Visitors arriving by car in the city of Toulouse in south west France may be disconcerted to see a rocket ready to blast off just next to the motorway.
This is a replica of Ariane 5, rising 53 metres into the sky. Next to it is the Mir space station and Soyuz capsule, capable of withstanding temperatures of 1800°C as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere-remember the perils of Sandra in the last blog?
Toulouse, affectionately known as ‘the pink city’ and ‘the city of violets’ in homage to its brick architecture and floral emblem, acquired a third epithet in 1997 with the inauguration of its theme park: City of Space.
It all started at the end of World War 1.
As Toulousains sat on the place du Capitole, the main square of la ville rose, savouring the new peace and admiring the glowing geranium colours, something was happening at a small airfield just outside the city. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was dreaming: of a new airline, new pathways through the skies, and an air postal service which would link France to its colonies in Africa and South America. The authorities scoffed at the idea. Latécoère said: ‘I’ve done the calculations again, the experts are right, our idea won’t work. There’s only one thing left to do–make it work.’
In December 1918, in a plane that looked like a flying matchbox, he flew across the Pyrenees from Toulouse-Montaudran to Barcelona. In March 1919, he flew from Toulouse to Barcelona, then to Alicante and Malaga before arriving in Morocco, at the city of Rabat. He was welcomed by General Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and to Madame Lyautey, a bunch of Toulouse violets.
The future of civil aviation had begun.
At the ‘Lignes Aériennes Latécoère‘, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’, the pilots became heroes, risking their lives on perilous missions transporting the mail to Dakkar and Casablanca, and finally to South America. One of the most well-known aviators was Jean Mermoz, ‘the Archangel’, whose pioneering flights in Africa and South America made him a legend. His wavy swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became the No 1 hit in barbershops the length and breadth of France.
Mermoz lodged at the hôtel du Grand Balcon near the place du Capitole. It was a small establishment, the unofficial boarding house for the Latécoère crews. Another regular, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is probably better-known to English-speakers as the author of ‘The Little Prince’. In his novel ‘Night Flight’ (‘Vol de Nuit’, published in 1931 and dedicated to Didier Daurat who directed operations at Montaudran) Saint-Exupéry wrote unforgettably of those lonely flights through the dark skies of South America, where pilots braved the shadowy, unforgiving peaks of the Andes, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, yearning for the dawn ‘like a beach of golden sand’.
Back at the hotel in Toulouse, the three genteel Marquez sisters who ran the place tried their best to keep the returning young adventurers in check. Female visitors were strictly forbidden so the pilots would smuggle their girlfriends up the creaking stairs by the simple expedient of tossing them over their shoulders. The story also goes that the sisters had a soft spot for their penniless lodgers and often ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinner.*
The hotel (http://www.grandbalconhotel.com/) has been carefully re-modernised in keeping with its historic past. You can spend the night in Room 20, former quarters of the Archangel, or, like Saint-Ex, lean on the balcony of Room 32 and look out towards the place du Capitole.
Artist Gordon Seward painted this view of the place du Capitole from inside Room 32, before the hotel was re-modernised. Long-time and future fans of Gordon have a chance to see his latest work at his annual exhibition in Toulouse (l’Espace Bouquières, 25 May-13 June). Less fortunate mortals will have to be content with feasting their eyes on his dazzling talent on line:
From those early beginnings at Montaudran, Toulouse developed into Europe’s foremost city of aviation and space. New and revolutionary planes were dreamed of and brought to life. The first European rocket launcher, Ariane, was developed. Streets in the city bear the names of the early aviators; road signs direct you to aviation giants such as the Airbus group and Europe’s largest space centre at the CNES.
On May 8th the Cité de l’Espace threw open its doors to celebrate ‘Le ciel en fête’. The festival opened with two special events, a show in the planetarium and a piano recital.
That’s how I found myself, along with a couple of hundred fellow passengers, setting off on a journey into space, and beyond. Semi-recumbent, transfixed, we gazed up at the planets as they sped across the giant 600-square-metre-dome above our heads. Saturn and its rings, Titan, the biggest of its myriad moons; Jupiter, largest of the planets, a Fabergé egg decorated with a Great Red Spot, Venus, swathed in clouds, Pluto, the to-be-or-not-to-be planet.
The wonder and magnificence of that ‘other’ above our heads was overwhelming. The earth wheeled, the music swelled, we shot to the southern hemisphere, became Australians looking up into their night sky at the fabled Southern Cross and the Magellanic clouds.
The show ended, the lights came on. We moved like sleepwalkers into the Imax cinema for the piano recital. In front of a very large screen was a very small stage with a piano. From the whirling immensity of space we descended to one person and eighty-eight keys.
Oliver Mazal was our pianist.** He came on stage, bowed and in a quiet voice announced the first piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, ‘The Moonlight’.
The first solemn notes fell on the air with a weight and intensity that were a perfect counterpoint to the firework show that had just ended. The music guided our imaginations: to Pascal’s ‘eternal silence of these infinites spaces’, to the mystery of our origins. On the giant screen the pianist’s hands appeared, gently and precisely touching the keys, drawing us back to the reality of a live performance in all its singular beauty.
But that was just the beginning of this second journey. As the audience called him back again and again, Olivier took us further, recreating through the genius of each composer-Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré-and the empathy of the interpretative artist, all of the passion, the drama and the joy that we had experienced in the planetarium.
Saint Exupéry said that it is only with the heart that one sees the truth of things. (‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’) That evening our hearts saw many things, many connexions. What links us space, to the universe, to exploration and the quest to go further. What links us to artistic creation, music, literature and painting. How imagination fires both science and the arts. How the past is important for the future. How we are linked to each other, all ‘children of the stars’.
The last word goes to a poet, connecting with us from two thousand years ago:
The long-haired bard, took up his gilded lyre-
Mighty Atlas himself had been his master.
He sang of the wandering moon and the toils of the sun;
He sang of the making of man and of the creatures;
Of rain and fire; of Arcturus and the Hyades
That bring the rain; he sang of the Twin Bears.
He sang why the suns of winter make such haste
To dip in Ocean, and why the nights are long
And move so slowly.’
Virgil: The Aeneid (translated by Patric Dickinson, Mentor Books 1961)
* The story of the early aviators and the hôtel du Grand Balcon was first told to me by Laurent De Caunes. When I checked with him about the veracity of the ‘free dinners’ bit before posting the blog, I got this reply: ‘si la légende est plus belle que la réalité, c’est la légende qu’il faut imprimer!’ In other words, if legends are more beautiful than reality, go for the legends! The maître’s knowledge of la ville rose is vast, and he knows absolutely everything about opera, as you can discover on this link:
** Olivier Mazal at the Cité de l’Espace:
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