The monolith of the Cathedral of St Cécile dominated as Albi hove into sight. 113m long and 35m wide and with a 78m tower, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world.
Back in 1209 the Catholic church initiated what was to become a 45 year long military crusade against the Cathars – also called the Albigensies – after this city in the heartland of this early protestant movement. In 1282 the building of the cathedral was begun as an additional response to the Cathar heresy. It was an emphatic statement about the power and permanence of the church and the futility of any thought of opposition.
Entering the cathedral, is another shock and awe experience. The paintings, murals, carving and sculpture look as fresh as if they were finished yesterday by their Flemish and Italian creators, rather than in the fifteenth century. This is also where and the largest organ in France is found – a fitting tribute to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Her relics (are they arm bones), along with those of other saints, invite veneration along with some skulls and papal gowns. Whether the Gregorian chant we heard was a rehearsal or a recording, it heightened the sense the weight of history pressing in from every inch of the cathedral.
Albi has a few UNESCO World Heritage buildings, a bridge and districts. Right next to the Cathedral is the similarly imposing fortress, the Palais de la Berbie, was also built in the 13th century for the bishops of Albi. It is UNESCO Heritage listed as well.
Today, it houses The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. This was a must see for me, and didn’t disappoint. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents bequested what is the largest collection of his art in the world with more than 1,000 works including paintings, photographs, drawings, and many posters. The bad falls he had as a small boy which resulted in damage to his legs and stunting of his growth certainly aren’t reflected in his stature as an artist and innovator.
The promotional posters for various Paris nightclubs such as the Moulin Rouge are perhaps what he is best remembered for, and seeing his preparatory sketches tracing the development of his ideas for these added another dimension to his work. Lautrec was the original ‘poster boy,’ being the one who pioneered the use of graphic posters where the pictures told the story rather than the words.
Today Albi is a beautiful and modern city with smart shops and cafes next to fountains and ancient but well preserved monuments of the past.
Maybe we were too stunned by it all and that is why we got lost on the way back ‘home’…
Heather, Tina and Sharon