The first time I came to Toulouse – a long time ago, before I lived there – I wanted to see Saint Sernin straight away, all because of Claude Nougaro and his song ” Toulouse“, the most beautiful song ever written about the Pink City. Saint Sernin deserves such an honour: it is a genuinely magnificent building with its red bricks. It would be better if it were surrounded by something nicer than an asphalt car park but its bell tower, which soars into the sky, makes it look impressive nonetheless. It was once the heart of a very important monastery, protected by a perimeter wall of which only the door remains, opposite the Rue du Taur. Nougaro calls it “the Saint Sernin church” but it is actually a basilica, and what’s more (as people in Toulouse are too often unaware), it’s the largest Romanesque basilica in Europe.
Leaving the Capitole that day, I walked up the Rue du Taur, which goes straight towards Saint Sernin, very close to the most central part of the city: this is the path which the bull took, in 250AD, when it killed Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse (Saint Sernin is a corruption of Saint Saturnin) and a Christian martyr who refused to participate in pagan worship. Toulouse was then an important Roman city whose walls, built in the 1st century, surrounded between 20,000 and 40,000 inhabitants.
Saint Sernin has 5 naves: two rows of aisle galleries, the pillars of which support the structure built in a triangle shape, run alongside the main nave, which faces eastwards. It is dizzyingly high.
The majestic, impressive building is rather bare: it is a spiritual place, of course, but is also a historic and cultural site which has a special place in the hearts of Toulouse’s residents.
In the north part of the transept (the transept is the transverse nave which intersects the main nave where the steeple stands), the walls and ceilings are covered with beautiful paintings. There is a faithful reproduction of the altar (the original altar, made of white marble from the Pyrenees, was dedicated in 1096 by Pope Urban II) and a magnificent Romanesque Christ figure from the twelfth century. Behind the apse where the altar is (next to which the ombrellino/umbrella confirms the building’s classification as a basilica), in the ambulatory, relics are found in sarcophagi: Toulouse was once an important centre for pilgrimage.
Before going down into the crypt, there’s something to see in the flagstones if you’re an in-the-know sports fan: the intertwined initials of Saint Thomas which inspired the logo of the Stadium of Toulouse!
Right next to Saint Sernin, the courtyard of the Musée Saint Raymond has a lovely little (and little known) café, le Jardin des Antiques, where you can sit and have a drink or a bite to eat under the laurel, cypress and palm trees, enjoying the tranquillity of the vine and olive trees, far from the noise of the city (open daily from 10.30am ’til 6pm), which you’ll soon get back to, taking the Rue du Taur back towards the Capitole…