Albi, 77km and an hour’s train ride northeast of Toulouse, is a small 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, but 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.