The history of Albi ‘la rouge’, capital of Tarn, can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age. The red river clay which also colours the bricks of Toulouse has given Albi its nickname. The River Tarn is wide here, spanned by 3 red bridges including a railway bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
Most striking of Albi’s architectural splendours is its mighty red-brick Cathedral of Ste-Cecile - a thirteenth century masterpiece of Gothic art which dominates the town. The Catholic bishop of Castanet commissioned the cathedral-fortress both as a memorial to victory over the Cathars and as a warning to the Albegois who supported and gave their name to the cause. Inside, the wonderful open space is delicately decorated with sixteenth century Italian paintings, frescos and carvings.
Maison Enjalbert, Hotel de Reynes and the Romanesque church of St-Salvy reflect a time of prosperity for the town. Albi was the third richest town in France in the Middle Ages thanks in large part to the cultivation and export of pastel or woad (a much sought after dye for cloth). Follow a signed walking tour of the town and learn more of Albi’s heritage at La Maison du Vieil Alby.
Browse the galleries, boutiques, bookshops and restaurants of the old town and enjoy Albi’s large park and 2 leisure lakes. Every day but Monday is market day, there are theatre and classical music festivals in June and July and Jazz in May. Musee Laperouse is dedicated to a son of Albi, eighteenth century explorer Jean-Francois Galaup de la Perouse who charted routes to China, America, Russia and Australia.
But Albi is far better known as the birthplace of nineteenth century bohemian artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. La Palais de la Berbie is a must-visit for art lovers. It houses the most important collection of his work outside the Louvre in Paris, including hundreds of his sketches, paintings and posters. Visit Hotel du Bosc where he was born. There are fine views of the River Tarn from the beautiful gardens of La Palais de la Berbie. Take a trip on a gabare; one of the old working barges which shipped goods like grain, wine and woad down river. It’s the perfect place to be at the end of the day as sunset transforms houses and cathedral from pink to deepest red.
There are reflections of Spain in Castres, not only from the brightly painted tanners and weavers houses overhanging the River Agout which flows through the town, but also in the Goya Museum; home to the largest collection of paintings by Spanish artists outside the Louvre. See works by Murillo and Velazques as well as Goya and visit seventeenth century St-Benoit cathedral next door.
Castres was once a busy centre for tanning, weaving, textiles and cloth dyeing. In the mid nineteenth century, there were 50 woollen mills in the town. It is still a lively industrious town with plenty for the visitor to enjoy that’s attractive to the eye. Start with the large Saturday morning market and move on to admire the fine architecture of the old town, like Hotel de Nayrac and Hotel Leroy.
The city hall was once a bishop’s palace with gardens of box and yew devised by Le Notre who famously designed the gardens at Versailles. Riverside illuminations will light up your evening stroll. Nearby 53 hectare Gourjade Park has golf and a little train. Castres was the birthplace of France’s famous nineteenth century socialist thinker and activist- Jean-Jaures. If you’re fascinated by politics, don’t miss the important museum in the house where he was born on place Pelisson. It was opened by President Mitterand in 1988.
The ‘village perche’ of Cordes-sur-Ciel really does seem to be, as its name suggests, perched in the sky above the Cerou valley. Writers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and painter Yves Bray all loved Cordes. Set high on a summit above the Segala plateau, you can understand why it was chosen as a Cathar stronghold. Two sets of ramparts and strong gates were built to defend the town and underground tunnels dug for refuge and storage. Cordes remains architecturally one of the best examples of a fortified Bastide. Industries relating to textiles, leather and coloured silk brought prosperity to Cordes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and modern craftsmen in enamel, weaving and engraving as well as sculptors and artists now have their workshops in medieval houses along its cobbled streets. There’s plenty here for the holidaymaker to see and plenty of outdoor leisure activities to enjoy. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has exhibitions of skills like glass-blowing, ceramics and photography, and Musee Charles-Portal gives the history of the town. There’s even a museum of sugar art. Cordes celebrates food and music with festivals in summer and you can visit the Jardin des Paradis gardens from May to October. It’s also a great mountain biking location with canoeing, kayaking and fishing nearby.
Mazamet is famous for its woollen production and leather goods. Stores and factories can be seen in the town alongside private houses Paris-style. Wool and hides come from as far a field as Australia and South America and some colourful 1930s mansions resemble Argentinean ‘estancias’. Mazamet has good shops and restaurants, lively Tuesday and Saturday morning markets, a special flower market in May and foie gras markets in summer. The whole family can test their skills at the Maison du Bois et du Jouet. Find the history of the Black Mountains here along with displays of more than 1200 wooden toys from around the world. The museum at Maison des Memoires du Catharisme Occitan tells the story of the Cathars and their fight against king and pope and the rich excesses of thirteenth century Catholicism. A trip to Hautpoul set high on a rocky spur above Mazamet brings the story to life. The fortified village ‘perche’, which dates back to the fifth century, became a Cathar refuge and was destroyed by Simon de Montfort’s crusade in 1212. Remaining villagers were forced down into the valley where they established what was to become Mazamet, beside the River Arnette. The Tourist Office (tel: (00 33) 5 63 61 27 07.) organises guided day trips to the steep alleys, mountain houses, chapel, castle and rampart remains of Hautpoul where craftsmen have now established workshops. Mazamet is ideally placed as a centre for outdoor leisure activities being on the edge of the Haut Languedoc Regional Natural Park and close to the Montagne Noire and Plateau des Lacs, yet only an hour from both Mediterranean beaches and ski slopes. Lac des Montagnes nearby is a great place for swimming, fishing and picnics.
Penne-du-Tarn is dominated by its ruined twelfth century chateau atop a rocky pinnacle where the oak forest of Gresigne is cut by the Aveyron gorge. The site was occupied first by the Celts and then the Romans before becoming a medieval refuge for the heretic Cathars. Penne’s steep, narrow streets and alleys give a strong sense of atmosphere. Ruins of this amazing feat of military architecture at Chateau de Penne have been renovated (with the aid of twenty first century helicopters to ferry materials and opened to the public in June 2010.