Architectural Jewels of Toulouse, Toulouse

Architectural Jewels of Toulouse (Self Guided), Toulouse

It doesn't take an architectural expert to appreciate the beauty of Toulouse's historic buildings. Walking the city's streets one can't help admiring the galore of ancient architecture which has earned Toulouse, since as early as the 16th century, the title of "the most beautiful city in France".

Once a powerful provincial capital, Toulouse utilized its prosperity, acquired from the woad trade, to make its mark in architecture. It was during that affluent period that the city became the seat of a large archbishopric, in which the church of Saint Sernin was considered one of the holiest places in the world.

The Renaissance architectural vocabulary made its appearance in Toulouse's private architecture and flourished spectacularly at the Hôtel d'Assézat – a true architectural jewel. The ornamental vocabulary of the first Renaissance elements (scrolls, medallions, putti) was eventually replaced with "fenestre à l'antique" (antique window), first tried at the Hôtel de Bagis.

The antique window formula was then repeated at the Hôtel de Bernuy with the use of tables furnished with Mannerist decorations to add more sophistication to the framing. A magnificent example of the French First Renaissance style, this mansion is a true symbol of the city's opulence. Its stone-clad courtyard, quite rare for its time and indicative of the owner's wealth, stands in stark contrast to the brick courtyards, typical of Toulouse during the Gothic period.

As a home of erudition and humanism, Toulouse also looked back on its Roman past, which found expression in the local architecture – the municipal palace of capitulum became Capitolium (Capitole de Toulouse), reflecting the desire to imitate Rome and its ancient references.

To explore these and other magnificent architectural landmarks of Toulouse in more detail and to see what makes the city so unique, take this self-guided walking tour!
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Architectural Jewels of Toulouse Map

Guide Name: Architectural Jewels of Toulouse
Guide Location: France » Toulouse (See other walking tours in Toulouse)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.8 Km or 2.4 Miles
Author: helenp
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Basilica of Saint Sernin
  • Capitole de Toulouse
  • Hôtel de Bernuy
  • Hotel d'Assezat and Bemberg Foundation
  • Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse (Toulouse Cathedral)
  • Hôtel du Vieux-Raisin
  • Hôtel de Bagis
  • Notre-Dame de la Dalbade Church
  • Pont Neuf (Nine Bridge)
  • Hôpital de La Grave (La Grave Hospital)
Basilica of Saint Sernin

1) Basilica of Saint Sernin (must see)

Prominent on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites is the Basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse. The church is on the site of an earlier basilica dating from the fourth century. This older Basilica may have had the bones of Saint Sernin, the first Bishop of Toulouse.

The basilica was built in the Romanesque style in the early 12th century. It was a favorite stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela and even a pilgrimage destination in itself. Construction continued over the centuries with many fits and starts. It is estimated to have been at least four major building undertakings.

Viewed from outside, the bell tower over the transept is the most prominent aspect. It is divided into five tiers. The lower three tiers have Romanesque arches and date from the 12th century. The upper two tiers have pointed Gothic arches from the 13th century. There are two doorways to the Basilica, the Comtes Gate and the Miegeville Gate.

On the Comtes Gate is a scene of Lazarus and Dives. Poor Dives is shown in Hell. Above the Miegeville Gate is sculpture of the ascending Christ. The interior of the Basilica is enormous for a Romanesque church. The nave and the aisles are vaulted with buttresses. Below the transept is a marble altar, consecrated in 1096.

In the middle ages churches were equipped with small chapels in the apse. These chapels would hold relics of interest to the pilgrims who were continually filtering in. The pilgrims could gather at the chapels on the sides of the church without disturbing services in progress. In Saint Sernin's there are nine radiating chapels housing relics.

Why You Should Visit:
To see the reemerging of Cathedrals and shrines throughout the centuries is to witness the no-surrender spirit of the Occitan civilization.

Generally there is no admission charged but donations are welcome.
Capitole de Toulouse

2) Capitole de Toulouse (must see)

In 1096 Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse, took his army and headed for the Holy Land. The Pope said to do this. What could go wrong? Several religious expeditions and invasions later, the power of the Counts had waned.

By the 12th century the "Notables" who were watching the store, so to speak, while the Counts were away, created a group of capitouls (consuls) to manage the city. Thus the Capitole came to be. As the name suggests, the Capitole was for the Capitouls.

The facade of the Capitole is pink brick set in 1750 in Neoclassical style as designed by Guillaume Cammas. The Capitole is 456 feet long. It dominates the vast Place du Capitole in the heart of Toulouse. Eight columns above the main entrance are in memory of the eight original Capitouls. In 1873 a bell tower was erected atop the donjon.

A donjon is not a dungeon, but a keep, the strongest part of a castle. The donjon of the Capitole has a dark past. Jean Calas, an unlucky Protestant was interrogated here. The Duke de Montmorency was decapitated in the courtyard after losing an argument with Cardinal Richelieu. The donjon once housed city archives. Now it is the tourist office.

The Capitole is home to city hall, the Theatre du Capitole de Toulouse opera company and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Murals recount great events from the past: The Cathar period, The early Counts of Toulouse, The sieges of the city, and the Floral Games.

The Floral Games were poetry competitions held every May since 1324. First prize was a golden violet. Second prize was a silver rose. The contests were judged by the Leys d'amor, a theme on Occitan poetry.

The Hall of Illustrious must not be missed. The paintings of Paul Gervais, Henri Martin, and above all the Hall of Illustrious. The room is 202 feet long. It is filled with sculptures, paintings and stunning murals and ceilings dedicated to famous historical people of Toulouse.

Why You Should Visit:
See first the power and perseverance of the city personified in the Capitole.
Hôtel de Bernuy

3) Hôtel de Bernuy

The Bernuy Hotel (Hôtel de Bernuy), located on Léon Gambetta Street in Toulouse, stands as a prominent example of Renaissance architecture and the affluence of the city during the 16th century. Constructed for Jean de Bernuy, a prosperous woad merchant and a Spanish Jew who escaped the Inquisition, this hotel highlights the cultural and architectural transitions of the period.

The construction of the Bernuy Hotel began with its facade and Gothic brick courtyard, both completed between 1503 and 1504 by Louis Privat. Notably, the building features a remarkable Gothic brick courtyard and a towering staircase, built in the same period. These elements reflect the traditional Toulousain style, characterized by the extensive use of brick.

From 1530 to 1536, a new phase of construction added the Renaissance stone courtyard, a notable departure from the prevalent brick constructions in Toulouse. This courtyard, influenced by the Spanish Plateresque style, exemplifies the wealth and elevated social status of its owner, Jean de Bernuy. The use of stone in the courtyard and the elaborate decoration signify a shift towards more opulent, Renaissance-inspired aesthetics.

One of the architectural highlights of the Bernuy Hotel is its tower, which was deliberately built to match the height of the tower owned by Bernuy's father-in-law, Arnaud du Faur. This tower not only served as a symbol of prestige but also showcased the skills of the stonemason Merigo Cayla, particularly evident in the 'bent' windows—a unique architectural feature that adds to the distinctiveness of the building.

Today, the Bernuy Hotel is admired as a magnificent example of the introduction of the Renaissance in Toulouse, representing both the city's historical significance and its architectural evolution during a period of considerable wealth and cultural exchange.
Hotel d'Assezat and Bemberg Foundation

4) Hotel d'Assezat and Bemberg Foundation (must see)

Pierre Assézat needed a house. He needed a Hotel, a mansion. he was a wealthy merchant at the top of his profession and society. He wanted his mansion convenient to The Merchant Exchange because he was one of the founders of the Exchange. The Hotel was completed in 1562. Pierre died 1n 1581. The Hotel is now owned by the City of Toulouse.

The building is L-shaped, set beside the staircase pavilion. The facades have Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic columns on each floor. The doric pilasters at the front gate sparkle with diamond shaped stones. The pilasters by the mullioned windows are fluted. All in all the designers and builders created an edifice of power and delicacy.

Starting in 1994, The Bemberg Foundation Art Gallery has made its home in the Hotel d'Asezat. The Gallery shows the collection of Wealthy Argentine Georges Bemberg (1915-2011). The collection has paintings, Drawings, Sketches, sculptures, antique books and furniture. French impressionism and fauvism expressions form the bulk of the collection.
Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse (Toulouse Cathedral)

5) Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse (Toulouse Cathedral) (must see)

The Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church and it is listed as national monument since 1862. Rumor has it that the cathedral was erected over the remains of a third century chapel built by Saint Saturnin or Sernin. Saint Saturnin was martyred for his trouble but Saint Exuperius honored his memory 150 years later with a cathedral in the same location.

During the French Revolution the cathedral was sacked and reopened as a "Temple of Reason." The inside of the cathedral were unreasonably destroyed and the building was used as a warehouse for scrap iron. By 1802, Napoleon had made up with the Pope, and the cathedral was returned to the Catholic Church. The City of Toulouse made repairs.

The Cathedral is made mostly of brick. The front facing west is made from two unfinished churches from two different times. The oversized buttresses were formed for a choir much higher than the one that was eventually built. There is a bell tower joined with a donjon of fortress-like proportions. The interior of the church is also a source of confusion.

The two sections of the building are not aligned and try to combine two styles of Gothic architecture. A massive pillar stands between the two sections. Stained glass is mainly 19th century, but there is glass salvaged from almost every decade since the 13th century. Still, with all the chaos of its history, the Cathedral is an island of peace.
Hôtel du Vieux-Raisin

6) Hôtel du Vieux-Raisin

Here is another Italian Renaissance palace. The Hotel du Vieux-Raisin is a product of the 16th century. One of the most attractive private mansions in town, it was built for Beringuier Maynier. Beringuier was a law professor, a lord and a capitol of the City. The hotel was erected on the plot of a building demolished for the occasion.

The demolished building had been a part of the Hotel Dahus next door. In 1515 M. Maynier took over. He added a new structure to that portion of the old house still standing. The courtyard was separated from the garden, a staircase tower erected on each side. The house was extended, with two wings. There was a great tower in the courtyard.

Between 1547 and 1591 the house was owned by Jean Burnet and Bishop Pierre de Lancrau, respectively. The entrance was given a portico featuring Doric columns. Pierre, who owned the property from 1580 to 1591, added windows in the courtyard and made the tower even higher. Sculpted motifs are all over the frames with references to Royal buildings.
Hôtel de Bagis

7) Hôtel de Bagis

The Hôtel de Bagis is a Renaissance palace which is the former property of Jean de Bagis. In 1533, he bought five buildings – part of a complex with a Renaissance-style courtyard in the middle – and had it transformed by 1537 into a beautiful palace with the help of the famous Toulouse architect, Nicolas Bachelier.

The overall construction took place in three stages and was completed only in 1857 by the then owner, Calvet-Besson.

The palace is also known as the Hôtel de Clary, after François de Clary who acquired the property in 1608, and at whose request the monumental façade was erected – between 1609 and 1616. The locals, in turn, call it the Hôtel de Pierre (“stone palace”) for the same spectacular stone façade (unique in Toulouse at that time), created by the architect Pierre Souffron (another reason for the nickname).

As for the richly sculptured decoration – pilasters, trophies of arms, garlands, and fruits, – it was added only in 1855, after the originals, by François de Clary, were hammered off during the French Revolution.

The door of the Atlanteans, long attributed to Nicolas Bachelier (1538), was recently identified as being from the early 17th century. The interior of the palace has painted ceilings and a monumental fireplace, designed by Nicolas Bachelier also.

The palace has been a listed historical monument since 1889.
Notre-Dame de la Dalbade Church

8) Notre-Dame de la Dalbade Church

In 410 the Emperor Honorius allowed the conversion of pagan temples within the empire. And so the Temple of Apollo in the city of Tolosa was converted to Christianity. The new church was the original Notre-Dame de la Dalbade. It was replaced in 541 by another Notre-Dame, which served faithfully until burning down in 1442.

The present Notre Dame also served faithfully without serious incident until 1926, when its tower collapsed, destroying much of the church and killing two unlucky bakers on their way to work. The interior was restored. And then Toulouse had a 15th century church with a 20th century inside. The tower was never replaced, which may be a good thing.

Over the entrance is a renaissance tympanum with a copy of Fra Angelico's Coronation of the Virgin. The second Notre Dame was covered with lime. This resulted in a vision of pure whiteness. Many felt this effect was a tribute to the Virgin Mother. After the fire of 1442 the outside was rebuilt with the red brick of Toulouse. Now it was red outside.

Inside, outside, 15th century, 20th century, red, white, in spite of all this, the church stands. The colorful Italian-Renaissance entrance welcoming all who enter. Apollo would have been pleased.
Pont Neuf (Nine Bridge)

9) Pont Neuf (Nine Bridge) (must see)

King Francis I of France had learned not to trust Charles V of Spain. It was vital to be able to move defending armies across the Garonne quickly in any weather or season. In 1541 King Francis declared a tax levy to finance construction of a bridge, but it did not become a reality until 1561. The result was the sturdy, invincible Nine Bridge.

Like the old Roman bridges, extensive use was made of arches. However, these were "basket handle" arches, wider than high, allowing for fewer piles. The biggest arch has a span of 185 feet. There are crests before each pier, to part flows, and openings to allow water to pass through the bridge when the arches are submerged.

The Nine Bridge replaced the Daurade Bridge which had provided a link between the pilgrim hospital Sainte-Marie de la Daurade and the Benedictine monastery across the river.
Hôpital de La Grave (La Grave Hospital)

10) Hôpital de La Grave (La Grave Hospital)

Grave (French greve) refers to the color of the sand along the banks of the Garonne where the hospital was built. There has always been a hospital at this location since 1197. The hospital was first established to treat victims of the plague. There were many plagues to come, including the "Black Death" of 1349. The record of treatment was spotty at best.

In the hopes of success from above the name of the hospital was changed to Saint Sebastien. One of Saint Sebastien's attributes or powers was anti-plague. This didn't work as hoped. In 1628 everybody, including the staff, died. The City took advantage of this to disinfect the hospital. Not only that, the Pope renamed it for Saint Joseph.

To get to the La Grave Hospital, one may cross over the Saint Pierre Bridge to the courtyard and the Chapel Saint Joseph. The Chapel Saint Joseph was built of red brick in the 18th century. Its red walls may be seen from almost any place in the City. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters. The guilds set up trade schools here.

Walking Tours in Toulouse, France

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