Before my French Escape trip, I wasn’t familiar with many of the small towns I visited in Southwest France. I’m not proud of that because not only are these towns amazing places to visit, they each have interesting and long histories which are worthy of note. I’m willing to bet that a lot of you weren’t familiar with these towns either before my trip and so I want to try to introduce you to a few of my favorites. Today I want to highlight a town I fell in love with almost immediately, one that is profoundly interesting and one that everyone should visit – Albi. So what surprised me about Albi?
1. That it exists – I’ve been a Francophile for most of my life, which is why it’s particularly embarrassing to admit to the fact that I’d never before heard of this amazing town. It’s actually quite well known amongst art aficionados though and is a big tourist draw within France. Humans have been living in and around what we call Albi since the Bronze Age, but it was the Romans who put it on the map. The city persisted after the fall of the Roman Empire, in large part thanks to the city’s prime riverfront location. It’s always been an important town within the region, but in the 13th century all eyes of the Western world were upon this humble town when the Pope and the French King joined forces to form a crusade against the local Cathars, a controversial Christian sect. The destruction was complete and the region eventually became annexed by the French crown, thereby eliminating the region’s independence forever. More than just this impressive history though, the Albi of today is a vibrant and active city. As I strolled through the medieval alleys and perused the fresh produce in the market I was joined by scores of others, shopping, laughing and just living. That’s the best part of visiting Albi, the chance to live life like a local and not seem hopelessly out of place, if only for a while.
2. Food and wine – Ok, I guess no one should be that surprised by discovering excellent food and wine in France, but it wasn’t the mere presence of delectable treats that surprised me, it was the style. The wine especially was an unexpected pleasure. I’d like to think that I know a fair amount about wine. I’m no expert, but I’ve at least heard of the major Houses and varietals. So imagine my surprise when we stopped by the chateau of a Scottish expat and his French wife who have been producing excellent Gaillac wines for thirty years. Gaillac in the Tarn region surrounding Albi is the earliest wine-producing region in France, tracing their viticulture heritage back to the Romans. Alan Geddes, owner of the Château Mayragues, has developed several excellent versions of the traditional wines using some grapes I’ve never heard of. Mauzac, Len de L’El, Braucol and Duras were all new to me, but are blended with more common grape varietals like Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon to create a rich panoply of delicious wines. The wines are the perfect match for the fabulous fresh meats and produce found throughout the town and region.
3. For once a church impressed me – I’ve visited a lot of churches, cathedrals and basilicas in my travels. It’s just a part of the experience, especially in Europe. Culture, history and religion are so hopelessly intertwined that most times it seems like an act of tourist negligence to omit these mighty structures from one’s travel itineraries. Still, after a while I’m sorry to say that the experience gets old, at least for me, which is why the Albi Cathedral (or Cathedral of Saint Cecilia) made such an impression on me. The first thing I noticed walking up to the edifice was its incredible size; it’s massive. It was built with a fortress in mind and as such was meant to impress and scare the populace, ultimately as a statement against those rowdy Cathars. But that’s not what really made an indelible impression upon me though; it’s what I found inside that truly impressed. Most churches I’ve visited are noteworthy, but have lost their original brilliance. Bright murals and artwork are dull or nonexistent and the elaborate treasures and relics that once adorned them are long since gone. Not so for the so-called Blue Cathedral in Albi though. As soon as I crossed the threshold my breath caught in my chest. It was gorgeous. The ceiling was decorated with pastoral and Biblical scenes set against a vibrant blue sky background. Unlike other churches, the side chapels weren’t forgotten corners, they still feature the elaborate Italian frescoes painted on them so long ago. Everywhere in the church was opulence and brilliance, just as it was at the height of the church’s power in the region. I didn’t have to try to imagine what once was, I could see it for myself and it was incredible.
4. Toulouse-Lautrec – All Albigeois seem to be immensely proud of their most famous native son, as well as they should be. The great artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was at the same time a bizarre enigma and a brilliant artist. The expansive Toulouse-Lautrec museum in the heart of Albi was recently renovated and the newly opened institution is a work of art in its own right. The museum is well spaced so that one can admire the great artist’s work, yes, but also get an idea of his unusual life at the same time. Toulouse-Lautrec was born to a wealthy and aristocratic family near Albi, but a childhood accident left him crippled for life and would always play an important role in his personality. Even though he spent plenty of time in Albi, he became famous while living in Paris, frequenting the salons and brothels of the city. His work features some of the most iconic poster images in art history, including the famous ads for the Moulin-Rouge. Sadly, he died at the tender age of 36 from complications resulting from alcoholism and syphilis and was buried near his family home. The museum reflects this unusual life and art and is indeed a treasure not just for Albi, but for all of France and everyone should make it a must visit site.
5. That I loved it – During my seven days in France I explored ten cities. That’s a lot. I love France though and I love the French and most of it was an exciting adventure. But I was surprised constantly along the way by new discoveries and amazing cities that were completely unknown to me just a few weeks prior. None surprised me more than Albi. The town is about half an hour from Toulouse and easily reached by train but generally isn’t on the standard “tourist circuit.” I stupidly assumed that this was because it lacked interest or charm. I’m not sure why more international visitors don’t visit this country town, but they certainly should. I was surprised at the culture, the food, the wine and the people. I was surprised that such a rural, ancient city could retain its personality while simultaneously modernizing. Yes, people visit for the church and the museum, but they also visit for the shops and the restaurants. This is a rare ability; the ability to so expertly honor the past while moving forward and it makes time spent there a true joy. So go, visit Albi and be just as surprised as I was.
Have you ever visited Albi? Heck, have you ever heard of Albi before?