Albi - so typically FrenchPosted on: 21 October 2019 by Michael Edwards
Heading south into France’s Occitanie region, Michael Edwards discovers a city proud of its heritage.
Take a flight of 100 minutes or so from London and pick up a car at Toulouse airport. Then enjoy a leisurely drive through fields of sunflowers and vineyards towards the historic city of Albi that sits on the River Tarn. This is a quiet rural region, far less hustle and bustle than neighbouring Provence, where travellers sometimes have the roads to themselves.
Have breakfast in London and then by lunchtime you can be sat on a restaurant’s terrace by Albi’s vast pedestrianised square. As you enjoy your croque monsieur or salad with a locally made pâté it can be
difficult to accept that you have arrived at a scene so French, so quickly.
Looking across the piazza there appears to be a massive impregnable fortress. In fact, that is Albi’s cathedral. The war-like appearance is a reminder of medieval days when the church was frequently backed by military might as well as religious fervour. At 285 feet, the cathedral’s tower looks down onto the River Tarn which winds its way through the city and departs into the fertile green countryside.
When the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile was built back in the 13th Century it was the largest brick building in the world. The use of so many red bricks, handmade at the time, earned Albi it’s nickname of “la ville rouge.” Look closely at the bricks and you can still see, half a millennium on, the thumbprints of their creators.
Once, the equally imposing neighbouring building, the Palais de la Berbie, was home to the Bishop. Today it is home to the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. Plan you days in Albi carefully. The Musée closes at midday for a long leisurely lunch, working the sort of hours that Toulouse-Lautrec would have approved of. Though the Musée does not just honour the locally born artist, there are also works by Dufy, Gaugin, Matisse and many other great artists.
Although Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was born locally in 1864 he found his fame painting the seedy street-life of Paris’ bars and brothels in the late 19th Century. He was also well-known for his posters - and some people say that he was the father of modern advertising. You can judge for yourself as all of his 31 posters are displayed in the Musée including one promoting La Goulue, the Moulin Rouge’s star dancer.
Toulouse-Lautrec came from a wealthy local family but he chose to live a life of artistic poverty in Paris, socialising with Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. Never in good health, stunted growth meant that the artist was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, he drank himself to death at the age of 36. The Musée, displaying work from throughout his life and beyond his years in Paris, shows how prolific he was as an artist.
There may be skateboarders on the piazza and market stalls selling a wide range of CDs and good old-fashioned vinyl records but Albi looks back to a past beyond recent history. Road signs are labelled in both Occitan and contemporary French. Occitan is a Romance language still spoken by some of the people of southern France.
Another link to Albi’s heritage are the half-timbered houses in the old town as you wander towards the covered market. Its aromas and flavours representing present day Albi. The numerous stalls are a reminder that Albi, even in the 21st century, serves as the market town for a rich fertile countryside that produces stalls overflowing with fruit and vegetables, cheeses, fine wines and of course - whatever your moral views on the subject - the region’s speciality of foie gras.
Learn more about Albi and the region at Tourisme-Tarn.com.
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