the inside where the structures don’t align. Still, it remains breathtaking thanks to its imperfections.

Living in Saint-Étienne’s shadows felt tempting even before we went to visit the apartment that would become our home. We pushed opened the massive wooden doors along Rue Perchepinte and walked through the tunnel that ended in a courtyard surrounded by a three-story building.

Though we didn’t know the history at the time, we had wandered into the one-time neighborhood of the nobles, who had typically built large, lavish homes with courtyards and gardens well hidden from the public. Many of them were members of the Parliament, which was a legal authority established by the King of France to counter the Capitouls, a local legal authority of merchants. Basically, Toulouse had rival gangs of city councils trying to impose their will on the locals with the result being the occasional inquisition and burning at the stake of people caught in the middle.

In this case, our building had been divided up over the years from a single, sumptuous hôtel particulier into a series of apartments. Two flights of stairs led us to the apartment where we have been living now since 2014.

With 2,200 square feet and 4.5 bedrooms, the apartment is almost twice the size of our Oakland home but far more affordable. Walking through the apartment meant wandering through a labyrinth. The kitchen is tiny, a legacy designed for servants whose comfort and convenience wasn’t given a thought. The adjacent dining room is inexplicably covered in lime-green wallpaper with silver stripes, and we began referring to it as the disco room.

There is a large foyer that then leads into a living room that overlooks the courtyard, followed by the master bedroom. From there, a small hall leads to a room that became my office, while a second hall leads through a walk-in closet which has another door leading to a bathroom. The agent showing the apartment theorized that these semi-secret doors were likely an efficient way to shuttle mistresses in and out. Past this other bathroom, a hall led back to the front foyer. Another hall from here led to a bedroom that looked out to the street. In addition, there were two sets of staircases leading up to two separate bedrooms for the kids.

The layout led to some surprising issues when we first moved in. Whereas the kids shared a bedroom adjacent to ours in Oakland, these new bedrooms were so physically distant that the kids had a tough time adjusting at first to being so far away and often slept on the floor of our bedroom. Also, the warren-like nature meant that finding one another often involved circumnavigating the apartment while shouting at each other to get a fix on everyone’s location.

After touring the apartment for the first time, we tried not to appear too excited. While it was indeed larger and a bit pricier than other options in Toulouse, the oddness of its layout and the location gave it a romantic vibe. It felt French, or at least not American. It would take much longer to feel like home.