The French Connection: Day 10 – Toulouse Le Trek

Harry, the guide on the only English-language walking tour of Toulouse, is American with an impressive mix of Glaswegian and Stockport accents. He appeared in a red Hawaiian short – impossible to miss – saying that it was either an umbrella or the shirt to indicate he was a tour guide.

He’s lived in Toulouse for 21 years and because nobody understood his accent he taught himself to speak like Ross from “Friends“.

A woman dashed over to apologise that she and her partner would be late. They’d gone into a cafe and discovered that it would take a while to get a coffee which, she said, “being German, that was a real shock”.

But we were all early for the tour, not bad for a Sunday morning.

“The key thing to understanding 13th Century Toulouse, you have to understand the Cathars,” began Harry and while sharing some gruesome history, were were in for a highly entertaining walk. Think ‘Horrible Histories‘ but for adults and really nasty.

I’ve already blogged about some of the reasons why the Catholic Church had a problem with Catharism. Other issues were the fact that Cathar Perfects (equivalent of priests) taught people to READ. Literacy rates reached 20% in this region – impressive for the 12th Century and the highest in Europe.

One in five of the population at the time was Cathar. The Dominican Order established what we refer to as the “Spanish Inquistion” in Toulouse – this part of the world was Spain – and within 83 years the Cathars were wiped out.

Taking a brief pause from the Cathars, yesterday, I posted about the martyring of Saint Saturnin. Stand by for an update with a twist. Toulouse Matabiau is where the bull died. Not the bishop. And the bull died because two of the bishop’s parishioners, two young girls, were so outraged by the killing of Saturnin that they decided to track down the bull.

“What did THAT day look like?” wondered Harry. “Right, Agnes. The Romans have just murdered the bishop. Let’s go kill the bull that did it.”
“You hold it down while I stab it.”

Back to the Cathars, jumping forward a few hundred years, and specifically the process by which the Church eliminated them. In order to train the members of the Spanish Inquisition who would be recruited from the newly created University of Toulouse for this very purpose (CLEVER religious zealots were required), the Jacobins Convent was established.

I’d passed the Convent yesterday and assumed it to be a convent, you know, with nuns, but, no this was actually the training school for the Inquisitors and “one of the most evil places on the planet at the time,” said Harry.

To “celebrate” the inauguration of the Jacobins Convent the Bishop of Toulouse and the Head of the Convent decided to visit a dying Cathar woman. She was on her deathbed and they thought they’d spend the day converting her back to Catholicism. They failed and, rather than leave her to die peacefully, they had their accompanying soldiers kill her.

The Convent does hold a relic of Saint Thomas of Aquinas. More than one or two churches do. Apparently, this does not mean they’re all fakes. The medieval practice was to cut up the bodies of dead saints and spread the relics far and wide, acknowledging the fact that your average peasant wouldn’t be able to travel that far. This one has got his head.

We called at Eglise de la Daurade which is actually a Basilica and a much more important one that Saint Saturnin’s. It’s got a relic but you’d have no idea it was important if you went on external appearances – it looks like an appartment building.

This church holds the Black Virgin of Toulouse. For centuries the church ran a  “Best Dressmakers Competiton” every 25 years and the winner would be displayed on the Virgin. 20th Century winners included Georgio Armani and Coco Chanel. From the 18th Century, dresses given to pregnant women as a blessing.

What the church doesn’t like to advertise is the fact that the original statue was stolen in 1820s. However, once you’ve achieved  Basilica-status you never lose it. They don’t unmake you a basilica.

On of my favourite stories from today was the tale of the 700 aviators. Airbus began life in Toulouse after recruiting pilots who were out of work after World War One.

The industry grew and by the time the Nazis had seized control of France in World War Two, there were 700 pilots based in Toulouse. The invaders wanted them for their army – this would have been a vast resource… note… ‘would have been’.

The Nazis phoned ahead to order the Toulouse authorities to detain the pilots for collection. They’d be down in two days to pick them up.

In two days, 700 men disappeared in Toulouse. They were hidden in a small church in the city centre for six months and gradually, in small groups, were spirited out of the country over the Pyrenees to France.

An incredible story. And the woman coordinating all of this: a seamstress building a resistance movement from a remarkable list of people including a quarter of the police force who resigned in protest at the order to detain the 700.

This was a highly entertaining and informative walking tour. If you’re in Toulouse, ask for Harry.

And for the afternoon’s performance? Rusalka. The opera by Anton Dvorak is essentially “The Little Mermaid” but with water sprites and this version is a cautionary tale for blokes about scorned women. Instead of the prince getting to live happily ever after without the mermaid/sprite, in this version of the fairy tale he dies. Having first gone almost mad with remorse because of the way he treated her, the prince begs the sprite to kiss him which will kill him and therefore put him out of his misery.

Uplifting stuff, obviously.

I’ve seen a few operas and a couple of them being the types of productions that pull in the punters with promises of a real horse on stage (Carmen) and a genuine fish tank with goldfish (Madame Butterfly).

This performance’s first act turned the stage into a lake and all, bar two, of the cast spent the first act (over an hour) either partially or mostly submerged. (The other two – the witch and the prince) just got wet feet. I hope the water was at least warm.

The second act maintained a stream so that the sprite’s dad could float by to visit but otherwise it all went Matrix, crossed with the entire Targaryan Clan (so much white hair) with styling by Cruella De Ville. It was an epic presentation.

What would the third act hold? We were back to the lake and at this point some of the audience, unfortunately, decided to become entertaining too.

I had a seat on the front row. The couple, one seat along from me, missed the second act and returned for the third. They started chatting to the huge annoyance of the people behind them. The bloke informed them that they knew where the door was if they didn’t like his behaviour.

The people around him made it very clear that “it doesn’t work that way, mate”. He shut up.

He then took his boots off and put them on the ledge in front of us (seperating us from the orchestra), for sure blocking visiblity again for the people behind. There was significant hissing and he removed them.

Fifteen minutes later, they were pulled back on his feet and he walked out of the theatre, shortly followed by his partner. They didn’t return.

It’s anybody’s guess why they bothered to attend. As a supporting act, they were a bit shit. Fortunately the main performance was stunning.

Categories: France, The French Connection, Toulouse, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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