Head city of the Tarn Département Albi “the Red Town” was listed in 2010 as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage thanks to its episcopal city. This includes the fortified cathedral Sainte Cécile, an imposing monumental symbol of Albigensian history and the Berbie Palace (Palais de la Berbie), the former residence of the archbishops which now hosts the Toulouse Lautrec museum.
The Old Town of Albi
The centre of Albi is concentrated around two squares. The Cathedral Square is the centre of the old Albi while the Vigan Square symbolises the modern Albi. These two places are connected by several streets that cross the Old Town. The Renaissance style houses found around the cathedral were built during the 15th and 16th centuries when Albi enjoyed prosperity due to the pastel trade. These classic houses were made from bricks and wood and some of them have an open attic which was used to dry the pastel.
When visiting the old town you can also enjoy a walk along the River Tarn underneath the Cathedral and discover the Old Bridge built in 1035, originally made from stones and later covered with bricks. Nowadays the activity of the city is focused around the Vigan, while the Cathedral Square attracts more tourists every year.
The Castelnau district
Immediately to the South of the Cathedral spreads the small district of Castelnau which was developed during the 12th and 13th centuries. Many corbeled timber-framed houses can be admired, as well as a few interesting mansions.
The Hôtel Séré de Rivières dates back to the 15th century and renovated in the 18th century belonged to a family of dyer’s woad traders ennobled in the 18th century. The mansion features a fine door, two corner towers and a watch tower.
The medieval house of Maison du Vieil Alby is a typical mansion from Albi. Today it hosts local craft exhibitions and is one of Albi’s most visited monuments.
At number 8 Rue Toulouse-Lautrec stands the Hôtel Decazes which was built on the site of the 14th century ramparts. It features a fine Renaissance courtyard with a stone balustrade staircase and mullioned windows.
The family house of French navigator Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse (23 August 1741 – 1788?) now houses a waxworks museum.
Nearby, the Hôtel du Bosc is the house where French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on 24th November 1864.
St. Salvi Collegiate
The church complex was named in honour of St. Salvi, who was bishop of Albi in the 6th century. Originally a lawyer, legend has it that he brought Christianity to the region. He is buried in the collegiate church whose foundations date from the Caroligian era.
The present sanctuary was built from the 11th century. Due to the events of the Albigensian Crusade, work was suspended and resumed in the 13th century in Gothic style.
Although it combines Romanesque and Gothic features made up of stones and bricks, St. Salvi is considered as one of the biggest Romanesque church in the Tarn département. At least, the church was considered the main religious sanctuary before the construction of the Sainte-Cécile cathedral.
The cloister was rebuilt by Vidal de Malvési in 1270 but was greatly damaged during the French Revolution. Only the southern gallery has survived with its Romanesque and Gothic capitals, flanked by the peaceful garden of Jardin des Simples.
Built in 1530 by the Reynès family who occupied it until the end of the First Empire, the magnificent mansion is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Albi.
A combination of stone and bricks, the street façade of the mansion is richly decorated. The medieval inner courtyard is flanked with a tower from the 14th century who belonged to the former St. Jacques Hospital. The courtyard is bordered on one side by an Italianate loggia and on the other by the busts of King François I and his second wife Eleanor of Austria. Above it, window mullions are adorned with mermaids.
Pharmacie des Pénitents (Maison Enjalbert)
The 16th century half-timbered mansion features many elements from the Renaissance that are typical of Albi. The association of timbering with bricks is particularly elaborated and shows the care given to the decoration of the façade.
The eight arches of Albi’s old bridge (Pont-Vieux) span over River Tarn over a length of 151 metres. Built in 1040, it is considered as one of France’s oldest bridges still open to traffic. The bridge was restored in the 13th century and enlarged in the 14th century to allow carts to cross it.
In the Middle-Ages, five houses used to stand on the bridge, built on its pillars, including a chapel devoted to the Virgin Mary in its centre. The bridge was linked to the fortification network of Albi at each end. A fortified gate tower at the entrance of the bridge served as a toll to collect taxes on goods that entered the city.
For centuries, the Pont-Vieux served as Albi’s only bridge over River Tarn until the construction of a new bridge: Pont du 22 août 1944 which commands a fine panoramic view over the Episcopal city.
The construction of the Sainte Cécile (St. Cecilia) Cathedral commenced in the thirteenth century by order of the new bishop of Albi, Bernard III of Castanet. This period marks the end of the Cathar heresy in the region after military and clerical repression during the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition. The cathedral was constructed as a symbol of the domination of the Catholic Church over the Albigensian lands. The construction of the cathedral took two centuries and stimulated the city’s activity around the construction site. However, in 1480, the cathedral did not look the same as the the one visible today. During the late sixteenth century, the tower was extended with several levels emerging more clearly from the mass of bricks. Since 1535, the only entrance has been covered with a canopy of stones carved in flamboyant Gothic style, which contrasts with the rest of the building which is constructed of bricks in a more sober southern Gothic style. The building is considered the largest brick monument in the world. One of the features of the cathedral is its rood (open tracery) screen which separates the nave from the choir. Only a few churches share this feature, among them Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris and Saint Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg.
The inside of the cathedral is no exception. The walls of the cathedral are covered with frescoes over a total area of approximately 18,000 square meters, making it the largest area of painting in a church in France. The building also hosts the largest preserved representation of the Last Judgment in the country. Located beneath the organ the painting originally covered an area of 200 square meters however in the thirteenth century it was damaged when the wall was opened up. In contrast to the anguish suggested by the representation of the Last Judgment, the decorations which adorn the ceilings, painted in blue and gold by Italian artists during the Renaissance, symbolise the hope and the light emanating from God and radiating in the sky. Also, its organ, made in 1736 by Christophe Moucherel is considered to be the largest organ of classical design in France and is an integral part of the decor of the cathedral. Free concerts are held in the cathedral on Wednesdays and Sundays in July and August.
The Berbie Palace
Alongside the cathedral stands the Berbie Palace, the former residence of the Albigensian archbishops who were at the time the masters of the city who had to oppose the Cathars. At the time, the palace was fortified and surrounded by walls which represented a symbol of the Inquisition. After the Inquisition, the fortifications were no longer necessary and in 1678 the walls were replaced with gardens.
Since 1905 the site has hosted the museum of Albi and in 1922 became the renowned Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in honour of the Albigensians’ famous post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who died some years earlier. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum retraces the entire work of the artist, from his first drawings to his famous posters including “Moulin Rouge – La Goulue” or “Aristide Bruant in his cabaret”, via watercolours and other paintings on canvas.
Catharism in Albi
Albi is an integral part of French history as the scene of the ‘Albigensian Crusade’, a term used to describe the crusade against the Cathar heresy in the province of Languedoc. Catharism appeared in the Languedoc in the twelfth century. At the time, the clergy were very wealthy and often accused of corruption. Because of this, Catharism quickly seduced the lowest strata of society and then extended to all classes. Followers of Catharism were very critical of the Christian clergy who felt threatened and declared the Cathars enemies of the Church and heretics. Between 1177 and 1255, many wars were conducted against the province of Languedoc, in particular in Lavaur and Toulouse. Despite what the name of the crusade suggests, the town of Albi quickly gave up, without resistance and returned to the Catholic side!
La Pérouse, a native from Albi
French explorer La Pérouse was born in Albi in 1741 and can be considered a link between the histories of France and Australia. Indeed, the two ships in his expedition, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, arrived at Botany Bay, Sydney on 26 January 1788, the same day as Captain Cook! Even if he did not claim possession of the land for France, his name is remembered in several streets in Sydney and there is even a suburb in named after him. Similarly, in Albi, a high school is called La Pérouse and restaurants use the names of his ships. In 1844, the City of Albi raised a bronze statue of the navigator which can be seen on Place La Pérouse. Finally, two museums in Albi and Sydney are dedicated to the life and discoveries of count La Pérouse.
In Albi, the Lapérouse museum is located on Botany Bay Square (from a bay in Sydney where his ship was anchored). The museum displays navigational instruments, maps, charts and models ships which refer to the expeditions of Admiral La Pérouse.
The Pause Guitare festival is held in Albi below the cathedral each year in the first half of July. This open air music festival was first held in 1998 in Monestiés but because of increasing affluence, the festival was moved to Albi in 2006. Today, the city of Albi welcomes around 60,000 festival goers each year. Among the big names, the festival has hosted Johnny Clegg, Sting, Murray Head, Joe Cocker and Patti Smith.
Finally, in 2012 Albi was voted the most sporting town in France by the sports magazine “L’Équipe”. Indeed, this city hosts no less than 150 sporting associations. The local rugby club, the Albigeois Sporting Club, is playing in the 2nd division after a brief period in the Top 14. The Albi Marathon is also a very important event in the region.
How to get here
Albi is located 76 kms North-East from Toulouse via the A68 autoroutes (French for motorways).
The distance between Paris and Albi is 650 kms and the journey takes more than 6 hours via the A71/A75 (Clermont-Ferrand, Séverac le Château) or via the A20 and RN20 (Cahors, Montauban)
From Paris Gare d’Austerlitz, a daily train links the French capital to Toulouse via Albi.
There are more than 15 daily rail link from Toulouse.
The closest airport from Albi is Toulouse Blagnac with European and domestic connections.
A shuttle service runs from Toulouse Blagnac Airport to Albi. Check out Albi’s Tourist Board Centre for more information.
To get more information about Albi, you can visit Albi’s tourism office website.