About Albi and Region
This corner of southern France has a long and bloody history of religious non-conformism which stretches back to the Middle Ages and the emergence of the Cathar faith in the mid-11 thC. The Cathars, whose name derived from the Greek word for ‘pure’, believed in the fundamental separation of Good and Evil, that Satan created the world and the only road to salvation was through the sacrament of consolamentum, the renunciation of the flesh (Satanic matter imprisoning the spirit), worldly goods and the rites of the established church. The latter in particular was guaranteed to evoke the wrath of Rome. The murder of a papal envoy in 1208 unleashed the bloodthirsty Albigensian Crusades under the leadership of a merciless northern nobleman, Simon de Montfort. The vicious campaign of suppression directed against Cathar strongholds such as Albi, Beziers, Carcassonne and Toulouse, ended in the mass burning of 200 Cathar heretics at Montsegur (east of Foix) in 1244, and the eventual annexation of Languedoc to the Capetian crown.
The section covers the area north of Toulouse, taking in Cordes, a Cathar refuge founded by Raymond VII in 1222. When peace was restored in the 14thC, the hill-top town flourished. Its perpendicular winding streets, beautifully preserved Gothic mansions and picturesque views make it a favourite stop on the tourist trail, so an overnight stay is the way to see it at its best, after the coach parties have gone home.
However, accommodation is limited and tends to be expensive, so if you are on a budget Albi is a better base for covering the best places to visit. Its old town centre and immense cathedral rise from the Tarn in a captivating mountain of rosy bricks coloured by local clay. The painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born here, and thanks to his mother the local museum is richly endowed with his work.
Castres has a pleasant town centre, busy market and a surprising collection of Spanish Old Masters tucked away in the local museum. South over the granite hills of the Montagne Noire is Carcassonne, where the Cathars once took refuge in Europe’s largest fortress.
There are regular train and bus services from Toulouse to Albi, Castres and Carcassonne. Local trains from Toulouse and Albi via Gaillacstop at Vindrac for Cordes (5 km west; bike hire from the station).