It’s easy to reach Albi by road (travelling through the Gaillac vineyards is a wonderful experience and therefore a must) or by train: the vines start to become fewer when the 40-metre-high Saint Cecilia bell tower appears, towering majestically into the sky. The heart of the city boasts the Cathedral of Saint Cecilia, the Tourist Office, and the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum all in the same area. Go into the Museum courtyard and walk around it clockwise to reach the sublime formal gardens from which the views over Albi and the Tarn (the river which flows through the city and sometimes flares up angrily) are worth the detour.
A gothic cathedral
The Cathedral of Saint Cecilia is the largest brick cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1282 (and lasted two centuries). It was meant, in Cathar Country, to testify to the bishop’s power and be a symbol of the Catholic Church’s victory over heresy, yet had to have a modest appearance. As a result, its magnificent interior contrasts with the almost military austerity of the exterior.
I never tire of admiring its (original) painted ceilings, its pedagogical frescos (the people had to be promised heaven by making them fear hell) and its finely carved rood screen.
A medieval city centre
Coming out of the cathedral, we take the little underground passage which leads to the old rampart walk in Albi’s most ancient district. We admire the brick facades: Really, Albi deserves the nickname for Toulouse: the “Pink City”!
In the first century, the Romans noticed that the Tarn was full of clay. They installed workshops on its banks where bricks were made by hand.
The tradition remains to this day.
In order to reduce the risk of fire, the kilns were moved out of the city in the Middle Ages (they were located at the current Place du Vigan) and the bricks were transported in a human chain from one person to the next before they were baked. This explains the finger marks engraved in some of them (do go nearer and have a closer look). Are some bricks black? They were baked for too long! Are others split? They weren’t baked for long enough! Going down again, we admire the half-timbering and corbelling of the facades, which are astonishingly well preserved. The city centre is teeming with wonderful guestrooms in extremely old houses which have been tastefully restored. The Tourist Office will be happy to give you their addresses (walking through Albi at night is very romantic).
A restful cloister
Albi’s city centre contains a great many little secret passages, inconspicuous courtyards and alleyways. I love going down them at random during my walks so that I get lost and find myself elsewhere. For example, just next to Saint Cecilia and hiding at the end of a passageway which opens up between two shops, the Cloister of Saint Salvi is a true wonder of calm and serenity: ideal for taking a break, opening up a book or simply allowing yourself to daydream. It belongs to the oldest church in Albi, which is Roman in style and joined up to the houses surrounding it.
A restaurant where you can discover Gaillac wines
A short distance away from the pedestrian streets, La Table du Sommelier is my favourite place in Albi. I have always eaten well there, whether at the bar or on the terrace (with panoramic views over the medieval city centre) and enjoy pairing each dish with the wine to best accompany it. This is a brilliant way to learn more about these vineyards with guidance from expert sommeliers who love their region. It is both a gastronomic and a cultural event!