Wednesday, 13 June 2012


The beautiful and ancient city of Albi is situated on the River Tarn, in the southern wine-growing region of France known as Gaillac.  I’ve visited often as my brother, Sean, lives nearby, and have gradually absorbed details about the area’s history.  Just in case you think the only thing I do is eat, drink, flirt and play havoc… this blog is more serious tourism.

One of Albi’s famous children was Jean-François Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse (1741-1788), the Pacific Explorer who disappeared in mysterious circumstances when his two large vessels, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, were shipwrecked and subsequently attacked off the islands of Santa Cruz. 

I’ve always found it interesting that Lapérouse’s French Fleet arrived on the East Coast of Australia at practically the same time as Britain’s First Fleet, led by the Englishman Captain Arthur Phillip.  So much would have been different if their timing had been ever so slightly reversed… but as it was the great seamen met in Botany Bay on the 26th January 1788, just as Phillip was preparing to move the new colony north into the harbour to settle at Port Jackson (ie Sydney’s Rocks district). 

By all reports it was a cordial meeting and the brave French explorer’s name is honoured in the southern Sydney suburb of La Perouse.  Very thankfully, Lapérouse gave his important letters and documents to a ship heading directly back to England at this time, so despite his tragic end the historical records of his voyage prior to Botany Bay were saved for posterity.

Another famous son from this part of France (his courage of the artistic variety) is remembered in Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.  Like most people, I enjoy Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vivid portraits of characters such as Yvette Guilbert and Jane Avril.  I admire, too, his self-portraits and brothel paintings, particularly those which allow you to observe multiple treatments on a theme - such as the different renditions of Salon de la rue des moulins, revealing much about the artist’s deliberations over fusion and colour. 

The Art Posters designed for Parisian theatres and musical cafés like the Moulin Rouge, always keep me entertained.  Famously, they include: Ambassadeurs; El Dorado; La Goulue; and Bal Masque, in which I adore the man with a distinctively crooked nose surrounded by silhouettes of spectators and dancers doing the can-can.  I also find memorable various sketches done on cardboard.  The most charming to my mind, by virtue of its subtlety and gentle evocation of sensuality, is Etude pour femme tirant son bas (1894).   A dear friend, Fiona, gave me a souvenir fridge magnet of the image after visiting Albi together and it never fails to make me smile.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is situated in a section of Palais de la Berbie on the edge of Le Tarn immediately below the impressive French-Gothic styled La Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile.  This historic part of Albi is not to be missed - its militant architecture intended as a statement of strength by the Catholic Church against the Cathar heresy which raged in the south of France in the 13th century. 

Extremely impressive are the thick towering walls of the Cathedral and Bishop’s House, standing fortress-like over magnificent gardens and shading Albi’s oldest bridge, Pont Vieux, constructed in 1035.  In addition to sheer walls and towers there are protective fortifications or ‘curtains’ built by Bishop Bernard de Castanet (between 1277 and 1306) during particularly tense times with the ‘Albigensians’.  They provided him with a safe escape route via the river in the event the peasant hatred of him turned riotous. 

I haven’t uncovered yet why they hated him so much… but anyway this part of Albi is, for me, a romantic place, because Sean and Muriel had their wedding photos taken in the Bishop’s lovely gardens.  I always go to the corner viewing platform and watch the mighty Tarn River surging against ancient rocks overlooked by verdant branches bursting impatiently into life. 

It’s a nice counterpoint to the inside of Albi’s Cathedral, where a dramatic Last Judgment scene (circa 1477-1484) is situated on a two hundred square meter rood screen immediately behind the modern altar.  As it hangs close to the congregation - unlike, for example, Vasari’s Last Judgement inside Brunelleschi’s Dome in Firenze - it is likely to fill even the least pious visitor with humble dread.  Indeed the scene is so confronting I wonder if it’s counter-productive.  For sheer fright drives any recollection of the seven deadly sins straight out of your head!  (Well, that’s my excuse anyway.) 

My mother pointed out that one of the reasons for this ominous impression is that there’s no image of the Saviour to balance the vileness of hell and its devils.  For a hole was cut into the rood screen to make way for the repositioning of the modern altar, and consequently it lacks the figure of Jesus and therefore hope for Redemption. 

It provides an insight, anyway, into the sobriety of the Old Testament and dour Medieval-Christian interpretations of the Bible… before subsequent generations, particularly post-Vatican II, were encouraged to trust in the overwhelming love of Christ and a generous, forgiving Father.  Thank God for the timing of my birth is all I can say.  Until I’d seen that screen I thought my twentieth century advantage had been the discovery of penicillin!

Albi’s Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile is also memorable for its flamboyant chancel screen and Grand Choeur (circa 1477-1484).  Situated in what is now the rear of the church, it contains an abundance of Gothic statuary, polychromatic figures, carved motifs and filigree to rival the famous Notre Dame Choirs in Paris and Chartres. 

Also of significance, is that a number of chapels and the striking azure-blue ceiling vaults (coloured with dye from the locally grown woad plant) were covered between 1509 and 1512 with frescoes, putti and other Renaissance motifs.  One of the largest collections of Italian paintings in France, it is a legacy of the city’s Renaissance Bishops, Louis I and Louis II of Amboise. 

If this isn’t enough to make you think Albi’s one-hundred-and-thirteen metre long Cathedral is auspicious, you only have to stand outside Sainte-Cécile and consider the engineering feat of holding up incredibly sheer walls without flying buttresses; buttresses being typical of later Gothic design.  A notable point is that the imposing forty metres to the roof, and seventy-eight metres to the top of the tower, were made from thousands upon thousands of small, red, baked bricks.  Indeed Albi has the world’s largest brick Cathedral and the old city retains much of its character by virtue of the widespread use of these bricks in areas including Bourg Saint-Salvy, Castelviel, Castelnau, Lices-Vigan, Lices-Georges Pompidou, and the Cathedral Close and Tarn Riverbank districts. 

In warm weather I’ve often been lulled into a stupor by wandering along attractive, shaded riverbanks, looking at rusty reflections of the old town in the water, and on each occasion wondering how time, in many ways, appears to have stood still in Albi.