Tarn, in the Occitanie region, is one of those places in France that confuses people. They automatically think of the wild Gorges des Tarn which are in Lozère, some 140kms to the North West of Albi, Tarn’s capital. The River Tarn flows through both but there the comparison ends. The département has a landscape of green hills, lush vineyards, medieval Bastide villages and some notable UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Albi is around an hour west of Toulouse. The city is dominated by the fortress-like Sainte-Cécile Cathedral. It glows red in the early morning, a monstrous mountain of brick, erected from 1282 to 1392, as a powerful show of strength, after the Cathar revolt was finally quashed.
Up close, this Fortress of God is intimidating, a brick bunker, with windows nothing but slits, topped with the highest brick tower in Europe, rising to 78m. It’s part of the UNESCO rated Episcopal City which also includes Bishop Bernard’s own stronghold, the Palais de la Berbie plus the palace’s riverside gardens, the Saint Salvi church and the Pont Vieux.
Cathedral of Albi
After the Gothic gauntness of its exterior, the inside of the Cathedral comes as something of a pleasant surprise. The vault is covered in richly colourful frescoes, the largest example of Italian Renaissance painting in France. At the back is an enormous depiction of the Last Judgement. It’s four stories high and taking up the entire width of the building. It was painted by Flemish artists between 1474 and 1480. The reptilian demons, torturing sad souls for eternity, are a stern reminder of the wages of sin. It’s missing its central section, knocked through to give access to a more recent chapel at the base of the bell tower. Sadly, that means that God, the judge of the Last Judgement, is no longer to be seen.
At the other end, surrounding the choir is a Gothic rood screen, carved out of limestone, housing dozens of statues in niches. By the central doorway, you can make out Adam trying to cover himself, facing Eve, striking her model’s pose.
Before the Counter Reformation, access to this part of the church was only available to the clergy, keeping out the common people who could only hear, but not see, the celebration of mass.
Son of Albi – Toulouse-Lautrec
Albi’s most famous son is the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The house where he was born in 1864 still exists, although it’s closed to the public. What you can see is an almost complete collection of his works in the Palais de la Berbie, next to the Cathedral. When he died in 1901 of alcoholism and syphilis, nobody was interested in his paintings and they struggled to find a home. Fortunately one of his cousins was Mayor of Albi at the time and the Toulouse Lautrec museum opened in 1922.
Lautrec had bone disease, probably a result of inbreeding in his family, and broke his right thigh bone when he fell off a chair when he was 13. Recuperating in the Pyrenees, he tripped and broke the other thigh bone and both never completely healed. He started drawing and painting during long periods of convalescence and went to Paris to study with Bonnat and Cormon. During this time, he had his first encounter with a prostitute and started painting the low life of Montmartre.
Toulouse-Lautrec art at Albi
What surprises in the museum is that he really was an accomplished painter. You can detect expressionist, impressionist, classical, even chiaroscuro in the 240 canvases on display. He probably influenced Van Gogh and Picasso was a great admirer. Towards the end of his life, in 1891, he taught himself lithography. The result was e the 31 Moulin Rouge posters for which he’s justly famous.
Another UNESCO listed attraction in Albi is the parchment Mappa Mundi, dating from the 8th century, and one of the oldest representations of the world. It belonged to Albi cathedral and you can see a facsimile in the Treasury with information panels explaining the content and the history.
Rupert Parker is a writer, photographer, cameraman & TV Producer. His special interests are food & travel & he writes about everything from wilderness adventure to gourmet spa tours. Read about his latest adventures on his website Planet Appetite.
Useful Information for Albi
Tarn Tourisme: information on the region; Albi Tourisme: information about the city.
Hotels: Mercure Cité Episcopale Hotel overlooks the river in Albi.
Restaurants: Restaurant Le Lautrec has regional fare opposite the painter’s birthplace in Albi; La Table du Sommelier offers local wine pairings with each course in Albi.