Wednesday, July 8, 2009

City of Flight

The Little Prince, drawn by Saint Exupéry hims...Image via Wikipedia


Home of French aviation enchants in all colours

Shamir Osman,

Take a second and picture a city that was the home of aviation pioneers of old, the modern world's second biggest space centre and a hub of Europe's aeronautics.

Toulouse turns shades of pink at sunset.

That image that you have in your head does not come close to the enchanting reality of Toulouse.

In Toulouse you can travel to outer space, go back to the middle ages, gaze at the pinnacle of rugby's elite, and have a cuppa near the bank of the Garonne River as the setting sun turns the world a captivating shade of pink.

It is hard not to be seduced.

Skyward bound

Much of Toulouse's modern history is intertwined with the aeronautic industry that began in the 1920's with Pierre-Georges Latécoère's Aéropostale that utilised former war planes to send mail from Toulouse to Dakar.

From then Toulouse moved into civil aviation which saw the production of the Caravelle, the first French medium-haul jet aircraft in 1955, and then the supersonic passenger airliner, the Concorde, followed in 1969.

The city is now home to Airbus, who along with Boeing, is one of the two largest civil aircraft manufacturers in the world. Its crown jewel, the giant A380, is the new queen of the skies.

Dawn from the A380

Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Airbus' Jean-Luc Lagardère site is heaven for plane-watchers and even offers tours for aerospace buffs.

There's more. In Toulouse you can view artefacts that have actually made that long trip into outer space, and see just how good an astronaut you would make at a range of interactive exhibits at the 3.5ha Cite de l'espace.

The space theme park comes complete with gravity defying space toilets and full-scale models of the Ariane 5 and the Mir Space Station, and is not just for space buffs.

But Toulouse's biggest aerospace icon is perhaps aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

If that name sounds familiar, it is because Saint-Exupéry's image adorned the French 50-franc note before the introduction of the euro.

He also wrote and illustrated The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince). The novel is his most famous, having been translated into more than 180 languages.

The aviator's marriage of aviation and literature was perhaps a sign of things to come.

Modern Toulouse has achieved a unique blend of hard science and refined culture.

Pink-bricked brilliance

Wandering down cobbled streets lined with pink-bricked buildings, it is easy to see why 83 per cent of Toulousians in the mid-1990s voted in favour of spending city funds on culture.

Busker on the streets of Toulouse

And it is hard to imagine that much has changed today. Some even take things into their own hands.

The Hôtel d'Assézat houses the Bemberg Foundation, the personal art collection of Georges Bemberg featuring works from the Renaissance to the French modern school.

While the city's better art collection is kept at the Musée des Augustins, just a stone's throw away, the hotel's balcony offers a stunning view that might be worth the trip.

But it is the town hall - the Place du Capitole - that captures the magnificence of Toulouse's pink-bricked construction.

Covering two hectares, the town hall overlooks a big square lined on three sides by trendy cafes and shops frequented by the 120,000 students from the three local universities, who give the city its verve, energy and bohemian way of life.

It is the youth who fuel the vibrant cultural life and entertainment scene of Toulouse, and from poetry readings to river-side buskers, you can be sure there is always something to see in La Ville Rose, the Pink City.

Toulouse's other colours

The region is famous for woad, an herb from the mustard family that yields a blue dye called pastel. Pastel made the city rich in the 16th century, and while the demand has severely diminished, you cannot miss the numerous shops around the city selling everything in a range of blue shades, from scarves to soap.

From pink to blue, the pastel-coloured theme is strong in Toulouse, with the violet flower its other distinctive produce. Candied violet petals dropped into a flute of champagne is a favourite with locals. If that is not your cup of tea, you could order some violet liqueur.

The city's football side - Toulouse FC - pays homage to the colours of the city with a violet home kit, and some pink trimming in the away attire.

Toulouse is, of course, more famous for its rugby team that wears red and black, Stade Toulousain, three time-winner of Europe's prestigious Heineken Cup, and 17-time French champions.

Cassoulet Toulousain, a dish famed throughout France, comes to your table in unappetising brown, but do not be fooled. Half a duck and several sausages hiding in a bucket load of beans and rich gravy may not sound appetising, but neither does a slab of goose liver served with garlic jam. A single serving of cassoulet looks big enough to feed several people, and it does.

A post-dinner stroll along the banks of the Garonne is a great way to close the Toulouse day, and sitting alongside reclining Toulousians whispering to each other, watching the setting sun wash the city pink, it is hard to imagine why they call Paris the romantic city.

This trip was made possible by Singapore Airlines, Airbus and Maison de la France.



An international effort: Airplane components are manufactured in plants around the world. The cockpit and fly-by-wire system are made in France, fuselage in Germany, the wings in the UK, and the tail in Spain. The parts are then shipped to Toulouse, Hamburg or Tianjin where they are assembled into planes.

Trial by flying: Every completed aircraft is put through at least two test flights before it is delivered to the airline, ready to fly.

Producing jumbo jets: The 500m assembly building in Toulouse has eight rigs where workers and machines can easily reach any part of the aircraft. The A380 plant can churn out, at full capacity, 4 aircraft per month. At end April, the plant has 200 orders from 16 airlines. Singapore Airlines has 6 of them.

Green machines: The A380 will go down well with green travellers. It is built mostly with composite materials that make the aircraft lighter. On top of that, its double-decker design allows more passengers to be seated per flight. The aircraft has the lowest fuel burn per seat in the market, using 20 per cent less fuel on each flight.

Amusement plus: The in-flight entertainment system on the A380 comes with a bigger screen, USB ports that allow you to listen to your own music and watch your own movies, and a power outlet so your laptop does not run out of juice.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 09-Jul-2009

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