Albi has been a site of human settlement since as early as the Bronze Age. And in the first century BC, it became a part of Roman Gaul.
Fast forward several centuries to the Middle Ages. Albi was the site of the 13th-century Cathar heresy, a reactionary crusade, and the subsequent construction of two fortified Catholic monuments: the cathédrale Saint-Cécile and the adjacent Palais de la Berbie, the bishop’s palace.
From the Renaissance up through the 17th century, Albi, Toulouse and Carcassone sat at the vertices of a triangle in southwestern France that grew fat on blue gold or pastel, a local plant whose dried leaves were the western world’s premier source of blue dye before the indigo boom.
In the 18th century it was the home of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Laperouse, a reputed explorer and officer of the French Navy. And roughly one hundred years later, the house next to his would be the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
In 2010 the episcopal city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, Albi’s tourism department has taken full advantage of that status. Its website is fabulous. And on the ground you’ll find informative brochures and touristic maps organized around three separate, color-coded walking tours, the numbered points corresponding with multi-lingual signs that appear around every twisting corner.
Today, Albi’s history lives and breathes–an integral part of the modern city.
Electrical wires and satellite antennae connect renovated medieval homes to the high-speed network of the 21st century.
Cars zoom across the Tarn on the 11th-century Pont Vieux, and mobylettes lean parked against ancient facades.
On sunny days, locals snack amongst the columns of the 12th-century cloître de Saint-Salvi and sit chatting on the steps of the cathedral under flamboyant gothic arches.
In the restored Palais de la Berbie the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec displays the painter’s fin de siècle masterpieces in vaulted rooms joined by worn spiral staircases and echoing halls tiled with the original painted terra cotta.
City hall is housed in a pastel merchant’s mansion.
And nestled at the intersection of two of the city’s oldest streets is the restored Maison du Vieil Alby. Inside you’ll find a piece of living history, Lucienne, the museum’s 90-year-old curator who will tell you all about pastel and Toulouse-Lautrec’s childhood before engaging you in a discussion about the failings of the U.S health care system and then gossiping about the British royal family.
Albi is a shining example of what I love most about France. Old buildings are renovated and converted to government offices, shops and private homes rather than torn down to be replaced by something sterile and contemporary.
Tradition and history are visible, tangible, audible parts of daily life. A living organ, the past becomes complicit in and inseparable from the present–not just something reserved for museums and history books.
Click here for more photos from Albi.