Often overlooked in favour of Toulouse or Carcassonne, the town of Albi, at the centre of the anti-Cathar crusades and the woad trade, has a lot to offer the cultural visitor
The “red” town of Albi is picturesquely situated along the banks of the river Tarn, from whence was dug the reddish clay, used to make the red bricks which give the town its nickname. Red-brick mills scattered along the river banks hint at the town’s industrial past although it was the profits from the lucrative woad trade that financed the splendid medieval merchant houses. Less overrun by tourists than other Southern French towns, a wander around its old cobbled streets is as satisfying as its more famous sites.
What to see
Sainte Cecile Cathedral
It’s hard to miss this colossal Gothic building, said to be the largest brick building in the world, which dominates the town. It looks more like a fortress than a traditional cathedral as it was built by the Catholic Church after the crushing of the local Cathars as a show of strength. They were a religious sect found in the Languedoc region of France who flourished in C12 and early C13 and who felt the established Catholic Church to be morally and spiritually corrupt. The church combined with nobles from the North of France, whose motivation was less spiritual than territorial. Albi gave its name to the crusade against them – the Albigensian Crusade which saw thousands slaughtered. The conflict ended in the triumph of the French Crown and the loss of independence of the Southern princes.
The cathedral, built with the local red brick, was built between 1282 and finally finished in 1480. Amongst the highlights is the painting of “Judgment Day,” the largest medieval representation of the day of reckoning, complete with gory images of sinners undergoing gruesome torments. The C15 rood screen is finely carved with remarkably preserved statues. The giant C18 organ with its statues is considered one of the finest three in France. Every visible inch of wall and ceiling is covered with sumptuous Italian frescos depicting biblical stories, for the enlightenment of a largely illiterate medieval population. Entrance fee 2 euros or Albi Pass, extra charge for Treasure House. Fee includes audio guided tour in several languages.
Toulouse Lautrec Museum (Palais de la Berbie)
After the Albigensian Crusade, temporal power in Albi was given to the Catholic bishops until the French Revolution. During C13 and C14, the bishops had this fortress-like residence built to intimidate would-be heretics. Today it houses the Toulouse Lautrec gallery. Born into an aristocratic family in Albi, Lautrec was drawn to Montmartre where he painted its demi-monde of chorus girls, prostitutes and cabaret artists – the dividing line between the three groups being distinctly blurred! Here you will find the portraits of his early years and see the influence impressionism made on him but it is his famous posters advertising artistes at the Moulin Rouge and other drinking establishments that attract the crowds and adorn the souvenir shops of the town. Entrance fee 5,5 euros or Albi Pass. The beautiful gardens overlooking the river are free to enter.
Maison du Vieil Alby
Situated in the heart of the Old Town (ironically known today as Castlenau or “new town”) at 1 rue Croix Blanche, the “old house of Albi” is today home to the Association for the Preservation of Old Albi and houses their small museum. Of more interest to visitors are the films on Albi and its region showing on the top floor (in French only) and the house itself, a former medieval woad merchant’s house. This brick and timber building was open on its top floor to allow the drying out of the woad before it was made into woad balls for selling. Until the discovery of indigo towards the end of C16, woad (or “pastel” in French) was the only blue dye known in Europe. The woad would be crushed into small balls known as cocagnes, gaining for Albi the nickname “pays de cocagne” which today means “land of plenty.” Woad from the blue triangle of Toulouse, Carcassonne and Albi was considered the best in Europe. A nearby shop sells cosmetics, scarves and materials made with woad. Entrance charge 2 euros, 1,40 with Albi Pass.
The Collegiate Church and Cloister of Saint-Salvi
Dedicated to the town’s first bishop in C6, you can trace the development of this collegiate church by looking at the materials on its bell tower. Its base is Romanesque (C11) then come the Gothic stone arches of C13, topped by a red brick watch tower. An interesting medieval interior has information in English. Finish with a visit to the picturesque C13 cloister with its peaceful garden. Admission free.
Tourist must-have: The Albi Pass
All the principal sights have an entrance fee and if staying for a couple of days, your best investment will be the Albi Pass (6,5 euros), valid for a calendar year and one entry into each of the sights. If you visit the cathedral (2 euros) and the Toulouse Lautrec Museum (5,5 euros) it will already have paid for itself. It also gives you reductions to the other museums, river and tourist train tours, and various shops and restaurants. Available at the Tourist Office, near the entrance to the Cathedral.
Where to stay
I’ve stayed in a 4*, 3* and a Non Classified hotel in Albi, covering most budgets.
For a gastronomic splurge, I would recommend the 4-star La Reserve, 2kms from the city centre, on the Route de Cordes. This Relais and Châteaux hotel is renown for its cuisine and its 23 individually designed rooms overlook either the garden and pond or the swimming pool and river. Dining overlooking the River Tarn or relaxing in your air-conditioned room, you may feel like royalty and rightly so – both the Queen Mother and the Emperor of Japan have stayed at this oasis of calm. Expect to pay around 150 - 200 euros for a double room, with breakfast included. Closed from November to April inclusive.
The 3-star Mercure Albi Bastides (41, Bis rue Porta) stands out from its chain cousins because of its splendid setting on the banks of the river. Housed in a former mill dating from 1770, this brick building lies just over the bridge from the town centre and offers wonderful views over the Cathedral and Palais de la Berbie. In fine weather you can dine outside on the terrace overlooking the river. Expect to pay around 75 - 90 euros for a double room, more for a river view.
The Non-Classified Etap Hotel Albi Centre (16, rue Castelginest) is similar to most other Etap hotels. The simple rooms have a small shower, W.C, TV and double bed with single bunk-bed above. This hotel has the advantage of sharing a building with an Ibis hotel so you can also use their bar and breakfast in their breakfast room. If your air-conditioning is not switched on when you enter the room, go to the reception desk of the Ibis hotel to request it be switched on. Definitely no frills but all the modern facilities that you need for a short stay. Expect to pay around 43 euros for a room.
Where to eat
Le Clos Sainte Cécile
(3 rue de Castelviel, Tel. +33 5 63 38 19 74 )
In fine weather, you can dine al fresco in the back garden, illuminated by fairy lights. In more inclement times, you can dine in the classroom of this restaurant, once the local school, surrounded by blackboards and photos of former pupils. The food is excellent, typical French cuisine served with style and there is a menu at 23 euros.
(27 Place Sainte-Cecile, Tel. +33 5 63 46 27 10)
Situated in the shadow of the towering cathedral, Le Parvis is another restaurant where it is a pleasure to eat outside in good weather. Cross through the 1930s restaurant to the outside terrace and chose a table that overlooks the cathedral, illuminated at night. If it's raining, make yourself cosy in one of the music-themed rooms inside. The food is good, with local delicacies as well as classic French cooking. Menu 18 euros upwards.