Diane and I took a spur of the moment trip to Albi on Wednesday. A quick overnighter just 50 miles northeast of home. Even by European standards, Albi is an old city. People have been living here for 5,000 years. Romans, christian mystics, world wars, Albi has seen it all. What they mostly see now are tourists.
Usually in tourist dense areas we will hear a lot of German and English, in Albi we heard French and only French. It’s vacation month in France (yep, the whole month) and we suspect a lot of Parisians make the trip “down south” to quaint country towns like Albi in search of a slower pace. If that’s true, they were not disappointed, neither were we.
We followed our usual M.O. and booked a room with Airbnb. We’ve always had good luck with Airbnb and enjoy having a kitchen and not being in a “hotel” when we are trying to go native. We scored this time with a spacious apartment right in the heart of the action. Two large French doors opened the living/dining area onto an art fair in the pedestrian street one floor below.
There is a flip-side to the “in the heart of the action” coin. Our bedroom opened onto a courtyard with two restaurant patios. One patio included a young Frenchman comically channeling Kurt Cobain on the acoustic guitar. He finally stopped playing just before the garbage trucks came, followed in quick succession by the street cleaner and early morning delivery trucks. Luckily, both Diane and I have a tolerance to noise that is directly proportional to our distance from home, a frequent traveler’s adaptation I suppose.
Albi is dominated by the Sainte Cécile cathedral that looms over town at the edge of the Tarn River. It’s not an especially beautiful cathedral, austere and almost brutalist save for an ornate gothic entry on one side that looks like it was copy-pasted into place. It is impressive in that the cathedral is entirely brick, one of the largest brick cathedrals in the world (they’re usually made of stone).
We had an incredible view of the cathedral during lunch at Le Bruit en Cuisine restaurant. The restaurant had a fixed menu and the only decision we had to make was blanc, rosé or rouge (we had rouge). The cold tomato salad entree (in France the entree comes first) was a revelation. I’ve never had better. It was a kind of deconstructed caprese salad with the most luscious tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, cured black olives, finished off with a dollop of balsamic sorbet on top. As strange as it sounds that ice-cold slightly sweet sorbet with the salty olives and tangy tomatoes was awesome!
Unfortunately, the main course was Entrocet or beef steak. We are both huge fans of the French and their cooking but they can’t seem to find their way around a piece of steak. Every steak I’ve had here is mostly gristle and hardly worth the effort. Diane speculated that maybe that’s what beef that hasn’t been injected with growth hormone and trapped in a tiny cage its whole life actually tastes like. I remain skeptical.
Next door to the cathedral is the Palais de la Berbie and the highlight of our trip, the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec museum. The castle has been adapted to hold an impressive collection of Henri’s work along with mid-evil and contemporary art. The interior of the castle was as interesting as the art it held.
Henri is a fascinating character. A contemporary of Gaugin, Matisse, and Picasso, he produced thousands of works over a short 20-year career before dying at the age of 36. A condition likely caused by the proximity of his mother and father on the same family tree (first cousins) led to improper healing of the long bones in his legs after adolescent injuries. He had an average physique from the waist up but stunted growth from the thighs down, although in-between he more than made up for the shortcomings in the length of his femurs, or so the prostitutes reported.
Henri hit the sweet spot for an aristocrat with artistic talent, La Belle Époque. It was a golden age in France between wars characterized by optimism, prosperity, innovation and no small measure of hedonism. This was the time of the Paris world’s fair and the Eiffel tower. Hard-won leisure time allowed the French to indulge in art, literature, fashion, and gastronomy.
Henri was not a starving artist, he received enough of an allowance from his wealthy family to keep well stocked with absinthe and whores, apparently that wasn’t enough. Some speculate that his physical deformity filled him with angst and set him on a self-destructive path. Henri was an alcoholic and spent time in a psychiatric hospital shortly before his death. His death was attributed to “complications from alcohol and syphilis.” That may just sound like “college” but Henri’s appetites could put frat boys to shame. When he could hold a brush he was busy becoming one of the most renowned post-impressionist artists in history.
After the museum visit I mused over my own paucity of angst. I’ve told Diane several times that the reason I can’t finish a novel or play the blues is because of the great life that I have, she is blocking my angst. She suggested that maybe my angst would improve if she didn’t cater to my every whim. That seemed a bit drastic so I suggested we go to dinner.
The Tarn River runs through the center of town and is spanned by two vehicular/pedestrian bridges and one train trestle. The Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) sits nearest the cathedral and has been there for 975 years, certainly earning it’s title. The Pont Vieux led us to dinner at the La Planque de L’Eveque Wednesday evening. This time we opted for the duck and the fish. Whatever the French do to steak, they do the opposite to duck. Some kind of occitan magic is employed to make canard sublimely delicious. After dinner we took a stroll and Diane stalked the local cats until it was time for the Nirvana concert.