Albi is the capital of the Tarn department and is known as the episcopal city. Its townscape has a signature architecture built with local bricks, like Toulouse, giving it characteristic shades of red, pink and orange. From the Pont du 22 Août, you can see the Pont Vieux and the town in all their glory. Since 2010, UNESCO has recognised the well-preserved and mainly unchanged medieval centre as a World Heritage Site.
My first stop in Albi was at the Tourist Office, where I got a map with three walking routes. I picked the burgundy coloured one that led me through the historic city centre via the main monuments and neighbourhoods. The route started with Albi’s most striking monument: the 13th century Sainte-Cécile cathedral. Even this house of worship is made out of fired brick, making it the largest brick-built cathedral in the world! Built like a fortified castle to show the regained power of the Roman Catholics over the Cathars, it only has one entrance. You can admire its Mediterranean Gothic style with the largest painted interior in Europe. No less than 18,500m2 of frescos and decorations cover the walls and ceilings. By paying 5 euros (per adult), you can also enter the Choir of the Canons.
Palais de la Berbie
Coming out of the cathedral, I almost immediately stumbled against the Palais de la Berbie. This former bishop’s palace from the 13th century now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. I liked visiting this museum with its vast collection of the native Albi artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It includes his early work but also his famous end of the 19th century Parisian brothel scenes. However, you don’t necessarily have to visit the museum to be surprised. Walking around the Berbie palace brought me to a remarkable classical French garden with artfully trimmed boxwood hedges. From the shaded walkway, I took in the view of the Tarn river and the Madeleine district across the river.
From the Berbie palace, I walked to Albi’s oldest part of town. Already from the Bronze Age, a fortified settlement- also called an oppidum- was built on the rocky cliff of the Bondidou ravine. The Castelviel neighbourhood dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and brings you right back to the Middle Ages. Castelviel means ‘old castle’ in Occitan, and it used to be a former fortified market town with its own rampart. Today, you can still linger through the small cobblestoned alleys lined with medieval timbered houses. Especially around the Place Savène, the level of charming houses is high.
The Saint-Salvi Cloister
Going back to the modern world via the shopping street of Rue Sainte-Cécile, I spotted a stairway to my right. Intrigued, I followed the steps upwards and unexpectedly arrived at a delightful haven of peace. It happened to be the cloister garden of the Saint-Salvi collegiate church. The church itself dates from the 10th and the 13th century, showing Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. The only part that remains of the 13th century cloister is the southern arched gallery.
Halle du Marché Couvert
Although the Saint-Salvi Cloister was the last noteworthy monument on the burgundy walking route, I continued my way. I was just in time to visit the Halle du Marché Couvert, open from Tuesday to Sunday from 07h00 to 14h00 (closed on Mondays). For over a hundred years, Albigensians and visitors have come to this covered market housed in a beautiful ‘Baltard’ style building. Although the covered market wasn’t part of my walking route, I was glad to have a gourmet break. There are several restaurants in and outside the market. Or you can buy some local products at one of the more than 20 stands and have a picnic on the banks of the Tarn river.