Having arrived by train from Toulouse in early afternoon, I was greeted by a peaceful ambiance that belied the bloody history of this river town. Albi was an active center of Catharism in southwestern France in the 13th century. The Catholic Church considered their beliefs heretical and was challenged by their existence. In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars led by Simon de Montfort. The Albigensian Crusade as it was called, was a ruthless 20-year war that extinguished the Catharis until they no longer posed a threat to the Church. In the aftermath of the crusade, the King of France solidified his stronghold in the Languedoc by taking the estates of the Counts of Toulouse and the independent princes. The Catholic Church reclaimed their hold of Albi with the construction of the fortress-like Cathedral of Sainte Cécile which started in 1282. Sainte Cécile is the largest brick built cathedral in the world. The Cathedral's 78-meter (256 ft.) steeple served as my GPS while roaming around the city.
On the left bank of the Tarn River are the old neighborhoods with half timbered red brick houses. Brick was used in many structures including the Cathedral of Sainte Cécile because clay is abundant in this area, a core element of brick. Albi is called La Ville Rouge because of the preponderance of brick in its architecture. Neighboring Toulouse is called La Ville Rose for the same reason.
The Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) with its graceful arched supports dates back to the 11th century. Its construction increased the influx of trade and paved the development of the suburb across the river.
The Bout-du-Pont (End-Of-Bridge) suburb, now known as the Madeleine, grew as a result of the construction of the Pont Vieux.
The formal French garden in the courtyard of the Palais de la Berbie is surrounded by a promenade that has a commanding view of the Tarn River, the Madeleine, the Pont Vieux and the Cathedral. The Berbie Palace is now home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum which has the largest public collection in the world of the art of the eponymous French artist.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 to an aristocratic family. His femurs were fractured when he was in his teens and this stunted his growth. He suffered physical pains and emotional turmoil throughout his life. He died in 1901 when he was 36 years old. His parents bequeathed the massive collection of paintings, lithographs, drawings and posters to the museum. Toulouse-Lautrec was famous for his unique posters. Above is one of many posters on display at the museum. Aristide Bruant was a singer, songwriter, nightclub owner and a friend of the artist.
The Tarn River divides Albi into the left and right banks.
Albi is one of my special finds in France. There is so much to see and do in this compact town. The best way to explore Albi is to stay a couple of nights in the center of the city. This gives ample time to explore the Cathedral, the Madeleine neighborhood, the Cloisters of Saint Salvi, to take a walk by the Tarn and to leisurely admire the art of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Palais de la Berbie.
How to get there from Toulouse:
There are several train services daily between Toulouse Matabiau and Albi-Ville The fare is 5 euros each way depending on time of departure. The journey takes a little more than an hour. It's a 15-minute walk from Albi-Ville train station to the Cathedral of Saint Cécile.
Toulouse-Lautrec Museum Fee: 10 euros
Cathedral of Sainte Cécile : free entrance to church, 5 euros to enter the Choir and 6 euros for both Choir and Treasury museum ticket and includes an audio guide
Images by TravelswithCharie