Albi "la rouge"
A story by Arnie Greenberg
If you are in search of French art, architecture and history, I suggest you head for Albi. The city stands high on the banks of the river Tarn in the southwest of France, north of Carcassonne and near the larger city of Toulouse. If this latter city reminds you of something, you are correct when you guess that this was a name connected with a major painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Yes, there is an art gallery there that attracts Lautrec aficionados in droves but Albi is also a well-preserved city of remarkable architecture and a fascinating past. It was here that the crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars was mounted in 1236.
The Cathars spread their influence as messengers of a new faith. They were considered heretics by King and Church and were massacred and burnt at the stake. At Montségur alone, those who opposed the Catholic authority paid dearly for their zeal. Ten thousand men lay siege to Montségur and burned hundreds at the stake. There are still reminders of these bloody days in the destroyed havens of the Cathar castles in southwest France.
They call it “Red Albi” (Albi la rouge) because of the red brick and hue of the stone churches and bridges. It is a visual city slightly off the beaten track but it’s worth a visit for many reasons including the food.
Many go there to see the collection of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. Lautrec was the son of a Count and was born in November 1864 in his family mansion built on the city ramparts. It is called the Château du Bosc. But wealth could not prevent the young Lautrec from being victimized by age 15 by a congenital disorder and two falls. His affliction brought him to Paris in 1882, where he began to record his impressions of the seedier side of city life around the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre with canvasses and drawings that were to set a style for future painters. His work is well known but too few have seen the Albi collection that is made up of more than 1,000 paintings, drawings and lithographs. The collection is housed in the former archbishop’s palace dating back to the 13th century. The collection represents the lifestyle of murky Montmartre’s, music halls and brothels at the end of the 19th century. I was impressed with Lautrec’s paintings of horses, one of his early loves and the drawings entitled "At the Circus".
But Lautrec’s condition, his addiction to alcohol and his syphilis exhausted him and he returned to his mother’s residence, Château de Malrome, in the Gironde River area where he died in 1901. He was not yet 37 years of age.
The museum is testimony to Albi’s native son but it also houses works by such geniuses as Bonnard, Matisse, Vuillard and Vlaminck.
The archbishop’s Palace de la Berbie is a powerful medieval fortress with terraces and gardens you will not soon forget. The view of the river from here is spectacular. You get to it from a walkway near the museum so there’s no cost. Bring your cameras.
But there’s more to this city than art and architecture. Albi is a centre of music, theatre, cinema and jazz. There is an annual carnival and the university is the 6th most important school of mines in France. It too is a meeting place for conferences and seminars.
For sports, there are racetracks for cars and motorbikes and a superb 18-hole golf course built on an estate. Kayaking on the rushing rivers is a favorite sport here as are walking, biking and fishing.
Market days are special here with people gathering on Saturdays and Tuesdays from the region. There is even a covered market every morning except Mondays. Shoppers walk on the cobbled streets to the poultry market near the cathedral where they exchange stories in the occitan dialect (langue d’Oc). The talk is often of cooking. This is a gourmand’s haven where one can taste radishes and salt liver, Albi-style beef stew, saffron tripe, sweetbreads and gimblettes or ring cakes, not to mention the duck and goose delicacies of southwestern France.
Albi is near the Massif Central, that rugged and scenic area half way between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It is dotted with vineyards, valleys and plateaus and a celebrated, deep gorge created by the Tarn River, which gives the region its name. There are still mansions in the area as well as hill villages like the picturesque medieval village of Cordes-sur-Ciel, which is certainly worth a stop.
But, for me, the gem of the Tarn is still Albi in old Languedoc. You will be seduced by it as I was. I return here often.
About Arnie Greenberg: Arnie Greenberg is a retired Montréal college Humanities professor who has written novels and texts, as well as plays about Picasso and one about Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, which was staged in Stuttgart Germany. He also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, writing over 1,000 scripts, mostly for young people. Mr. Greenberg has dedicated this book to the late Dr. Robert Bartlett Haas, a long-time friend of Gertrude Stein and the author.
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