Albi - Capital of the Land of Plenty - Tarn
Sainte-Cecile Cathedral in Albi
Albi is the prefecture of Tarn, a department full of secrets and surprises.
However, Albi is also remembered in French history for tragic events.
It was the centre of one of the most lethal wars of religion, the Albigensian Crusade.
Indeed, the good people of Albi had the misfortune of practicing Catharism.
As a result, the Roman Catholic Church branded them heretics and persecuted them in the early 13th century.
Apparently St. Bernard came to preach to the citizens of Albi in 1145.
However, he didn’t get the enthusiastic reception he felt he deserved!
So he got his own back by labelling the Albigeois heretics.
It also turns out that the bishop of Albi was supporter of the dreaded Simon de Montfort who rampaged all over south-west France between 1208 and 1229.
Once the 'heretics' eradicated, the Church of Rome built the great Cathedral of Sainte-Cecile.
It is the largest brick-built edifice in the world.
It is an overwhelming statement of orthodox Catholic faith and temporal power.
Sainte-Cécile is indeed stunning, but not necessarily to everyone’s taste.
Both the architecture of the cathedral and the brick-built Berbie Palace next door are exceptional.
Indeed, the Bishop of Albi was adamant that there would be no misunderstanding of either his or the city’s allegiance!
The cathedral was started in 1277 and finished in 1380.
It was consecrated in 1480 on the completion of the Grand Choeur with its Flamboyant statuary and sculpture and superb choir screen.
Its interior is entirely painted with a magnificent Last Judgement finished at the end of the 15th century.
The frescoes on the walls and vault were completed at the start of the 16th century.
The 18th century Christophe Moucharel organ is stupendous.
Every summer there is a season of organ concerts attracting the very finest performers from all the world.
The Berbie Palace, somewhat domesticated from its fortress-like start in life, now houses Albi’s other claim to fame, the work of Toulouse Lautrec.
Like the cathedral, this may not be to everybody’s taste.
However, the Museum is beautifully laid out and also houses other exhibitions during the year.
My favourite part of the palace is actually the garden.
It's very formal with its elaborately laid out box hedge curlicues but has exquisite views over the Tarn.
Albi, old town
Once you’ve got the essential touristy bits out of the way you can settle down and simply enjoy the city.
The tourist office will issue you with a useful free meandering map which divides the city up into three walking routes - medieval, 16th/17th centuries and riverbanks.
The latter takes you over the great river Tarn for a brief exploration of the Rive Gauche.
You can also take a boat trip on the Tarn or simply strolling along its banks and stop for a picnic or enjoy the best ice cream in France.
They will even do pâté de foie gras ice cream to order!
Albi is indeed a splendid city to walk in, meander round the rosy pink medieval streets, enjoy coffee in the main square or window shop.
You can also discover it via a little white train which will chug you gently around the streets.
It runs all the year round except February; the boat trips run from mid-June to mid-September and horse and carriage tours from April to September.
Albi - Capital of the Land of Plenty - Pays de Cocagne
The Bishop of Albi’s pragmatism assured Albi’s prosperity in the Middle Ages.
However, the city's continuing wealth came from another, and far less politically aggressive source.
It indeed came from a very insignificant little yellow flower, woad or pastel, or to give it its proper name isatis tinctoria.
In flower it looks very much like rape.
However, it's what you do with the leaves that earned Albi and large swathes of the Tarn its riches from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
The crushed leaves are moulded into a tight little ball called la cocagne.
These little balls were laid down, like wine, with their intensity of dye increasing in both depth and value with age.
Pastel was the source of blue dye throughout Europe.
Cocagne-Cockaigne was known as the Land of Sweet Content or Land of Plenty.
There are shops selling pastel dyed products, crayons and essential oil all over the Tarn, including Albi, Lautrec and Cordes-sur-Ciel.
Pastel makes an extraordinarily pretty blue rather similar to Wedgewood blue.
It is having a bit of a comeback as a paint for shutters.
It is indeed ecologically friendly and has natural insecticide and fungicide properties.
However, it is quite expensive!
Albi and the AOC Gaillac wine
Of course, Albi’s other claim to prosperity brings us back to the river itself and to AOC Gaillac.
Just 3 km from the centre of the city is the village of Castelnau de Levis, set high up on an escarpment overlooking the Tarn.
From a distance there appear to be two factory chimneys dominating the skyline, distinctly 20th century.
However, they’re not factory chimneys and they’re not 20th century!
They are watch towers built in the 13th century.
Watchers, indeed, kept a careful eye on the wine barges taking their lucrative cargo down the Tarn to Bordeaux and over the seas to England.
So, it’s a fairly safe bet that the English were drinking the good wine of Gaillac 800 years ago!
Coordinates: Lat 43.928340 - Long 2.142611