Quite a few years ago, on vacation, before we had moved to France, we visited the town of Albi. We discovered a very attractive brick city with a surprising cathedral. But we were there only for a night.
Fast forward: After the end of the recent grueling round of train-system strikes, the leaders of the region of Occitanie* wanted to entice residents to come back to the trains. On Wednesdays in February, train segments in the region on the TER* trains were only 1€ each way. While the trains in the region are generally already very affordable, the siren call of 1€ tickets motivated. Albi is just a bit over two hours away via two segments: Carcassonne to Toulouse, and then Toulouse to Albi.
First stop off the train: Lunch of course. Midway along the 15-minute walk from the train station to the historic center of the town rises the new Grand Théâtre des Cordeliers (dedicated in 2014, designed by Dominique Perrault). Its curving sunscreens fly away from the more sober brick buildings of the neighborhood.
A well-reviewed restaurant, La Part des Anges, sits atop the theater and overlooks the city.
For the food, the view, and easy access from the train station, this was our lunch choice. And good one it was. Foodie photos follow:
The day was gray and intermittently rainy. Nonetheless we wandered amid the picturesque buildings and in the winding streets.
An open door leading down a stone passage caught our attention.
We happened upon the cloister of Saint-Salvi. Its construction began in 1270. During the French Revolution, as part of the violent backlash against the Church and the aristocracy, angry revolutionaries ripped down much of the cloister. Only the south gallery remains today.
One of our specific destinations was the Toulouse-Lautrec museum.
The site of the museum is notable in its own right. In the second half of the 13th century, the Bishops of Albi began construction of the Palais de la Berbie — the current home of the museum — and then the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile (more about the cathedral later). These buildings were really fortresses. The bishops wanted to shout the power of the Church and of themselves, as well as protect themselves. In the 13th century, the Bishops were not at all popular; many of the local people and leaders fought against their worldly power.
About Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from the museum’s website:
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born in Albi on the 24th of November 1864, to a family with roots in the most ancient provincial aristocracy. Lautrec suffered from a congenital bone disease, most likely due to the consanguineous marriage of his parents. It played a decisive part in shaping the young man’s destiny. Deprived of mobility for many months at a time, he spent his days drawing and then painting. He thus developed a good taste for which he became widely known in his milieu, and a gift that he displayed from a very early age, eventually making it his vocation.
His immersion in Parisian life completed his metamorphosis. Encountering all the art movements of the time, he chose the path of modernism and became both a key participant in and witness of the Montmartre Bohemia that inspired him. A portrait painter of genius, he immortalized the stars, from Aristide Bruant to Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert to Loïe Füller. A regular visitor of brothels, he became attached to the simple everyday reality of prostitutes. The theatre, the circus, vaudeville and the avant-garde stage, for which he designed programs and scenery, all fed his insatiable appetite for the human comedy.
The 31 posters that he designed from 1891 to 1900 impress with their strength and their masterful simplification of the image. He was a forerunner of the poster of the 20th century. His output of lithographs also included 370 prints showcasing the virtuosity of an expressive and elegant line.
Lautrec led his life to the rhythm of his creativity. His relentless work, but also his indulgence in pleasure and his excessive consumption of alcohol, gradually affected his health. He died at the Domaine de Malromé, owned by his mother, in Gironde, on the 9th of September 1901.
The layout of the museum follows the chronology of his life. A few things struck us:
In his youth and early adult years, he was still learning to draw and paint well. He took as his intimate subjects the people, animals and places close to him in Albi.
Once he moved to Paris, the assurance of his lines developed.
Then, as is so often the case with creative innovation, a happy confluence of new influences bubbled up around him. New laws permitted gatherings for entertainment and pleasure, including theaters and cabarets, dances and concerts. New laws also, after many years of restriction, permitted free press, which included putting up posters in the public realm. And photoengraving and lithography technologies suddenly advanced dramatically. Toulouse-Lautrec’s style of Japanese-inspired minimalism with integration of graphics and text is the ancestor of all advertising we enjoy (?) to this day.
Our hotel and dinner restaurant for the night was the lovely L’Hôtel et Brasserie L’Alchimy. Really beautiful, clean and welcoming hotel. And another very nice meal, even better than we had anticipated.
The next morning, we awoke to another gray and even rainier day. Not much wandering the charming streets; we had to focus on interior destinations.
First stop: The Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile.
In general, our interest in historic churches has waned over the years. But this one is unusual, and remarkable in the contrast between its burly exterior and its flamboyant interior. The message seems to be, “Keep out, you heathens; that is, unless we invite you into our splendid club.”
As is usually the case, it took centuries for the cathedral we visit today to emerge. For those of you who like dates:
- Ste Cécile Cathedra, built from 1282 to 1380, was consecrated on April 23rd 1480.
- The Last Judgement was painted at the end of the 15th century.
- The statuary, the sculptures of the Tube, the enclosure of the Great Choir were finished in 1480.
- The vault and the walls were painted in 1512.
- The Great Organ was built from 1734 to 1736 by Christophe Moucherel. It was restored in 1981.
- The new alter was consecrated in 1980.
Our last stop before lunch and our train home was Le Musée de la Mode – The Museum of Fashion.
We entered into the tiny reception room, finding a 50-something man behind the counter. He immediately asked us, “Have you been here before?” We said no. He launched into his explanation: This collection is his own; he receives no public support. He has collected over 10,000 pieces in the decades of his work and passion. Every two years, he mounts a new exhibition from the collection. The current exhibit highlights embroidery and needlework from the 18th to 21st centuries. He instructed us not to miss the basement gallery, which includes some men’s items. He explained that, previously, men visitors would comment that there were only women’s fashion items; where are the men’s?
We found a historically eclectic collection. And extremely professional and attractive presentation. The lighting, the display cases, the wall panels with enlightening quotations — all was worthy of a much more substantial and endowed museum.
Our host also explained that the building we were in was formerly a small convent. When he was starting his effort to create this museum, he came upon the derelict convent building; it had been abandoned for at least 60 years. “There were fig trees growing out of the roof! The real-estate agents were afraid of the building.” But he saw the potential. Eleven years later, he was able to open the museum. He said that during the early 16th century when painters and artisans were decorating the interior of the cathedral, some of them were lodged in this convent building. As thanks, or perhaps as payment, some of the painters decorated some of the ceilings, which we can still see today.
In a few of the museum rooms, we spotted milky-white glass chandeliers that looked to us to be Murano style. As we were leaving, putting back on our rain coats and grabbing our umbrella, we asked our host about the chandeliers. He immediately said, “Murano!” He pointed to the one above our heads and explained: He had been visiting the home of a very wealthy regional family. “They had seven houses!” His mission was adding to his collection of clothing. He came upon a room full of closed crates and cartons. The owner explained that these there wedding gifts from long-past celebrations; the family had never used the gifts. One carton contained the Murano glass chandelier, never having been suspended and used.
Since we had eaten a bit too much during the previous day, we sought out a lunch salad. Around the corner from the Musée de la Mode, we found La Bonne Maison. The posted menu included a chicken-caesar salad: Perfect! Attractive relaxed interior and friendly staff.
As we were ordering our salads, we explained that our recent overeating required a more moderate lunch. Our server explained that we could choose the appetizer-size salad if we wanted. Our expressions were, “What? Are you crazy?” She covered her mouth in mock horror, and said, “Je me déculpabilise!” which means, in good humor, “I won’t take any responsibility for what you choose!”
The salad turned out to be enormous, with huge pieces of freshly roasted chicken. Oh, well, the diet always starts tomorrow.
*Occitanie is the region of southern France that comprises Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées. We live in the department of Aude in the former Languedoc-Roussillon. Albi is in the department of Tarn.
*TER (Transports express régional) is a part of the national train system SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français). In our region, they are, despite having “express” in the title, local trains, usually serving many small stations. From Carcassonne to Toulouse, for example, there are no reserved seats. On one of our recent trips, we had to stand for part of the way, just like a commuter train or bus. Fortunately, these are frequent trains, so there are lots of options for travel schedules.