Albi, the Enchanted

In the orthodoxy of my youth, the very term “Albigensian” struck fear into our hearts, as it was never separated from the word “HERESY.” In neither the 20th nor the 13th century did you want to be connected to that phrase. 

You hear a lot about the Albigensians in this part of the world, where they were also know as the Cathars.  Carcassonne, for example, proudly announces it is Le Pays Cathare, so it seems to be safe and in vogue again to associate with a belief system that had a whole crusade mounted against it in 1209. This medieval Christian sect originated from a reform movement calling for a return to the Christian message of perfection, poverty and preaching. (Doesn’t sound too evil, does it?) They became known as the Albigensians because there were many adherents in the city of Albi and the surrounding area.


Between 1022 and 1163, they were condemned by eight local church councils and Innocent III declared a crusade against the Cathars, offering their lands to any French nobleman willing to take up arms. (Now there’s an incentive program based on heartfelt beliefs.) After several massacres of Cathar faithful, and the fall of Carcassonne, a Cathar stronghold, it was all over but the shouting.

Now, just to make certain that any remaining Cathars knew who they were up against, the Roman Catholic building program in Albi made the message clear. The bishop of Albi completed work on the Palais de la Berbie in the late 13th century, a palace with the look of a fortress. He ordered the building of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia starting in 1282. As a nod to the concepts of the Cathars, the building was made very plain on the outside, except for a gothic entrance added later, but they went all out inside.

The Cathedral is quite over the top. It is the largest brick building in the world and quite breathtaking. Those were greedy and rich days for the church’s hierarchy. The mandatory tithing went right to the bishop, whose own palace was also nothing humble.

Today, it is the museum of the works of Albi native son, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose family was royalty from both Toulouse and Lautrec. His story is well-known and many of works are here in Albi, as they were rejected by the Louvre in a short-sighted move after his death. The bishop who built the Palace would have had apoplexy at the sight of paintings of prostitutes in his grand rooms, but it all works, though no photos allowed. But the building itself is gorgeous, on the banks of the river Tarn, and the shots in the gift shop that I was reduced to will remind you of why we love this artist.

Albi had so many charms and enchanting views. People have lived here since the Bronze Age, but it is the medieval that is so alive here. There is a wonderful covered market hall and little cafés tucked everywhere. Gorgeous place, with – bless it – even a modern laundromat for us to patronize. See how well the old and the new can mix?

2 thoughts on “Albi, the Enchanted

  1. When I was in NYC last September/October the MOMA had a special exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec art and posters. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    It amazes me that so many lovely old towns, churches, Roman ruins, etc. are so well preserved and in most cases still functioning. France has been a battlefield for the Romans, thundering barbarian hordes, unruly middle ages noblemen, several wars of succession, revolution and two world wars. It is amazing anything of significance is still standing.

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