Between them, the museums of Toulouse tell the story of the city itself. This post focuses on nine of them, starting with Terre de Pastel where you can discover how woad brought fabulous wealth to 15th century Toulouse and ending at La Cité de l’Espace which celebrates the city’s massive contribution to space travel. There’s something for everyone and this post will help you decide what you would like to see. There’s no mention of the city’s many art galleries however, because they are the subject of the next post.
woad and violets
Terre de Pastel is a museum-shop-spa which celebrates woad, the plant dye which brought staggering wealth to Toulouse in the 15th century. It was discovered that this little plant grew well around Toulouse and yielded a rich blue dye, a colour which it had been very difficult to produce up till then. Cultivation began, then exporting and merchants grew wealthy enough to build some of the huge stone mansions you still see in Toulouse today. At Terre de Pastel you can learn the history, have a sauna and beauty treatments and buy all sorts of goods – linens, jewellery, cosmetics – made using ‘pastel’ as woad is called in French.
La Maison de la Violette is a barge where workshops and tastings celebrate the city’s most famous flower, the violet. The story goes that a 19th century soldier from Piedmont brought violets from home for his Toulouse sweetheart, then the city fell in love with them and discovered they grow well here. Cue a cooperative in 1908, with 600 growers. These days, there’s an annual Fête de la Violette in February and you can buy such varied products as crystalised sweets, liqueurs, jams and honey and cosmetics in the city’s shops.
medecine and science
In medieval times, pilgrims would stop at Toulouse seeking rest and sometimes treatment at the Hôtel de Dieu St Jacques – still there today and serving as a hospital admin building. So, the city’s reputation for all things medical began and is remembered in two little museums, the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine, where tableaux and exhibits illustrate the story, and the Musée des Instruments de Médecine des Hopitaux de Toulouse, which displays surgical instruments from the past.
The Quai des Savoirs is the city’s big museum of science and technology, which opened in 2016. It leans on Toulouse’s proud history of scientific education – its well-regarded Académie Royale des Sciences opened in 1746, followed by the Académie de Chirurgie (surgery) in1788. Think exhibitions, workshops, hands-on experimentation areas, maybe a chance to meet researchers and, for the under 7s, a whole section where they too can discover science.
aviation and space technology
‘Toulouse is technology heaven. Ariane rockets are made there. The supersonic Concorde was born in Toulouse. It is Europe’s Seattle’. Thus wrote the American author, Mort Rosenblum. Today, the Airbus factory in Toulouse employs over 13,000 workers and is the biggest factory in France. So, yes, the city’s aviation industry – and the space technology which developed out of it – are indeed world class. The first aircraft factory was built in Toulouse in 1916 and after World War I, the air postal links between Toulouse and Africa and South America were ground-breaking.**
Today, you can visit the Airbus factory, watch planes in production from a panoramic viewing area and tour the site on a bus with a guide. Then there’s Aeroscopia, the aviation museum where you can see a timeline of aviation history, including what happened to it in Toulouse during World War II and how the Concorde and Airbus projects were developed in the city – including climbing inside one of each. There’s a look too into the future of aviation.
The aviation knowledge built up in Toulouse over the 20th century translates well into space technology and the CNES (France’s National Centre for the study of Space) was set up here in the 1960s. Today, they are working with over 40 other countries and 1 in 4 Europeans working in the space industry is based in Toulouse. These are all reasons to visit the Cité de l’Espace, 2500 square metres of exhibits, a moonwalk simulator, life-size spacecrafts to explore, a planetarium and an IMAX 3D cinema.
** A fascinating angle on the early history of aviation in Toulouse was told by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, derring-do pilot of the early air postal services from the city, whose story you can learn at Aeroscopia. He later wrote up his experiences in books like Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). He’s most famous, though, for the worldwide children’s hit, Le Petit Prince. His story, plus an extract from his work, is told on the podcast.
and finally ….. rugby!
Toulouse is rugby-crazy. It’s said that if you ask a Toulousain how big the Place du Capitole is, you may get the answer ‘about the size of a rugby pitch.’ The Toulouse team is usually packed with national players and had won the national championships a record-breaking 22 times at the time of writing in 2023. There’s even a local newspaper devoted solely to rugby, Le Midi Olympique, first published in 1929. You can visit their stadium, Le Stade Ernest Wallon to learn their history, go on a tour and maybe see a training session or meet the players. Of course, you could also go to a match!
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Links for this post
Links for this post
Terre de Pastel
La Maison de la Violette
Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
Musée des Instruments de Médecine des Hopitaux de Toulouse
Quai des Savoirs Science Museum
Visit the Airbus factory
Cité de l’Espace
Ernest Wallon Rugby Stadium