Attractive town with Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
www.albi-tourisme.com. A lively and attractive cathedral town, Albi’s main claim to fame these days is its Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Like Toulouse, it is a ‘ville rose’, built from pinkish brick, and laps around the massive Gothic bulk of the Cathédrale de Sainte-Cecile. A supertanker of a cathedral, ribbed with vertical buttresses and a flat-topped deck stretching back from the belfry, the building was founded in 1282 as a ‘fortress of faith’ to proclaim the Church’s victory over the Cathars. What the exterior lacks in decoration, the interior makes up for several times over. Imported Bolognese painters and Burgundian sculptors transformed the soaring nave and choir into a mass of rich, earth-toned frescoes and unbelievably delicate carvings.
Next door to the cathedral, the Palais de Berbie, which was a 13thC archbishop’s residence, houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec with more than 600 of the diminutive painter’s works, the largest collection in the world (www.museetoulouselautrec.net). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into a family of horsy aristocrats at the Hôtel du Bosc (open Jul-Aug), 14 rue Toulouse-Lautrec, in 1864. Both his father and grandfather were gifted draughtsmen and after a spate of childhood accidents left his legs crippled and under-developed, the young Henri was apprenticed to the painter Bonnard. In Paris he immersed himself in the Bohemian milieu of Montmartre, where he recorded the raffish nightlife of turn-of-the-century Paris, the lone drinkers, patient prostitutes and cabaret stars such as Aristide Bruant, whose profile (subject of the famous black and red poster) has since graced a zillion brasseries and bedsits. Lautrec’s early paintings and drawings of horses and bosky country lanes (even the scribbles in his French-Latin dictionary) reveal a significant talent, but it is the music hall scenes, lithographs and posters that are his best-known works and the collection is full of them. On the top floor, paintings by contemporary artists include Maillol’s beety girls (better known as sculptures), a golden Bonnard sunset, a sunny Duty and a snowy Utrillo.
The tourist office has suggestions for various walking circuits of Vieil Alby which take in the cobbled streets packed with tempting shops, and the Eglise de Saint-Salvy which dates from the Carolingian period with Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque additions. Across its garden cloister, a covered passage leads to a crumbling arcade of semi-renovated medieval houses.