Stepping out of a train into a small town in France can be like stepping back in time. Larger French cities like Paris are such fun places to live and visit, but checking out the smaller towns is something special. Wandering down a tiny medieval street of cobblestone, barely big enough for a car to pass through, then turning the corner to see a magnificent cathedral is a quintessential small French town experience. Albi, the capital of the Tarn department in Southwestern France is no exception.
I’ve had friends and seen other blogs mention Albi before, so when I stayed in Toulouse for two weeks, I knew I had to make a day trip up to this Occitan town. After an hour’s train ride through the countryside, past canals and vineyards, my boyfriend and I got off at the Albi Ville station. It was a quick walk to the town center.
Once we arrived into the heart of the old town, we were enchanted by the Medieval architecture. We had so much fun wandering around the tiny streets and wondering what we’d find around each corner. It was also a treat to see some half-timbered houses, which are more common to regions like Alsace and Brittany. What was special about these ones though, was that they incorporated some brick and fit in with the rosy hues of the other buildings around them! I was even surprised to see a few Halloween decorations in some windows, as it’s not a very big holiday here like it is in the US.
When taking a day trip to Albi, another spectacular sight you’ll notice in the town center is the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, which looms over the town. It made think of the towering Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which is made from sandstone. Albi’s Southern French Gothic cathedral is made of brick however, and is the largest brick cathedral in the world!
The inside of the Cathedral is worth seeing as well due to the intricate paintings on the wall. I was more impressed by the organ, however. I wondered what it would have sounded like if it were to be played since the inside of the Cathedral is spacious.
We wandered out of the Cathedral and went to look for the convent, but instead got distracted by a sign that said “les Berges du Tarn.” I am a lover of walks along riverbanks, especially in French towns, so I suggested we take a detour. We moseyed down a set of winding cobblestone steps and reached the path enveloped by green and red leaves above.
When we reached the river below, I couldn’t stop ogling the view. The red brick buildings of Albi combined with the changing Autumn leaves and their reflection in the river looked straight out of an impressionist painting. If you’re visiting Albi and want to get a bit of fresh air and see some lovely views, don’t skip out on a walk by the Berges du Tarn!
According to an informational panel from the town of Albi that we saw, the Tarn’s source can be found in the Massif Central mountains in the middle of France. Since antiquity, the river has been used for the transport of goods, but navigation was difficult until the 19th century.
We continued on along the river until we reached a bridge and crossed on over to the other side of town. We looked for the Moulins Albigeois indicated on the map, but there really wasn’t anything there besides a hotel and a small museum. You should cross over though to see a view of Albi’s cathedral and Vieux Pont (old bridge), which happened to be built in 1040!
Albi’s Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palace form the Cité Episcopale, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The Palais de la Berbie has a lovely courtyard with a classic French style garden. If you aren’t keen on walking along the banks of the Tarn, you can get some lovely views of the river from the walkway that wraps around this garden. The fortified palace was built in the 13th century, but today it houses an art museum : le musée Toulouse-Lautrec.
The museum did not open until 2pm, so before going in we decided to have lunch. We walked around for a few minutes before finding a restaurant that wasn’t too tourist and that was reasonably prices. We ended up at La Bonne Maison, which a nice ambiance and local food. The service was friendly and relatively quick. I had a leek and regional gaillaçois white wine risotto and my boyfriend opted for the sautéd free-range chicken with potatoes and mushrooms. For dessert, I went with the decadent tarte Tatin, a classic French pastry that’s like a caramelized apple pie.
After our meal, we went back to the Palais de la Berbie to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which features paintings and prints from the artist of the same name. The most well known work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is probably his posters for the Belle Époque Parisian cabarets. The post-impressionist artist however was born in Albi to a family of aristocrats. I appreciated his subdued use of color and the way he captured the personality of his subjects. If you like other impressionist and post-impressionist works of art, I would highly suggest visiting this museum.
One of the last sites we saw before the trip was over was the Cloitre Saint Salvi, which had a quaint garden that seemed to be a hangout spot for local students. I didn’t take any photos of the cloister, but you can get a little sneak peek of what it looked like in my day trip to Albi vlog below:
We walked around a bit more until it was time to catch our train back to Toulouse. We popped in a boutique called Bleu par Nature , a specialty shop specializing in all things pastel. They had soaps, textiles, and of course art pastels all made from the local Isatis tinctoria flower, whose leaves are used to make blue dye. I didn’t pick up any gifts here because the floral scent wasn’t my favorite, but my boyfriend insisted we try the pastel chocolates, which were actually quite unique!
Thank you so much for reading! Let me know if you’ve ever been to Albi before or if it’s a place you’re putting on your France bucket-list.
À la prochaine,