TAKE A STROLL
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
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