A ma­jes­tic cathe­dral and a world-fa­mous artist are the Tarn cap­i­tal’s main claims to fame, but there is plenty more to the ville rouge, as Ca­tri­ona Burns dis­cov­ers

France - - Contents -

The cathe­dral dom­i­nates Albi, but there is much more to the ville rouge.

As I gazed at Albi’s sky­line of red-brick build­ings giv­ing off a softly coloured glow, it was easy to see why the cap­i­tal of the Tarn dé­parte­ment is known as la ville rouge. But, de­ter­mined to find out what else makes the birth­place of the artist Toulouse-lautrec such a red-hot lo­ca­tion to visit, I set off to ex­plore this gem in south-west France.

Seek­ing respite from the mid­day sun, I be­gan my stroll along the banks of the River Tarn, where an awning of leafy trees pro­vided cool shade. Af­ter a brief stop for an iced tea at one of the river­side kiosks, I con­tin­ued my stroll, ad­mir­ing the three rose-coloured bridges and wav­ing back to tourists on board boats that mo­tored gen­tly along the wa­ters. Fi­nally, I set­tled down on the grassy river­bank to join stu­dents as they en­joyed pic­nics, read and snoozed by the wa­ter’s edge.

As the af­ter­noon (and my hunger) crept nearer, I de­cided to head into the town cen­tre and visit the mar­ket (open Tues­day to Sun­day 9am-2pm). With no mapped-out route to fol­low, I sim­ply headed in the di­rec­tion of the Cathé­drale Sainte-cé­cile, which tow­ers over the town and the River Tarn, pro­vid­ing a con­stant pres­ence, no mat­ter which turn you take.

On my way, I walked through the nar­row, twist­ing streets lined with Ro­manesque and Gothic build­ings and half-tim­bered houses, some dat­ing from the 10th cen­tury and con­structed with bricks made with clay from the River Tarn. On closer in­spec­tion, I mar­velled at the me­dieval thumbprints that had been pre­served in the baked clay. The rum­bling of a bike along the cob­bled stones stirred me from my reverie, and I fol­lowed its path, which led me to face the star of Albi’s show, the 13th-cen­tury cathe­dral. Built by the Catholic Church to demon­strate its supremacy af­ter the de­feat of the Cathar heretics, it still looks like an im­pos­ing fortress. Nowa­days, the large pi­azza buzzes with shop­pers, skate­board­ers prac­tis­ing new tricks, and tourists try­ing to take in the sheer scale of the build­ing.

With lunch firmly on my mind, I left the bustling pi­azza and headed to Place Fer­nand Pell­outier, where the open-air farm­ers’ mar­ket (Tues­day and Satur­day morn­ing) was in full swing with stalls sell­ing or­ganic fruit and veg­eta­bles, cheese, home-made jams and other farm-fresh food. I wan­dered in­side to

Me­dieval thumbprints had been pre­served in the baked clay of some of the build­ings

the cov­ered mar­ket, which was buzzing with stall­hold­ers sell­ing ev­ery­thing from fish and meat to pas­tries and wine. Set­tling my­self at a ta­ble at a mar­ket eatery, I tucked into a ro­tis­serie chicken, pota­toes cooked in duck fat and a glass of chilled rosé as I watched the lo­cals stock up on sup­plies for their week­end ren­dezvous.

My next port of call was Rue Mar­iès, where I in­dulged in a spot of shop­ping. Af­ter pe­rus­ing the clothes bou­tiques, and shops sell­ing Al­bi­gen­sian sou­venirs, I was in­trigued to come across a hid­den en­try­way called Pas­sage de la Prévôté. I passed through a wrought-iron gate to find the Cloître de la Col­lé­giale Saint-salvi, where aclois­ters bor­dered a charm­ing gar­den in full bloom, grow­ing ev­ery­thing from straw­ber­ries and pears to aubergines, pep­pers and sun­flow­ers.

En­joy­ing the air of peace­ful ro­mance, I sat with only the coo­ing of nest­ing pi­geons and the soft hum from the hub­bub of a Satur­day af­ter­noon in Albi out­side; an idyl­lic end to my day in this me­dieval city.

LEFT: Look­ing down on the Palais de la Ber­bie and the River Tarn from the cathe­dral; ABOVE: The farm­ers’ mar­ket in Place Fer­nand Pell­outier; IN­SET: The im­pos­ing Cathé­drale Sainte-cé­cile

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: A tourist boat next to a weir on the River Tarn in Albi; The tow­er­ing in­te­rior of the cathe­dral with its or­nate ceil­ing; The gar­dens of the Palais de la Ber­bie; Visi­tors find a shady spot to re­lax near the cathe­dral

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