Albi is the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec; the navigator François de Galaup, Count of La Pérouse, after whom the Lycée Lapérouse was named; Jean Jaurès, who taught philosophy here; and the actor Pierre Mondy. The town is also where President Georges Pompidou studied humanities before brilliantly passing the preparatory classes for the École normale supérieure teachers’ training college at the Lycée Henry IV in Paris.
The origin of the name Albi probably lies in “Alby” or “Albius”, a notable of Albi, or “Alba”, which would be a reference to the limestone cliffs around the town.
Albi, the Cathars’ stronghold, is a fascinating town whose red bricks are reflected in the Tarn’s emerald green waters.
In a famous 1888 speech, Jean Jaurès said, “With its beautiful sky, brick houses, terraced gardens and handsome bridges; with its sun-drenched main square… with the chalky hillsides that, bordering it on the north, resemble the hills of Latium, Albi looks like an Italian town devoted to the cult of art and a serene philosophy.”
The town’s points of interest include the Berbie Palace, built around 1625. In the late 17th century, the courtyard was decorated with a French-style garden designed by Le Nôtre.
Since 1922 Berbie Palace has housed the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (which does not recall a classic bicycle but the famous painter and poster artist of Parisian life), which exhibits approximately 1,000 of his works.
The Cathars, from the Greek word kataros, or “pure”, were the followers of a medieval dualist religious movement. The Catholic Church, their bitter foes, considered them heretics and gave them that name rather late.
But the Cathars called themselves “good men”, “good women” and “good Christians”. The Inquisition called them “the perfect ones”, which meant “perfect heretics” and designated those who had received the consolamentum, in other words the laying-on of hands, and who preached, in contrast to simple heretics.
The Cathars, who were concentrated in southern France, underwent a fierce armed crackdown starting in 1209, in particular during the Albigensian Crusade. Judicial repression continued for a century with the Inquisition.
The Cathar doctrine interpreted some articles of faith differently and contested the seven sacraments that the Catholic Church had established in the 11th century.
The Cathars’ main belief was dualism, which included two principles: the physical world, created by Satan, proceeds from evil; only the spirit was created by God.
They believed that Good and Evil have always co-existed.
The “good men” preached that all individuals are entitled the same respect regardless of their social standing, and, considering themselves the apostles’ only true disciples, adopted the lifestyle of the earliest Christian communities. They believed that Catholic sacraments, such as baptism, the Eucharist and marriage, were absolutely worthless and that church buildings were completely unimportant because the word of Christ could be received wherever the faithful gathered.
The Midi-Pyrenees region, especially Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne, was a Cathar stronghold, but the movement also spread further north to Agen and Epernon, where it lasted longer.
The Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) was a fierce armed struggle, continued by the Inquisition en 1231, whose goal was to hunt down “heretical depravity”.
This is the first time that the Tour de France will have arrived in Albi since 1999, when Italy’s Salvatore Comesso won the stage. In 1968 the town witnessed one of the most dramatic stages in the event’s history when Raymond Poulidor fell between Font-Romeu and Albi.
That day, the Limousin resident, who had left the Pyrenees two minutes and 29 seconds ahead of Janssen, Van Springel, Aimar and Bitossi, was considered the front-runner.
Unfortunately, he and some other talented racers, in particular Spain’s Aurélio Gonzalès, tumbled and were run over by a press motorcycle.
Poulidor was stunned for moment but stood up, with a bloody face and a broken nose, and started riding again as the great Roger Pingeon took the lead and ensured his victory in the stage. When Poulidor reached the finish line in Albi with a group of stragglers four minutes and three seconds late, he was exhausted and had lost all hope of winning the Tour de France.
On a July evening in 1838, Chateaubriand wrote to Madame Récamier. Coming from Rodez after spending the night on a diligence, he was surprised at the site’s beauty. “This morning in Albi I found myself in Italy,” he wrote. “I saw a church worthy of Venice and Cologne.”
Francis I wrote that the town “is populated by good souls of good renown and honest conversations and reputations. So many people of letters and a good number of them are doctors, university graduates, bourgeois, merchants…”
Prosper Mérimée simply called the church “a magnificent folly”.
Ore and iron made Ambialet, which was founded on the Gallo-Roman road, important in proto-historic and Gallo-Roman times. Saint Victor had a priory built here in 1057, but the Huguenots tore it down. The town was fortified under Raymond VI, who met Simon de Montfort here in 1211. The fief went over to Alphonse of Poitiers in 1271. Ambialet has a Missionary Museum and offers splendid views of the winding Tarn.
Lanel, a hamlet of Cunac, is built around the 16th-century Saint Jacques church. Grapes used to make liqueur and the AOC Coteaux de Gaillac, a sparkling wine, grow on the hillsides. The town also has a farm cooperative.