Toulouse, with its sunny, cosmopolitan charms, is not only the main town in Western Languedoc but also a very accessible kick-off point for anywhere in the southwest of France. Of the places nearby, Albi, with its highly original cathedral and comprehensive collection of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, is the number-one priority, and once you’ve made it that far, it’s worth the hop to the well-preserved medieval town of Cordes. West of Toulouse the land opens up into the broad plains of the Gers, a sleepy and rather dull expanse of wheat fields and rolling hills. Those in search of a solitary, little-visited France will enjoy its uncrowded monuments, especially any fond lover of rich terrines and Armagnac.
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Albi, 77km and an hour’s train ride northeast of Toulouse, is a small industrial town with two unique sights: a museum containing the most comprehensive collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work (Albi was his birthplace); and a remarkable Gothic cathedral. Its other claim to fame comes from its association with Catharism; though not itself an important centre, it gave its name – Albigensian – to both the heresy and the crusade to suppress it.
Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, begun about 1280, dwarfs the town like some vast bulk carrier run aground, the belfry its massive superstructure. The comparison sounds unflattering, and this is not a conventionally beautiful building; it’s all about size and boldness of conception. The sheer plainness of the exterior is impressive on this scale, and it’s not without interest: arcading, buttressing, the contrast of stone against brick – every differentiation of detail becomes significant. During July and August there are free organ recitals here (Wed 5pm & Sun 4pm); the tourist office can supply information.
Next to the cathedral, a powerful red-brick castle, the thirteenth-century Palais de la Berbie, houses the superb Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. It contains paintings, drawings, lithographs and posters from the artist’s earliest work to his very last – an absolute must for anyone interested in belle époque seediness and, given the predominant Impressionism of the time, the rather offbeat painting style of its subject. But perhaps the most impressive thing about this museum is the building itself, its parapets, gardens and walkways giving stunning views over the river and its bridges.
Cordes, perched on a conical hill 24km northwest of Albi, and just a brief trip away by train and bus, is one of the region’s must-see sights. Founded in 1222 by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, it was a Cathar stronghold, and the ground beneath the town is riddled with tunnels for storage and refuge in time of trouble. As one of the southwest’s oldest and best-preserved bastides, complete with thirteenth- and fourteenth-century houses climbing steep cobbled lanes, Cordes is inevitably a major tourist attraction: medieval banners flutter in the streets and artisans practise their crafts.