Monday, May 24, 2010

Toulouse, Cahors and the Malbec Conference

Toulouse is a pleasant town, prosperous and tidy and businesslike, with throngs of young people and bustling businessmen giving a placid sense of stability to it. Outside of the monumental names of the streets and boulevards honoring statesmen and financiers and epic battles and almost forgotten great victories, Toulouse has little feel of age. This is a city concentrated more on the now than the glories of then.

Worn down by a hopscotch trip of Portland to Seattle, Seattle to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Toulouse I’m content to just wander and amble and soak up the feel of the city. The vaunted Dutch sense of sturdy efficiency failed at Amsterdam---well, sturdy is still there, but efficiency lacks, as KLM was unable to handle all the routing of the carrier code share and required hundreds of passengers to stand and wait for a handful of agents to figure out where, exactly, each of these people were in the network, and where they should go next. When that is done, of course the plane is leaving any minute, so we must run and twist through the crowds---with another trip through security?---dash through endless halls and channels and connectors, and arrive sweaty and disheveled and gasping at the gate where the plane is of course nowhere near boarding.

Once in Toulouse we become the wards of the French system, with its own internal logic. We stand and wait at the baggage carousel…and wait…and wait…and wait. Finally, small clots of bags fitfully emerge from the gaping ribboned maw. Then the belt stops…with half the passengers still standing empty handed, with faint looks of concern beginning to show on their slack faces. We mill around, standing next to the ‘sortie secours’ exit standing open to Toulouse as the locals file in and out. I finally wander around the terminal and find a poorly signed baggage claim office, where the pleasant young lady cheerfully checks the computer and informs me I do not have a problem for there is no notification in the system that I have a problem.

As I wearily stand and begin to walk back to the carousel, she stops me and says, “But wait, perhaps you are standing at the wrong carousel!”

“Number Five is where the monitor said the luggage would arrive. I was at Number Five.”

“Ah. Yes, but you see that is only for those who are French,” she said, “And all others must pick up their luggage from Carousel Seven, which is in a different area!”

“And how, if there is no sign and no person to tell us of this, how are we supposed to know?” I ask.

She shrugs. “It is the Custom, sir.”

“The custom?” I ask.

“Non, non, Monsieur, the Custom, les Douanes.”

“Ah.” I go to Carousel Seven, find my luggage, roll it to the three Custom agents, and get waved through without a glance to explore Toulouse.

A sparkling clean accordion bus conveys me quickly through the heart of Toulouse and deposits me at Gare Montabiau. I trundle over to the boulevard and immediately see the Hotel Icare, which I booked for the evening only because it promised to be within easy reach of the Gare and the Centreville. And so it is.

It is also surprising in its space and comfort and hospitality for such a well located and inexpensive place. The hotel is located, felicitously on the Avenue Bonrepos.

My customary approach when arriving in a town new to me is simply to walk, largely at random, and to observe and get the feel and rhythm and tone of the city, to watch the people as they go about, and to listen to the sound of the place. Toulouse has a steady, quiet hum about it, not raucous or jarring, not slow, but not too brisk either. The city moves at a measured pace, as do the people, and as the evening comes on, the city, and the people and the traffic slowly quiet and settle into…bonrepos.

I stroll along the Canal du Midi that runs along the boulevard through town and in front of my hotel. It is shaded with the leafy overhang of trees and eerily still and quiet in ironic counterpoint to the prodigious tumult it created in the wealth and productivity of this region. The wonder of its age, the commercial link from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, the artery that pulsed with all the goods flowing along it for so many years, the waterway that changed forever this corner of France, bringing evolution and revolution---now dead still and quiet with leaves floating undisturbed on its milky green surface. For the entire two days I am here not one single boat disturbs the waters; the liquid highway of the 18th Century is now nothing but a long, unused watery corridor of obsolescence.

I prove once again that despite the sighs and affirmations of tourists bedazzled by la belle France, it is all too easy to find a mediocre meal in this country of fine dining. A passable but far too dry salad of bresaola on peppery arugula (but with cheaper chopped lettuce underneath) is first; this is followed by a dull pasta alla matriciana with watery sauce, and accompanied by a forgettable half bottle of Montepulciano. I had actually ordered a bottle of Cerasuolo and, not trusting my barbarous so-called French (so called by Frenchmen), I had pointed out the Cerasuolo on the menu; yet I still received the Montepulciano, and too tired to make an issue of it, I drank it down.

I’d chosen my table carefully so I could both be outside and relatively smoke free---not an easy feat in this land of smokers---and for a while I was able to eat and watch the twinkling lights of the faux-antique merry-go-round on the Place Wilson and observe the throngs of people on this pleasant Spring evening. But the two talkative jeune filles at the table next finished their meal and then began to aggressively light up and spew a rather amazing amount of cigarette smoke as they gesticulated their cigarettes to aid their conversation. Now befogged by cigarettes and jet lag, I gave up and trudged back to my hotel in the cool night air.

Toulouse to Cahors

It is an uneventful trip from Toulouse to Cahors on this new artery of autoroute that has replaced the now slow moving Canal du Midi. The land becomes more rugged as we go higher in altitude, with jagged rock thrusting out from the greenery of trees. At first the town of Cahors shows its seedy side of car lots and repair shops and shabby industrial areas, but as we cross over the River Lot the town suddenly blossoms into bourgeois respectability of staid hotel de ville and fashionable sidewalk cafes and discreet offices of businessmen and professionals.

I am here for the Cahors Malbec Conference and apparently this modest city will be inundated by visitors for the event, with attendees lodged as far as 45 minutes away. Logistically this will be a monumental challenge and I count myself lucky that I am lodged close in.

Of course blessings are always balanced, so my hotel turns out to be a Euro version of Motel 6, La Campanile. Still, it’s serviceable, and more convenient than a rustic bed and brekky in the lush green countryside. And to add to its charm, it’s next to a McDonald’s!!! O joy.

But I’m here, and it’s time to drop the bags in the room and off to the Espace Valentre on the Lot and sample hundreds of Cahors Malbecs.


  1. Sounds cool, Hoke!

    As for the outskirts of is amazing to me how UGLY the fringes of French cities can be. Bordeaux, for example...where Alex R lives is dignified and lovely, but all that Graves gravel replaced by shabby metal sheds and hideous strip malls that would be rejected by a Texas Panhandle Planning Department?

  2. Well, the luggage story is epic and could only happen in France!