Toulouse is showing the rest of Europe how it can clean up its cities and go green, writes Peter Bills.

OK, OK. Maybe it was the temperature, 32C by day and a scarcely cooler 25C in the evenings, that so beguiled.

Maybe it was the demonstration of the quintessential south of France summer night: Hot, still, filled with melancholy, chilled red or rose wine.

But maybe, just maybe it was neither. Perhaps Toulouse, capital of the Haute-Garonne region at the centre of the south of France, looked so resplendent, seemed so elegant last weekend because modern technology has come to define the place.

This town, population about 450,000 which makes it the fourth largest French town, is offering Europe a role model of how to make progress in the ecological field.

On a summer's day, a line of bicycles stands where once stood the taxi rank, its polluting cars waiting for their customers. The first half hour's hire is free; you pay about one euro an hour thereafter.

You enter your credit card as a guarantee against theft, remove a receipt and pull your bike out of the rack. Then off you go.

But where Toulouse is superior to so many other towns and cities across Europe where bike use is encouraged, is it has multiple cycle lanes. Pavements have been specially widened over several of the bridges that cross the Garonne River leading into the city - half the width for pedestrians, half for cyclists.

You can cycle in specially designated cycling lanes through most of the city which means you feel relatively safe from the traffic, even if you have to use the roads. And on a warm, sunny weekend day what could be nicer than to stop at the city's open air market, buy some luscious local cherries or apricots and cycle off into one of the parks, where you can find a shady tree, park your bike and relax.

France cannot boast a city in the top nine of Europe's greenest cities ... Paris is best at 10th. But the three leading cities, headed by Copenhagen, with Stockholm second and Oslo third, all have two things in common: They are all by the sea and they all greatly encourage transport by bicycle. So too does Amsterdam, which came fifth.

Another method used increasingly by European city councils to reign in polluting cars and heavy vehicles is by closing major thoroughfares to traffic, turning them into pedestrian only zones. In Toulouse, the huge Rue d'Alsace Lorraine is no longer accessible to public vehicles. It has meant shoppers visiting major stores such as Galerie Lafayette and accessing the world famous Place du Capitole with the imposing Hotel de Ville at its centre, can stroll in peace and not be victims of traffic fumes.

In the nearby Place Saint Georges, one of the prettiest squares in the city, Toulousains sit out at night, sharing a drink before dinner or eating at one of the many restaurants or little cafes. It is an exquisite site. Swooping swallows fly in formation around the square, like RAF fighters from World War II.

And through the square come only a very few vehicles. The most important, the bus powered by electricity, offering the same service yet much cleaner and less polluting.

The difference with another European city, Bath, in the UK, is significant. The Georgian centre of Bath is a World Heritage site, revered and treasured by visitors from every continent. Yet the local council continues to allow lumbering, old, heavily polluting tourist buses as well as private cars to pour through the centre of the city.

Credit goes to the approach of the Toulouse city council which has taken active and meaningful steps to fight back against polluting transport.

Many tours are available in Toulouse, but the majority are on foot, or bike.

I was reminded midway through an exquisite south of France afternoon that gently riding a bike frees the mind. On a lovely summer's day, the pleasures are endless.

Getting there: Air New Zealand economy airfares from Auckland to London via Hong Kong with partner airline connections to Toulouse start from $3056 per person return.

Further information: The Tourist Office of Toulouse has a website at