Return to the Pink City of Albi

Albi, one of the pink cities of Southwest France, is about an hour’s drive from us. The landscape changes markedly en route, woodland giving way to vineyards and sunflower fields, hills to gently rolling countryside. As you descend the final slope towards the River Tarn’s flood plain, the city stretches before you, the tower of its monumental red brick cathedral visible for miles around.

We wouldn’t normally visit in the summer, but an exhibition twinning Toulouse-Lautrec with Degas closes on 4th September. The opportunities to see it were limited. We haven’t actually been to Albi since my choir sang there in 2015. This seemed to be a day when we had trouble finding our way out of places. More of that below.

Monumental cathedral

When you approach Albi from the North, you get a wonderful view of the city from the bridge spanning the Tarn. The Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile dominates the skyline. This is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1282 and finished in 1480.

Albi, taken from the bridge on a rainy day some years ago.
Chimère on the cathedral

Both the stark exterior and its size were deliberate. The early 13th century was marked by the conflicts of the Albigensian Crusades against Cathar heresy. When the cathedrals were reconstructed after the wars, the Catholic Church needed to demonstrate its authority (hence the size) and also to protect the sacred interior (hence the fortress-like appearance).

The austere appearance rivalled the Cathars’ emphasis on poverty and ascetism. This is why the building material was brick rather than the usual stone for churches and cathedrals.

Collégiale Saint-Salvi, not far from the cathedral, with a mixture of architectural styles and building materials, including stone and brick

Later centuries saw the construction of the rood screen and the exuberant Renaissance frescoes, quite at variance with the cathedral’s exterior. We didn’t go in this time, since we’ve “done” the cathedral during previous visits. I must admit that Albi’s cathedral is not my favourite.

The neighbouring Palais de la Berbie, the former bishops’ palace, now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. Built in the 13th century, it is equally fortress-like. Successive bishops refurbished the interior to make it a comfortable residence while retaining the austere exterior.

Courtyard of the Palais de la Berbie

Golden age

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Albi experienced a golden age based on the pastel dye trade, like its larger neighbour, Toulouse. The sought-after blue dye was manufactured in the region from the woad plant. However, the introduction of cheaper indigo spelled the end of this apogee.  

Pastel merchants ploughed their profits into mansions such as the Maison Enjalbert below. Apparently, among the wooden carvings on the facade is a little figure urinating. Human urine was used as part of the dye-making process.

Maison Enjalbert

Before the museum visit, there was lunch. We have discovered that it’s always sensible to book, especially during the high season. The summer holidays are winding down, but Albi was still quite busy.

Le Cascarbar is in the rue Saint-Julien, right opposite the cathedral. We sat on their shady terrace and enjoyed the set menu du jour, which is a very reasonable price and more varied than neighbouring restaurants offering the regional dishes cassoulet and saucisse de Toulouse aligot.

Brick and timber (colombage) building opposite our restaurant

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

Suitably fortified, we walked across the square to the museum, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Ravaged by hereditary bone disease, alcohol and syphilis, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901 aged only 36. During his short life, he was extremely prolific. He bequeathed his works to his mother, who in turn donated them to his native city of Albi, Parisian museums having declined them.

The collection now comprises more than a thousand of his paintings, drawings and lithographs plus works by his contemporaries. The permanent collection occupies two extensive floors of the Palais. The building reopened 10 years ago after renovation to provide more exhibition space. The basement holds temporary exhibitions.

Toulouse-Lautrec, Reine de Joie (1892), one of the many lithographs for which he is famous

Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas

The present exhibition is entitled “Quand Toulouse-Lautrec Regarde Degas” and illustrates the admiration that Toulouse-Lautrec felt for Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who was 30 years his senior.

Many parallels existed between the two artists. They occupied the same quartier of Paris, frequented the same cafés, theatres and racecourses and had an overlapping circle of friends. They painted modern life. Instead of posed nudes and unexciting landscapes, they portrayed real people engaged in work, play or leisure: actors, singers, dancers, laundrywomen, jockeys and the demi-monde that had rarely featured in art before the mid-19th century. Both were interested in the human or animal form and in depicting movement. Neither artist is easy to classify.

Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousse (La Toilette) (1889: Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
Degas, After the Bath (1884-86). One of Degas’ many pictures of woman bathing. Apologies for the reflections. Unavoidable.

Despite the similarities, it’s clear that Degas did not reciprocate Toulouse-Lautrec’s admiration for him, but Degas’ influence on his younger colleague is unmistakable. The exhibition displays their selected works in pairs or small groups according to theme, with a selection of works by their contemporaries.     

Suzanne Valadon, Naked Woman Reclining on an Armchair (1884). Valadon modelled for Toulouse-Lautrec and was an artist in her own right and a protégée of Degas. She was also Toulouse-Lautrec’s lover for a while.
Degas, Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando (1879). One of many sketches he executed in preparation for the painting that now hangs in the National Gallery, London

Berbie Palace gardens

Having spent a long time looking at the exhibition, we decided not to view the permanent collection. We’ve seen it before, and we were in danger of overload. Instead, we wanted to see the bishops’ garden, of which we had tantalising views from the Palais. However, it’s not easy to get out of the Palais once inside. I eventually had to ask how to get into the garden, which turned out to be quite easy. No wonder we get lost on our walks.

Right bank of the Tarn
Albi’s bridges

The garden overlooks the river and the right bank of the Tarn. A vine-covered walkway surrounds the garden above a formal parterre.

After that, it was time to turn for home. After a slight hiatus when we couldn’t find the exit from the car park, we came upon a diversion owing to roadworks. If you’ve ever experienced a French déviation, you’ll know that the signs usually peter out after a while, leaving you stranded in unfamiliar territory. We drove for a long distance wondering if we would ever get out of Albi, when thankfully the signs resumed.

We agreed that we mustn’t leave it so long before visiting Albi again.

Albi’s covered market, inaugurated in 1905 and now a historic monument

You might like these posts about Albi:

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17 comments

  1. Thank you for taking me back to Albi! I think we last visited when we came to see you…about twelve years ago? The pink stone is so sunny and welcoming, and the exhibition looks superb.

    We have had a huge print of ‘Rousse’ for decades…

    Must head south soon …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it must be about twelve years ago. It was good to reacquaint ourselves with Albi, since we don’t go there often. Let us know if you head this way. Hope you’re both well.

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  2. Thank you so much for your article and the information about the TL / Degas exhibition, consequently we made the effort and a day trip to Albi the day before it ended. We have been to Albi and the TL museum on several occasions having lived in SW France for just over 30 years, but it was a lovely excuse to visit again and this time see a little more of the old centre, wandering the streets and visiting the charming little cloisters of the Eglise Saint Salvy. Unfortunately we were too late to secure a booking at Le Cascabar, so that will have to wait for next time. We did have a good lunch though at a restaurant a few metres further up by the covered market.
    As a relatively new follower of your blog I am thoroughly enjoying your posts, and some of the older ones too. Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you were able to see the exhibition before it closed. It’s a nice city to wander around since the centre is compact. Le Cascarbar is very popular but a bit more interesting than some of the other restaurants. Thank you for your kind comments about the blog. I take that as a great compliment from someone who has lived in SW France for 30 years!

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  3. Beautiful photos of Albi. We stayed in a gite about 10 minutes out of Albi and really enjoyed our visit to the magnificent cathedral and the Berbie Palace and Toulouse Lautrec museum. It is a lovely place to wander around and we also saw TL’s birthplace. This brought us full circle as earlier in our trip, in the Lot et Garonne, we saw his grave in the small village of Verdelais. This is a lovely area with lots of villages to visit.

    We also enjoyed the episode of Les Carnets de Julie which was devoted to TL, despite our limited French. We just enjoy seeing the countryside and the food!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you know this region better than I do! I had seen that he is buried in Verdelais, but I didn’t know why. It turns out his mother bought a château there, having separated from his father. Toulouse-Lautrec spent summer holidays there and died in Verdelais in 1901. I don’t know Lot-et-Garonne well, although it’s a neighbouring département.

      I never saw any of Les Carnets de Julie, although I see she did a special programme about la table de TL and one about l’Albigeois. The programme is broadcast on Saturday afternoons, which is not a time we watch TV. She has a website, if you’re interested: https://www.julieandrieu.com/

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  4. What a GREAT post. Would have loved to see that exhibition too. Love both painters, for different reasons but nevertheless.
    Loved Albi, reminds me every time of an Italian city with the colours, bright sunshine and heat, art and savoir vivre.
    I think we ate, during the 12+ years we lived in France, twice a Cassoulet. That did it – no more! As nice they were, they are just too much. Did love to eat Aligot…. I made it myself at home with any oozing cheese. Would be a welcome as a winter dish; too warm now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kiki. It was a great exhibition, and I’m so glad we made the effort to see it before it closed. The juxtaposition of their works was fascinating. Albi is definitely a Southern European city, like Toulouse.
      I don’t mind cassoulet in the winter if I’m really hungry, but it’s not a summer dish at all! Same with aligot, which I love.

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    • We don’t know it as well as we should after so long here, but we have determined that we must do this sort of thing more often. And Albi is definitely on the cards for revisits.

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  5. Thank you Vanessa, it’s a town we’ve never visited and now we shall add it to “The List” (which gets ever longer…) Really enjoying all your blogs from our long-time home in the sunny Loire Valley, thanks so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, definitely worth visiting. The good thing about Albi is that the centre is compact, so you don’t have far to go between the main attractions. Even after 25 years here, our list gets longer all the time! Glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for the kind words.

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  6. Mm, Albi and Toulouse Lautrec. We went some years ago on the Halloween weekend, combining it with a visit to Toulouse for an art exhibition. I can’t remember the name of the exhibition, it may have been after refurbishment. I do remember the copious amount of food we were served at a bistro recommended by our hotel!
    We really liked the town but the cathedral reminds me of a grain silo although the interior is stunning. You’ve made me think it’s time we made a return visit too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not that keen on the cathedral, either. All that expanse of red brick makes it very monolithic. Saint-Sernin in Toulouse is much prettier, and that’s mostly red brick, but it’s relieved by stone facings. October is probably a good time for a visit.

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