The long, luscious lines of massive plane trees signaled that we were entering a French town – one old and cultured enough to have cultivated such a scene. At the first street line after two hours of highway, the sound from a busy brasserie called my attention to a massive block of red brick buildings. As the sluggish me slowly woke up to such an unusual beauty, my husband progressed to the bridge and sight of the iconic town of Albi gave me an instant energy boost. From my point of view atop the higher, more recent and no less stunning bridge of 22nd of August, 1944, this ancient-looking town rose above the Tarn river, dominated by the impressive verticality of cathedral of Saint Cecilia (Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi) and drew horizontally by the Old Bridge (Pont Vieux). The red color of the brick stands out from the blueness of the sky and the river, earned this town its famed nickname “la ville rouge” (the red town, as compared to “la ville rose” – the pink city of Toulouse, located some 85km away).
My wild imagination, probably fueled by too much Game of Thrones, brought me back in time. In an instant, I was a medieval wanderlust whose name came with a string of identification of the land I (supposedly) owned and the noble house I (supposedly) bore the surname. As my horse galloped on the red-brick bridge across the Tarn, the cathedral, an enormous symbol of Roman Catholicism rising up to the sky would probably gqve me a thrill, given that farmers in my hometown still built their houses by hand. I would have to decide if I wanted to identify myself as a devoted Catholic so I could ask for some water, or associate myself with the defeated Cathars and face execution like all Cathar supporters have been here. Fortunately, I was born eight centuries later when France is in peace and religious wars have, unfortunately, been moved to another part of the world. Fortunately, I don’t have to announce my name in association with a piece of land and a family lineage in order to ask for water; I have a credit card that takes care of it all. And fortunately, all of the stunning scene dated back almost a millennium is still standing, proud and big, in front of me.
Except that under and around those ancient brick structures, multinational retail brands like Zara and modern restaurants welcome strings of tourists from around France and Europe. On the same cobble stone paths that bear witness to a bloody crusade waged by the Pope against an alternative of trinitarian beliefs some seven centuries ago, the clanking sound of modern foot ware mix in with chatters in all types of languages. After securing a spot for our car in the cathedral’s designated parking lot, my husband took me through an old, narrow stairway built in brick, covered by vibrant vines, brought to life by the bubbling sound from a little cafe nearby packed with tourists. At the end of this cute little passageway, a starkly different scene awaited us.
The Cathedral of Saint Cecilia, a UNESCO classified world heritage site and the most well-known monument in Albi, sends an overwhelming statement by the Roman Catholics. The building is a strange marriage of a fortress and a gothic church. It looks as if someone stretches a rustic medieval castle vertically and puts an ornate gothic roof atop. History was told that, in the 13th century, the unpopular, newly appointed Bishop of Albi commissioned this cathedral in the same complex with his Palace (Palais de la Berbie) to both show off the recent victory of his faith against the Cathars and defend his position in an area that, until recently, had not welcomed his presence.
Even though I was warned by various travel-guide websites of the stunning contrast between the austere military exterior and the rich interior of this cathedral, I really did not prepare my eyes and mind for the real magnitude of the latter. The main entrance on the south side was, in itself, a spectacular work in stone. It is certainly smaller-scale but the details are as dexterous as those on the entrance of the Notre Dame in Paris. Inside, the cathedral is divided into two parts along its longitude. On the west side, which is left of the main entrance, is the nave – an open space where people can gather and worship, ended at the alter under the renowned wall panting of the Last Judgement and flanked on two sides by high, carefully decorated vaults. On the east side towards the base of the tower (belfry) is the chancel, reserved strictly for church clerks and… visitors who pay to get in. In between the two parts sat the rood screen – a painstaking stone filigree hand-carved by skilled artisans of the workshop of Cluny. Even the smallest pattern is so well executed, smooth and detailed that it is impossible to think that the base material is something hard like stone.
While I was occupied with being at awe and trying to capture this fantastical scene with my phone, my husband spotted something striking to his interior designer’s eyes. The vaults surrounding the nave were decorated with geometric, 3-D patterns using solid colors – an aesthetic that is more common in upscale contemporary art galleries than in a Catholic church. However, it is not at all out of place. To the contrary, there is something about the harmony of colors, the particular tints used, and the scale of the patterns that make them fit surprisingly well in this space. I wonder what artist came in here and convinced the bishop to allow such modern artistic expression on the vault of a seven-hundred-year-old fortress cathedral. The same artist left the religious paintings here and there, oftentimes on top of the vault, and played along with the contrast of time and style. Risky decision but totally worth it.
With only two hours to spend in Albi before rushing to our hotel in Rodez, I regret not being able to visit the museum of Toulouse-Lautrec (Musée Toulouse-Lautrec). This place is famed for two major things: the museum houses the largest collection of works by the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the world and the castle itself is one of the oldest, most well-preserved castle in France.
The castle, called Palais de la Berbie (Berbie means bishop in local Occitan tongue) because it was built in the 12th century by and for the first bishop of Albi after the crusade, is even older than the famous Palais de Papes in Avignon. Unlike the Palais de Papes which has an elegant, white stone facade, the Palais de la Berbie is tall, bulky, built in red brick and carries the same sense of military defense that the neighboring Saint Cecilia cathedral evokes. Those two monumental buildings and its surrounding block formed the episcopal city that is a classified UNESCO world heritage today. If given a chance to return to this place, I will make sure I see for myself the magnificence of the castle’s interior as well as the rich collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s artworks.