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Albi 'Le Rouge': Riches of France's Past

Professor Arnie Greenberg

If you are in search of French Art, Architecture and History, I suggest you head for Albi. The city stands high on the banks of the river Tarn in the Southwest of France, north of Carcassonne and near the larger city of Toulouse. If this latter city reminds you of something, you are correct when you guess that this was a name connected with a major painter, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. Yes, there is an art gallery there that attracts Lautrec aficionados in droves but Albi is also a well-preserved city of remarkable architecture and a fascinating past. It was here that the crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars was mounted in 1236.

The Cathars spread their influence as messengers of a new faith. They were considered heretics by King and Church and were massacred and burnt at the stake. At Montsegur alone, those who opposed the Catholic authority paid dearly for their zeal. Ten thousand men lay siege to Montsegur and burned hundreds at the stake. There are still reminders of these bloody days in the destroyed havens of the Cathar castles in southwest France.

They call it “Red Albi” (Albi le rouge) because of the red brick and hue of the stone churches and bridges. It is a visual city slightly off the beaten track but it’s worth a visit for many reasons including the food.

Many go there to see the collection of Talouse paintings. Lautrec was the son of a Count and was born in November 1864 in his family mansion built on the city ramparts. It is called hotel du Bosc. But wealth could not prevent the young Lautrec from being victimized by age 15 by a congenital disorder and two falls. His affliction brought him to Paris in 1882, where he began to record his impressions of the seedier side of city life around the Moulin-Rouge in Montmartre with canvasses and drawings that were to set a style for future painters.  His work is well known but too few have seen the Albi collection that is made up of more than 1,000 paintings, drawings and lithographs. The collection is housed in the former archbishop’s palace dating back to the 13th century. The collection represents the lifestyle of murky Montmartre’s, music halls and brothels at the end of the 19th century. I was impressed with Lautrec’s paintings of horses, one of his early loves and the drawings entitled At the Circus. What he later did in Paris is a complete about face from his early work.

 But Lautrec’s condition, his addiction to alcohol and his syphilis exhausted him and he returned to his mother’s residence, Chateau de Malrome, in the Gironde River area where he died in 1901. He was not yet 37 years of age.

The museum is testimony to Albi’s native son but it also houses works by such geniuses as Bonnard, Matisse, Vuillard and Vlaminck.

The archbishop’s Palace de la Berbie is a powerful medieval fortress with terraces and gardens you will not soon forget. The view of the river from here is spectacular. You get to it from a walkway near the museum so there’s no cost. Bring your cameras.

But there’s more to this city than Art and Architecture. Albi is a center of music, theatre, cinema and Jazz. There is an annual carnival and the university is the 6th most important school of mines in France. It too is a meeting place for conferences and seminars.

For sports, there are racetracks for cars and motorbikes and a superb 18-hole golf course built on an estate. Kayaking on the rushing rivers is a favorite sport here as are walking, biking and fishing.

Market days are special here with people gathering on Saturdays and Tuesdays from the region. There is even a covered market every morning except Mondays. Shoppers walk on the cobbled streets to the poultry market near the Cathedral where they exchange stories in the Occitan dialect ‘langue d’Oc. The talk is often of cooking. This is a gourmand’s haven where one can taste Radishes and salt liver, Albi-style beef stew, saffron tripe, sweetbreads and Gimblettes or ring cakes not to mention the duck and goose delicacies of Southwestern France.

Albi is near the Massif Central, that rugged and scenic area half way between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It is dotted with vineyards, valleys and plateaus and a celebrated, deep gorge created by the Tarn River, which gives the region its name. There are still mansions in the area as well as hill villages like the picturesque medieval village of Cordes-sur-ciel, which is certainly worth a stop.

There are excellent hotels for all purses, and most of them offer special local foods. My most recent choice was the Air conditioned Grand Hotel d’Orleans, a family run hotel, since 1902, near the main train station. Their traditional French cuisine in the dining room, Le Goulu, is excellent as is their attention to detail. Their pool can be refreshing

If you are heading south from here, stop at Castres, the fabric center on the tarn river where you’ll also find a museum of Spanish Art called the Musee Goya. Then go on to Carcassonne, a walled city steeped in French history.

But, for me, the gem of the Tarn is still Albi in old Languedoc. You will be seduced by it as I was. I return here often.

Tourist Office: Place Saint-Cecile, next to the museum and cathedral

Phone: 33 05 63 494 886

Fax: 33 O5 63 494 898


Hotel and dining recommendations:

Best Western Grand Hotel d’Orleans (56 Rooms)
1, place Stalingrad
81000, Albi, France

Phone: 05 63 54 16 56
Fax: 05 63 54 43 41

Hotel Chiffre (Charming 40 Room Hotel with excellent restaurant)
50, rue Sere-de-Rivieres
81000 Albi, France

Phone: 05 63 54 04 60
Fax: 05 63 38 08 06 (Restaurant)
Fax: 05 63 47 20 61 (Hotel)

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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