Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 13: Montauban to Toulouse

It feels cold this morning, the sky is a uniform felted grey, it's drizzling outside. We wander down to breakfast and survey a familiar scene: this is our daily bread, and croissants, ham and cheezzzzzzzzzzeee.... oh I'm so tired of it.

I'd just worked my way through my plateful when my eyes glanced at the wall above the table carrying the buffet. I feel like sawing my head off. There, bold as brass, for all to see, was a poster. There was a picture of a plate of rashers of bacon, grilled tomatos, hash browns, fried eggs, toast, sausage... the headline said 'If you'd like an English Breakfast just ask" I felt like becoming instantly bulimic. Noooooo - Gary, look what we missed.

The Garonne canal
Thankfully the drizzle had stopped when we set off for Toulouse - Last night we purchased sandwiches and water from a small supermarche in Montauban - no need to worry about where lunch is coming from today. We cross a large bridge heading out of town, traffic is light, quickly we're onto a bike path at the side of the road. We make our way along quiet roads towards Montech where we join the Canal du Garonne - the towpath surface is excellent, smooth and ideal for an easy, flat ride today. It's a beautiful route with plane trees sheltering us from the sun. The canals over here are poles apart from what we're used to at home. They're much wider for a start, up to 20 metres in places and the towpaths are wide too, it's possible to ride side-by-side for most of the route and there's very little traffic - a few boats but hardly any people or other cyclists.

Canalside cafe
We pass a small canalside cafe and stop for a bolstering coffee before taking our lunch on a bench sheltered by the ubiquitous plane trees - there must be thousands lining this canal. And then its on to Toulouse - La Ville Rose - the romantic pink city, due to the colour of the stone and bricks used in many of the buildings. It's a big, bustling metropolis, teeming with traffic and packed with people. We carefully weave our way through the busy streets and finally locate our hotel - it looks dubious, the area is rough, there's a strip club next door. Our bikes are left in a corridor and we head to our room. The hotel feels tired and has the feint whiff of disinfectant. In the street outside is a pool of blood. We wander towards the city centre, the streets full of people of all nationalities, carrying, pushing and pulling luggage. The sun is strong and it's probably the hottest day we've encountered so far. We spot a small pavement bar on the junction of a busy throughfare. we stop for a beer and Gary has a croque monsieur. The place is heaving, as are all the bars/cafes. Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, it has one of the oldest Universities in Europe and a student population of 100,000 - the whole place feels like one big fiesta.

We carry on walking and the general feel and ambience shifts - the streets are wide and pedestrianised - the buildings and shops are grand and exude a sense of exclusivity and quality. There is a gastonomy festival taking place with lots of artisan stalls selling local produce. There's an oyster bar and I'm tempted. For Gary this is a definite no-no - last time he eat oysters he was ill for a week. We move on through the hectic streets eventually stumbling upon the main central square with its imposing buildings and hotels. There's a market here and we find a seat at a bar and sit and watch for a while. We sip at cold beer and pastis as an endless stream of people passes. I'm feeling more relaxed and comfortable here - this part of town feels much better than where our hotel is located.

We explore further, stumbling upon a dark tavern in a side street - it's like something from Harry Potter inside, there are oak barrels, wooden floors with just wine for sale. The man behind the counter is preparing frites for his evening menu. We ask for a couple of glasses of the local wine - it's very good. We carry on exploring the vast boulevards and many side streets. We take supper at an Italian restaurant overlooking a small square with a fountain in the middle. There are three soldiers armed with machine guns patrolling the street. The menu has some interesting translation: 'Ravioli stuffed in the ricotta and in spinach wipes cream in the parmesan'. I'll give that a miss. We've got a long ride tomorrow so I think pasta will be a good option - Spaghetti for me, Gary opts for Pizza. I overhear the lady next to us ordering 'un verre de vin blanc' - sounds like an English accent. We get chatting to the couple who retired here 15 years ago. Clearly it must have been early retirement. They are in the city to attend a cinema screening of a Dave Gilmour concert. They originally lived in Abbotts Bromley, a village I know well and not more than 20 miles from where I live. Small world.

As darkness falls we make our way back to the hotel - it seems quieter now that when we arrived, less threatening. We stop off for a final beer on the way but we're in bed by 10.30 - tomorrow is a long day.

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