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Albi and a Peek at the Tarn

October 25, 2014

Surely Albi is known for other things, but for me there are two: the origin of the name Albigensian for the crusade against the Cathars, and Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born there.

Google said the drive from here would take 2 ½ hours, but my experience during this trip has shown that Google often doesn’t know what it’s talking about. I had made the drive to St. Chinan a couple of weeks ago, and remembered the climbing, twisty road with vineyards clinging to the hillsides. Further on, toward the town of St. Pons-de-Thomières, the terrain became more rugged and sheer rock faces glowered over me as I traversed the Black Mountains (or Mountain, as people here refer to it). The road was smooth, however, and provided a margin for error — or encountering tractor-trailers — on both sides.

Beyond St. Pons the coiled road spooled out, revealing yet a different sort of countryside. First I saw cows, and realized I had seen none whatsoever during this trip. The landscape of rolling hills was more agrarian, fields neatly tilled for the next planting of, I learned later, wheat. There were browned and shriveling fields of corn also, and one large stand of sunflowers blackened by the cold. Imagine summer! Vineyards were notably absent.

Tarn countryside

I was now in the Haut (High) Languedoc, and the rest of the drive to Albi was just spectacular. The great river Tarn has carved deep gorges, and I caught a glimpse as I pressed on.

Albi boasts the largest cathedral in the world made of brick, St. Cecilia; but the elaborately carved stone entryway seemed to me at odds with the simplicity of the rest of the structure. Built after the crusade against the Cathars ended, the sheer bulk and mass (no pun intended) of the cathedral reinforced the power and authority of the Church. There’s a second, older, less grand, church, the 11th century St. Salvy, just a couple of blocks away.

St. Cecilia entry


The historic center is a shopper’s and ambler’s paradise, with pedestrian-only streets radiating from the main square and warrens of medieval buildings, also predominately brick. Unlike the stone façades found in other towns, the brick lends a tidiness, even modernity, to the ancient buildings.


Musée de Toulouse-Lautrec is housed in a bishops’ retreat next to the cathedral, and contains the largest collection of the artist’s work anywhere. Henri was born in Albi, into an aristocratic family; but his short stature and various health problems are usually attributed to the fact that his mother and father were first cousins. Though I studied art history in college, I often associate him primarily with his colorful posters of Paris cabarets and studies of the Bohemian lifestyle of Montmartre. Beyond those well-known pieces, the museum’s collection includes numerous portraits (many of his beloved mother, who endowed the museum with his works), lithographs and exquisite paintings of horses. Given that he died at 36, he was remarkably prolific.

The museum provides wonderfully informative written guides providing insight “behind the paintbrush.”

My takeaway from Albi was that it deserves more time than I could give it. The drive was nearly three hours going (a bit shorter returning), which had me driving that snaky mountain road well after dark. The area has some other interesting cities, including Castres, intersected by canals, which I drove through en route, and Mazamet, which houses the definitive Cathar museum. And of course there are the Tarn gorges, which are said to be awesome. It illustrated to me how enormous the Languedoc-Roussillon is.

Pont vieux

11th c. pont vieux,still carrying cars over the Tarn

From → Solo travel

  1. I love your photographs, D.

  2. Thanks, John. I’ve taken so many, it’s hard to choose which ones to include in the blog. And thanks for being interested enough to keep up!

  3. Katherine Matheson permalink

    That cathedral entryway looks like it was added later… looks like later Gothic. Do you know when the church was built?

    Too bad you couldn’t devote the time it deserved to Albi!

  4. The cathedral took about 200 years to build, starting in the latter 13th c., and the entry was built in the 16th.

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