As I’ve mentioned in several previous entries, we’re members of an expat club called Americans in Toulouse. Despite its name, Americans constitute a minority of the membership – around 35% if I remember right. The club organizes activities for its members – things such as Halloween parties, Christmas parties and boat tours on the Canal du Midi and the Garonne River.
The club is also fortunate to have a relationship with a wonderful guide, Elyse Rivin, an American expat who’s been living in Toulouse for the past 15 years. I’ve been on several of Elyse’s tours and the lovely missus and I used her services when M’s sis and bro-in-law visited this past spring.
This past Monday, Elyse led a group of us on a tour of two special places in Toulouse: St. Pierre des Cuisines and the Hopital de la Grave. The two are connected by the St. Pierre Bridge over the Garonne.
St. Pierre des Cuisines is the oldest Christian church in the southwest of France, dating from around 400 AD. It was built on the site of a necropole – a cemetery – and it was also the site of a pagan-era temple.
Despite its name, the church has nothing to do with kitchens or cooking. As Elyse explained, “cuisines” is a bastardization of an Occitan word which essentially means “trash.” Toulouse was once a walled city and some of the less attractive professions – think leather tanners and the like – were made to live and work outside of the walls. Often times, these people built their homes and work places right next to the walls. So when the Romans – who colonized this area – dug the foundations for the church, they discovered, in essence, a dump. Occitan was spoken by the workers and they used their word for trash and when French became the official language, the word was “transmogrified” (see “Calvin and Hobbes”) into “cuisines.”
The church stayed active up until the French Revolution, when it was converted into a cannon storage facility. Later, the church was abandoned and fell into ruin. In the 1970s, after the church was named a national monument, work began to convert the church into a music hall. Workers discovered sarcophagi – some from the time of Visigoths – under the floors. Since then, the church is indeed used as a concert hall but the foundations and sarcophagi have remained open to the public.
After leaving the church, we went across the St. Pierre bridge and visited the Hopital de la Grave. I enjoyed hearing Elyse explain that the concept of a “hospital” as we now know it – i.e., a place where sick people go to get treatment – didn’t exist until the middle 1800s. The hopital was a place where you put the poor, the unwanted (orphans), prostitutes and lepers. There is an interesting history to the place – including it being a place of confinement for plague victims and to it offering treatment to soldiers hurt in the Battle of Toulouse in 1814 (where the Duke of Wellington beat some of Napoleon’s troops).
The full name now for the hopital is Hopital St. Joseph de la Grave and there is a ginormous chapel on site. The dome, one of Toulouse’s most recognizable landmarks, is a wooden structure (they tried using cement but it was too heavy and kept collapsing) covered in copper panels.
For more pix, click here.
And as usual, any mistakes in the re-telling are mine.