Albi is the principle city in the Tarn (81) department in the south west of France, 50 minutes from Toulouse and less that 2 hours from the Mediterranean coast.
It is known as the ‘Red City’, which needs no explaining as you near the town, nestling on the banks of the Tarn river, with the imposing Sainte CÃ©cile cathedral towering over the city.
The inhabitants of Albi are called ‘the Albigeois’, a name which has a particular significance in the area due to the crusades mounted against the Cathares in the 11th century by the troops of Simon de Montfort.
The name ‘Albi’, is written the same in the Occitane language Â and probably comes from the word ‘Alp’ meaning an escarpment, other sources could be from ‘Albius’ a Roman noble who lived in the area during the Gallo-Roman era or alternatively ‘Alba’ meaning white in Latin, which could denote the colour of the limestone cliffs that surround the town.
The site has been inhabited since prehistory due to the presence of the river Tarn and the abundance of flat pebbles, which were later used for building materials – they are still used in some of the traditional buildings today.
The ‘Pont vieux’ or Old Bridge was built in the 10th century and helped Albi become an important port on the Tarn.
The city was once the fief of the Trencaval family and became an episcopal city in the 11th century, growing rich from the agricultural lands that surround the area and notably the pastel flower, which produced the blue dye which was later supplanted by indigo.
The city declined in wealth after this, where the industry gave way to tanneries, weaving, glass and brick making – but never really regained the opulence of the Pastel era – although there are signs of the past wealth in some of the rich houses built around the city.
The cathedral of Sainte CÃ©cile was built between 1282 ans 1480 and is the oldest brick-built cathedral in the world with a striking contrast between the fine artistic work of the interior and the outside which still shows a solid sense of being a building meant to withstand attack.
The inside of the cathedral is well worth a visit for the carvings, frescoes and Italian Renaissance art, including one of the largest examples – “The Last Judgement”.
Just opposite the Cathedral is the magnificent Palais de Berbie, built in the 13th century as a palace for the Bishop of Albi and which houses the museum of art of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, who was born in Albi, with over 1,000 works of art, including the most famous posters of the Folies BergÃ¨res, Le Moulin Rouge and the 19th century nightlife of Paris. Just next to the museum is the tourist’s information centre and the immaculate gardens of the palace, overlooking the Pont Vieux and The Tarn river.
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The oldest church is the CollÃ©giale Saint Salvi, named and edified in honour of the first bishop of Albi in the 6th century, with a cloister dating from the 12th century and a watchtower that would not be out of place in Florence in Italy.
There is another museum that is worth visiting while you are here – The “MusÃ©e LapÃ©rousse” with exhibits retracing the life of the eponymous explorer who was born in Albi in 1741, in the cellar is of LapÃ©rouss’s hous is the wax museum showing 1! scenes that retrace the history of Albi through the ages.
The best views of the town are to be had from the opposite bank – just cross the Pont Vieux, which gives a great sweeping view of the Tarn and the bridges crossing it as well as the cathedral and the Palais de Berbie. For a different view, there are boat trips that leave from the foot of the city hill – where there is also a restaurant and cafÃ© which serves food and drinks on the lawns overlooking the Tarn.
The thing in Albi, is to explore the streets that radiate out from the cathedral square – there are half-timbered, red-brick houses, cloisters, narrow-winding cobbled streets – it really is not difficult to imagine how the city was in medieval times.
There is also a nice walk that follows the banks of the Tarn from the Pont Vieux up to the higher Pont Neuf, past the waterfall and the fish traps.
There is a nice, modern, covered market just 100 meters from the cathedral that sells fresh fruit vegetables and local produce – there is also a nice, reasonably priced restaurant inside selling no-nonsense, no-frill but good food.
There are a number of cafÃ©s and restaurants that surround the cathedral square but I recommend moving away from here, which is a bit of a tourist trap – with prices to match, and have a look at the restaurants that are nestled in the narrow streets.
For something traditional and local try a Souris D’agneau Ã la crÃ¨me d’ail rose de Lautrec (lamb with creamed garlic) or confit de canard (preserved duck) washed down with wine from Gaillac – which is just down the road.
If you are still ready for some more tourism – there are many beautiful places to visit nearby, including:
Castelnau de Montmirail – Gaillac, Cordes sur Ciel and Bruniquel, to name but four. However, there are lots of things to see and do in Albi, so that may be better for another day.