Saturday, October 19, 2013

On the Road: Albi

Albi, with the cathedral on the right

On my third day in southwest France, Daniel kindly drives me all the way to Albi, even though he has lots of other things he’s put on hold while ushering me around his adopted region.  His car door still not repaired (see my previous blog, On the Road - Quercy), we set off in another borrowed car.  On the way, he stops so I can get a photo of Cordes-sur-Ciel, which he decrees is a tourist trap not worth visiting.  But more on that later.
  After about an hour, we arrive in Albi, with its fortress cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec Museum.  Daniel delivers me to the B&B which will be my home for 48 hours, gives me a bear hug and heads back to Saint-Antonin.

Cathédrale Ste. Cécile, Albi
In order to understand Albi, and much of this part of southwest France, it’s good to know a bit about what went on here in the 13th century.  That would involve Catharism, a word taken from the Greek katharoi meaning "the pure".  This religious movement, somewhat similar to Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolt later on, thrived between the 12th and 14th centuries in southern Europe and posed a direct challenge to the Catholic Church, which cried “heresy” and called it the Church of Satan.  So in 1208 Pope Innocent III sent a legate, Pierre de Castelnau, to meet with the leading and powerful noble of the region, Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse.
Albi on the Tarn River
  Unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of people subsequently slaughtered, Castelnau was murdered, declared a martyr by the Pope and the Albigensian Crusade was off and running for some 20 years.  Any noble who sided with the Pope was allowed to confiscate land held by the Cathars or their supporters, which made just about everything fair game.  And this land was rich.
When the question arose of how to tell Cathars from Catholics, the reply was “Kill them all; God will recognize His own.”  No consideration was given to rank, age or sex.  Simon de Montfort was one of the most blood-thirsty of all the Pope’s soldiers and it eventually won him the title of leader of the Crusader army.
To mop up any Cathars who managed to escape, the Inquisition began, with the goal of annihilating any remaining heretics.  Those who weren’t burned at the stake were forced to wear a yellow cross on their outer garments and live in ghettos (sound familiar, right down to the color?)
  And that, in a nutshell, is Catharism.

Ste. Cécile & Albi by night
The struggle between the Catholic Church and the upstart religion of the Cathars also explains the fortress cathedral of Albi - Sainte Cécile’s - and the adjoining fortress palace of Berbie, both made of red brick, the building material of choice in this region.  Construction of the cathedral began in 1282 and stretched over more than a century.  It was meant to make the Cathars cower in awe of the conquering power that the Catholic Church had just demonstrated and to loom above the city as a constant reminder to heretics to stay in their place, or else.
  Once inside Ste Cécile’s, you see a cathedral as they all were initially:  painted from floor to ceiling... and then across the ceiling as well.  Hard to imagine that Notre-Dame in Paris once looked like this, but here you don’t need to summon up your imagination.  Just look around.  On either side of the altar stretches a fresco of The Last Judgment.  The column to the right visualizes the punishments that await sinners; the column to the left, the joys that will reward the sin-less.  In an era when most people didn’t know how to read, one picture like this was worth a million words.
  In addition to this every-day altar, Ste Cécile’s has another one at the opposite end.  This one was decorated during the 15th century in Gothic flamboyant style and is now visitable only at a fee, a modest one of 2€ that goes to maintain all this magnificence.  It’s well worth that price - less than a coffee - if only to see the carvings of the wooden stalls, the miserere on which the priests rested their opulent behinds.  One is of a voluptuous mermaid, which I guess made it acceptable to show bare breasts; after all, it wasn’t a real woman.  And there are several scenes of the tribulations of Hell, which often involve the Inserting of Things Up One’s Bum; still, that Biblical explanation doesn’t make it seem any less risqué in such a place of worship.
Palais de la Berbie
  The Palais de la Berbie between the cathedral and the Tarn River was the residence of the bishop of Albi.  It, too, is built like a fortress, with tall fortifications protecting it and its formal French gardens.  Today the palace is neither military nor episcopal, but rather cultural, ever since the art collection of native boy Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec moved in.  Here you’ll find some of the artist’s earliest works, as well as portraits, posters (which were what paid Henri’s bills) and his famous cancan drawings of the Moulin-Rouge, of Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue and other scenes of Montmartre cabarets and bordellos.  HTL is truly Albi’s original Bad Boy.
  The museum is the first thing I visit because I love Toulouse-Lautrec.  After all, he’s part of my adopted Montmartre.  And also because it’s already late morning and the museum closes for two hours at noon, a charming tradition of the French provinces that wreaks havoc with a visitor’s schedule.  This is a trap that can be avoided by a call ahead of time, or simply looking on a museum’s website.
  After an all-too-rapid walk through the many rooms, I cross the street and disappear into the old part of town.  The winding streets branch out from the Covered Market, which stands astride the past - farmer’s stalls on the ground floor - and the present - a supermarket hidden downstairs, underground, out of sight.
  Close to the cathedral, among the backstreets, is St. Salvy Church.  Not at all a fortress, this one, and not even made out of brick.  It’s a blend of Romanesque and Gothic, even flamboyant, and marked with the arms of Albi (the state) next to those of the church.   What’s more, it still has its cloister, where I stumble on high school students laughing and flirting, along with a grandfather reading a story to his granddaughter.  This isn’t what the monks intended, but it certainly brings the old building to life.
  Coming out the back of the cloister and circling toward the cathedral, there’s an old house at what might be called an intersection if these streets were rectilinear.  But they’re not, so this house wraps around two different streets with a bit of facade on the square-that-isn’t-square.  It’s the Maison du Vieil Alby, the House of Old Albi, home to the authorities that work tirelessly to preserve and restore the historic sectors of the city.  The building’s top floor has the traditional soleilhou - a covered balcony where people used to dry their harvests, and in particular their pastel (known in medieval England as woad), the plant that made the dye that made this region rich.  It was replaced in the mid-16th century by more reliable harvests of indigo from India, and now all that remains are these soleilhous, the word “pastel” and a particular shade of blue that most local shutters are painted.
Maison du Vieil Albi
  Around another corner is the house where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, of noble lineage, was born and raised.  At age 14 he broke one femur, a year later the other, and neither leg ever grew after that, leaving him deformed, a normal man with a child’s legs.  His infirmity explains why he felt more accepted among the flora and fauna of Montmartre, its artists and prostitutes, than among his fellow nobles.  An old guide book said you could visit his home, but that’s no longer true, so you’ll just have to make do with staring at the brick walls and imagining the youth of this prolific artist.
Résidence le Castelnau
  There’s another house farther down near the cathedral... a building really.  It’s called Résidence le Castelnau and is typical of buildings constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.  This medieval condo has a central courtyard with a well - quite a luxury at the time, the “running water” of the moment - and arcades on the ground floor plus a soleilhou on the top floor.  It was prime real estate, the top of the line of its time.
  And that’s my day in Albi.

With a whole other day at my disposal, and a friend with a car, it’s time to see the environs.  Michel insists that we visit Cordes-sur-Ciel, obviously not sharing Daniel’s disdain of it as a tourist trap.  As it turns out, and with October not really being a tourist season, much of the town is boarded up... some of it because no one obviously lives there any more, given the state of disrepair and overgrown shrubbery.
  Our first stop is at the bottom of the hill, to buy some eau de vie - plum brandy - and some chocolate-covered raisins from the nearby Gaillac vineyards.  Then a long slog uphill in a mist that makes the cobblestones slick.  After three medieval gates now missing their portcullis, we reach the top.  It’s turned cold out on the terrace of the only flat part of the town, so I order a glass of port wine from the café to get the blood flowing.
  We poke around some more and find lots of cats but only a few crafts shops open, including one that sells jewelry made of vegetable ivory - yes, you read that right.  It’s what buttons were made of before plastic was invented.  It turns out to be the seed of an Amazonian palm tree that, when sliced up, turns hard and the color of ivory.
  Then we discover a shop that not only sells foie-gras, but also has a tiny room with four tables and a view of the kitchen where we can get some lunch.  (Well, there’s a terrace, but it’s not really terrace weather.)  The tagliatelle with foie-gras sauce does more to warm me than the port did, and the young owner and his chef keep a sprightly conversation going.  They tell us how, after the tourist season ends, Cordes is dead, and that the few places still open now will close within a fortnight.  I can’t imagine how lonely this town will be then!  Only the cats will be left.
  We slip and slide downhill to the car and take off for something bigger:  Villefranche-de-Rouergue.

I’ve read about how rich Villefranche once was, how it’s one of the best-preserved of all the bastides built 700 to 800 years ago when England’s King Henry II Plantagenêt and French King Phillip Augustus fought over this countryside.  The bastides, with their straight streets running off of a central square with arcades, were the first experiments in urban planning.  Well, right now the square is being renovated, so all the paving stones have been ripped up, which definitely detracts from its pizzazz.  The wood of the arcades could use some paint or varnish as well.  And the resolutely grey skies do nothing to set off the beauty of the bourgeois houses above the arcades.  There was once great wealth here, but it just looks sad now.  Maybe with some sun and loving...
  By the time we’re ready to leave, I’m way too cold to visit the Chartreuse St. Sauveur, which a sign says is the largest cloister in all of France. Maybe another visit, once the square has been repaved and the arcades restored.

The road back to Albi skirts harvested fields and thick forests as it winds along the southern folds of the Massif Central’s ancient lava flows.  With a bit more daylight left, we detour to see a smaller version of Cordes.  Such hill towns aren’t really difficult to find because in medieval times, farmers all over France took refuge from raiders by heading for the high ground.  In the north, it was from the Vikings; in the south, from the Barbary pirates (and actually more Vikings!).  Not to mention from English armies during the Hundred Years War.  The local people were always trying to keep invaders out, keep them from killing the men, raping the women, eating the food and running off with the livestock.  That’s what all those fortifications were for.  At best, to dissuade.  If not, to tire the invaders out with a long uphill trek.
  Castelnau-de-Montmirail, our detour, is one such village.  As there are many Castelnaus throughout France - and being of a curious nature - I looked up the word in a Middle French dictionary; it means “a village or town founded in the Middle Ages near a castle”.  Today many of the castles have disappeared, but the villages are left.  They’re all a skein of narrow streets, except for the central square... in this part of France, always with arcades.  This village comes without tourists but with children, which makes me love it all the more.  Children mean vitality. A real year-round life, not just a summer mirage.  And there’s a post office, as well as much renovation work, including on the church.  I see a poster on a lovely newly-restored house just off the square and note down the number of the prospective seller.  Out of curiosity, I call to find out how much they’re asking.  Answer:  a third of what my small Paris apartment would bring.  Something to dream about on my last night’s sleep in Albi

In the morning, the sun is shining - briefly - but the bottom has fallen out of the thermometer.  Forecasts were for highs of 21°C (70°F) throughout my trip, but this morning the mercury reads a mere 8° (46°) and hopes are for only 15° (60°).  My light jacket is no match.
  Michel drives me to the train station in Toulouse, about an hour away.  My plan was to drop off my bag at the consigne and walk around town taking photos.  Toulouse has a reputation for beauty, la ville rose - the pink city (because of its bricks).  This is the third time I’ve been through here, and each time something gets in the way of discovering its charms.  Already shivering, my mitten-less hands chilled to the bone, I decide to let Fate decide and check whether there’s a seat on an earlier train.  There is.  So instead of five hours roaming the streets, craning my neck at historic buildings, I opt for a cup of tea in the fleeting sun across from the station and then a ride back to Paris on the 1:00 train.
  “Tomorrow is anothah day,” drawled Scarlett O’Hara.  I’ll be back when it’s warmer.

Cordes-sur-Ciel , rising above the morning fog


  1. The weather as I read this, was very much as you described. Let us hope we do not suffer chilblains.

  2. In her book "A Year in the World", Frances Mayes says this of a town in Portugal, but it could equally apply to Cordes-sur-Ciel: “Obido’s beauty has earned it a stop on every traveller’s itinerary. There are few of us at this time of the year, but all the commercial activity in town is geared toward the tourist trade. Something inevitably goes out of the life of a town when that happens.”