Toulouse: A Romantic Past and an Industrial Present

Olivier Jaulent / Wikimedia Commons

View of Toulouse

You will rarely come across detailed information about Toulouse in travel guides. Although pilgrims in the Middle Ages stayed here on their way to see the holy sites of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, today’s travelers often stay very shortly in Toulouse, hurrying on to resorts on the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.

In doing so, they miss the opportunity to get to know one of the most fascinating cities in the south of France, where the old and new are excitingly intertwined, the people are friendly, the cuisine is outstanding and the climate is warm. The city and its ancient university are a real treasure chest of historical sites which are surrounded by advanced forward-looking technologies.

Toulouse's distinctive feature is the rose-colored stone that is used in the construction of all its buildings. It changes hue depending on the height and brightness of the sun. This is why Toulouse is often referred to as la ville rose — the rose city.

Toulouse is situated along the Garonne River, approximately halfway between the cities of Montpellier near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and Biarritz on the Atlantic Ocean. It is the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille. With a population of over half a million people, it is the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées (South Pyrenees), and the largest administrative region in mainland France. Toulouse is serviced by two airports, a network of highways and a metro.

Innovative Projects of the Region

Aviation, Aerospace and new Industries

Arcam: the creation of new metal alloys without the use of lead or chromium, which provides for the production of environmentally friendly stainless steels for the aerospace industry.
CE-GNSS: the creation of portable systems (programs) that are connected to the GPS satellite system, to help the blind or visually impaired.
Copain: the upgrading of cockpits on civilian aircraft and business jets, enabling a one-third reduction in mass and a reduction in cost.
Fahrenheit: the Fahrenheit project provides improved thermal (heat) protection materials for air and spacecraft, which undergo excess temperatures during flight.
Pro-CIGS: a concept for the mass production of photovoltaic (solar) panels in such a way that reduces costs and encourages investment. The aim of the project is to reduce the dependence of industrialized and developing countries on hydrocarbon energy sources.


AgriDrones: a joint project between aerospace and agricultural clusters. It provides for the development of specialized drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) to increase the efficiency of crop plantings that cover large areas, such as wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed.
Roquefort'in: research into the selective and genetic potential of cheese produced from sheep's milk (Roquefort).
Ecosilo: the development of methods to protect crops from insects and other pests during the grain storage process.

Biotechnology and Medicine

BEA: a joint cluster project between the aerospace and biotechnology industries. The aim is to develop a watchstrap that is connected to a remote warning-search system for the elderly, who are members of the French national medical assistance system, EHPAD.
Roméo II: creation of a humanoid robot with a height of 1.8 meters to serve as a companion and domestic helper. The project leader is Aldebaran.
Inpac: integrated development of a factory for the future production of anti-cancer medicines with the expectation of reducing their costs and increasing global competitiveness.

But Toulouse is best known for being a center of the aviation industry since the dawn of aeronautics. This fact is commemorated on the city's main square, Place du Capitole. The two-hectare square is surrounded by impressive buildings, such as the mayor's house, the opera and the historic Hotel du Grand Balcon, where the legendary writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote his masterpiece of children's literature, "The Little Prince."

It was here that during the period between the two world wars, airmail was invented, and later the first supersonic Concorde test flights took place here.

The main industry of the region today is manufacturing in the sectors of aviation, space, electronics, informatics and biotechnology. Toulouse is the center of the European aerospace industry. The region is headquarters to Airbus Group (previously EADS), the Galileo geolocation system (GPS) and SPOT satellite systems. Popular short- and long-distance planes designed by ATR, an aviation company, are also built here. The area is also home to enterprises belonging to the Groupe Latécoère, one of the largest manufacturers of airplane components: fuselages, doors, electrical systems and aircraft electronics.

Visitors can take tours of Airbus to see with their own eyes how high-tech airplanes are constructed at the Aerospatiale factory in the suburb of Toulouse, Colomiers. A more popular waypoint for tourists is Space City, La Cité de l'espace, a 3.5-hectare educational technology theme park devoted to space exploration. There is a popular planetarium and a museum full of exhibits, such as a flight simulator where you can learn to pilot a space shuttle, a full-size model of the Mir space station, and a 53-meter French rocket, the Ariane-5. For a short time, visitors can become astronauts and experience the take-off and landing of a spacecraft.

    Also headquartered in the city are the European center for the American technology giant Intel, and the Toulouse Space Center (CST) of the French National Center for Space Research (CNES). CNES is the largest space research center in Europe. Another notable presence in the city is the French-Italian aerospace giant Thales Alenia Space and Astrium, which is a satellite subdivision of Airbus Group.

This aerospace cluster around Toulouse is considered the most dynamic export cluster in the entire French economy. It often serves to illustrate the contrast between the general indicators of the national economy and the competitiveness of the standalone cluster.

This cluster spans across two regions of the South Pyrenees and Aquitania. The area is home to 1,500 companies employing up to 100,000 laborers and 10,500 scientific and engineering staff. Dozens of the companies are original equipment manufacturers (OEMs): companies that produce goods made nowhere else in the world. Eighty percent of France's exports in the aerospace industry come from this cluster, which accounts for as much as 9 percent of the whole country's exports. This is, for example, 15 times more in money volumes than the export of Bordeaux wines.

This world-leading cluster developed in Toulouse owing to its favorable geographic location and conscientious government policies, starting with an order placed for 1,000 airplanes during World War I. They chose the city because it was the farthest away from the German front of all the large manufacturing zones. Furthermore, the region has ideal atmospheric conditions, and the peaks of the Pyrenees served as orientation for pilots learning to fly.

In 1960, France's participation in the Concord and Airbus projects gave impetus to the further development of the sector, with an emphasis on testing and research capabilities. Since 1965, the government has conducted a goal-oriented policy approach of administrative decentralization, under which several Parisian research institutions were transferred to Toulouse in an effort to strengthen the competitiveness of industrial centers beyond the capital. Finally, in 2005, the French government formally established Aerospace Valley, a cluster of aerospace companies and research organizations with the center in Toulouse.

The Toulouse aerospace cluster is a network of closely related companies and organizations in the public and private sector, and of suppliers and contractors. Navigation, communications and electronic components are manufactured separately before being sent for final assembly at Airbus and other manufacturers. Some modular systems and sub-systems (such as engines, avionics and wings) are made outside the cluster, but their final integration occurs on assembly lines in Toulouse.

State agencies and organizations play an important role in the regulation and promotion of the aerospace cluster, while state-subsidized organizations are key to education and scientific research. In Toulouse, there are several leading universities (grande écoles), including the National School of Civil Aviation (ENAC) and the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (ISAE), which train hundreds of professionals in the industry and conduct extensive research and development programs.

The cluster also includes major research centers: Toulouse Center ONERA of the French National Aerospace Exploration Agency, and a division of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), which is a leader in France and Europe's largest center for core research projects. Aerospace Valley is a focal point of scientific and technological developments in the cluster.

In addition to the various engineering, technical and research institutions, business schools also operate in the region, such as Business School Toulouse (ESC Toulouse), the Toulouse School of Economics (TSE), and one of the campuses of the European Higher Institute of Management (ISEG Group).

There are more than 100,000 students studying in Toulouse today. It is a modern university town, but it continues an ancient tradition. Pierre de Fermat, the great 17th-century mathematician, also lived and worked in Toulouse. His Last Theorem remained unsolved for centuries until 1995, when it was solved using evidence from the work of Andrew John Wiles.

After Paris, Lyon and Lille, Toulouse has the next highest number of students enrolled in higher education. Founded in 1229, the University of Toulouse is one of the oldest in Europe. Like the universities of Oxford and Paris, Toulouse was established at a time when Europeans translated the works of the Andalusian Arabs and the ancient Greeks. Their work challenged traditional European views, inspiring new scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in art and culture.

It was also the time of the Cathar uprising against Toulouse. The Cathar religious movement challenged papal authority and was declared heretical. As a result, a crusade was launched against the Cathars — the only one France conducted against its own people. The region was ravaged and Toulouse itself was plundered in 1218.

 Still, a rich cultural and historical heritage remains from this period. The Basilica of Saint Cernan is considered the largest surviving European church in the Romanesque style. The basilica, like many other buildings in the city, is protected as a UNESCO heritage site.

The region flourished once again in the 15th century. Toulouse became rich as the administrative center of the region, which supplied England with wines from Bordeaux, as well as grain and textiles. Later, local merchants included the production of a blue fabric paint derived from the woad plant to their trades. Before the arrival of indigo from India, "Dyer's woad" was exported throughout Europe. Toulouse owes the building of its impressive pink stone buildings to merchant trading. From that time to the present day, the city has been imbued with a cosmopolitan spirit, and a place where the arts flourish. In the bright, vibrant cultural life of Toulouse today, artistic youth groups and state museums compete for attention. The city streets are often stages for original performances.

In the 17th century — 1662 to be exact — the idea arose to build a waterway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to avoid the long and unsafe voyage around Spain. In 1667, work began on the now famous Canal du Midi. Construction was completed in 1681. Another UNESCO heritage site, it is popular with tourists.

Toulouse preserves its ancient heritage carefully. Its history and modernity, along with 160 urban parks, gardens, and a thousand hectares of public green spaces, situated by the beautiful Garonne flowing through the city, all give Toulouse a unique appeal.

The area is famous for its local cuisine. Toulouse pork sausages and cassoulet — a thick soup with white beans and seasoned meat of goose or pork — are local specialties. Another regional delicacy is confit de canard. Confit is essentially duck legs that have been slowly stewed in their own fat. Other famous delicacies of the region include Roquefort cheese, jams and sweets made with violets, and Fenetre marzipan cake made with apricots and lemons.

The region is also known for its Armagnac. Some experts rate it above cognac. Something similar to Armagnac, according to archaeological excavations, was made in the Roman era. The first mention of it dates to 1348 — 100 years before the distilling of whiskey and production of cognac. The surrounding regions are known for their fresh mushrooms and delicious lobster.

Lastly, to make quick friends with locals, conversations should cover "les rouges et noirs" — "the red and blacks." These are the colors of the Toulouse rugby club, Stade Toulusain, the best team in France and one of the most successful in Europe. Rugby is extremely popular in this part of the country. On match days, the whole town is decorated in team colors, and only a lucky few manage to get tickets. However, at other times you can visit the stadium to see its museum and, of course, to visit its fine restaurant.

Russia - France 2015
Russia - France 2015
Welcome to Russia-France business supplement, devoted to strengthening bilateral relations between Russia and France.
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