Albi in the Tarn, the perfect June getaway

June 29th, 2012

Wildflowers are in the frame:  a June jaunt through the heart-stopping panoramas of the Tarn rends me (nearly) speechless !  Roll down the windows: wild honeysuckle scents the air from roadside nests among white roses, while lavender scabiosas nod in poppy-dotted pastures.  This sweeping land of grain fields, orchards and wooded hills lies north of the Toulouse basin  and south of the mountainous Aveyron region.  My head was on a swivel all the way  from Montauban to Albi.  Roads follow ridges overlooking hazily lit landscapes edged in wild poppies:  Renoir might feel right at home.

On a distant hillside, an entire field of poppies

Seen from a distance, Albi rises above a bend in the Tarn river, its towers,  rooftops and steeples of rose brick glowing in the mid-day sun.  Inhabited since the Bronze Age, this strategic point gave early dwellers an over-view of herds as animals migrated.  Later, it was the site of a modest Roman encampment called Albiga.  But by the early Middle Ages, as Albi’s commerce and trade grew in importance, a toll bridge was built across the Tarn in 1040.  This Vieux Pont is still in use, having survived more than a millenia!  One arrives in the center of Albi, where most of the old streets lead to the imposing fortified church of Sainte-Cécile.  Complex tracerie of stone carvings on the elaborate entry of the brick church, dedicated to the patron saint of music, just begins to prepare the visitor for the explosion of pattern and décor in the southen gothic style interior.

Palais de Berbie parterre, from a bird’s eye view

Near its formidable brick walls, the fortified bishops’ château, the Palais de Berbie was built in 1282 – pre-dating the Palais des Papes in Avignon.  Looking out across the parterre gardens from one of this museum’s windows, one marvels at the longevity of Albi’s architectural wonders.   Today, the Palais is devoted to the works of native son, Toulouse Lautrec, housing  France’s largest publicly held collection:  1000 of the artist’s works.

For over a century, from 1450 to 1560, economic expansion grew with the region’s cultivation and commercial activity in blue dyes -  an era referred to as the “woad boom”.  One plant, Isalia Tinctoria was the key ingredient in indelibleblue dyes called “pastels”.  This time of prosperity enriched the city with fine Renaissance residences – evident today in the quarter around the market hall.

Renovated, triangular plan market hall

Albi’s covered market has recently undergone an extensive renovation.  Although this halle is similar in style to many built in the early twentieth century Ballard fashion, it is unique in its triangular plan.  The renovation involved excavation under the structure to construct two levels for vendors and services, and a 250 place parking area.  Saturday morning is the time to see this marché tarnaise in action, when in addition to interior stalls,  vendors fill the surrounding street with regional products and the season’s freshest produce.  From local sausages, cheeses, apricots and apples to sweet round loaves of fouace or dunk-in-your-wine échaudés, there is something for every taste…..salty or sugary.

Taking a last stroll around the back streets near the covered market, one finds not only some enticing restaurants – but a little jewel of a museum, recently opened in a fine old house.

Entry walk….Musée de la Mode

La Musée de la Mode  reveals a private collection of mint-condition costumes from the 19th through the 20th century, all set off in a dramatic,  well designed installation.  This discovery, as well as more gastronomic enticements,  leads the vagabond to plan an autumn visit to lively Albi, the Tarn’s pink brick capitol.

Behind closed doors: many historic buildings in and around Albi are open during September’s  annual “Open Doors”,  Jours de Patrimoine