With its red brick buildings rising up from the bank of the river Tarn, Albi is striking. Over the years the bricks made from the clay extracted nearby have been a convenient building material in the region for centuries. In Albi, the abundance of brick buildings gives a pale red hue to the town.
Albi’s main attraction is its cathedral. Formally the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia, Albi’s cathedral claims to be the largest brick building in the world. Though it is a gothic structure was built between 1287 and 1480, from the outside the church has, with the exception of the lacey stonework at its side entrance, a distinctive monolithic appearance. This brick gothic structure looks more art nouveau than gothic.
On the inside of Saint Cecilia is a marvel. The choir with its elaborate stone carvings and a lacey rood screen takes up much of the nave. Surrounding the choir the interior of the church is nearly completely painted or covered with frescoes. Over the years I’ve seen a lot churches and cathedrals; Saint Cecilia stands out as unique, inside and out.
Adjacent to Saint Cecilia overlooking the Tarn is the former bishop’s palace, Palais de la Berbie. The palace and cathedral complex form part of the Episcopal City of Albi as recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Today the palace is used as a museum. It features the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi. After his death, his mother donated many of the pieces of Lautrec’s art that are now in the museum’s hands.
A few steps from the bishop’s palace is Pont Vieux or old bridge. It is said that this bridge, built in stone in 1035, is the oldest continuously used bridge in France. We can attest that Pont Vieux still functions as we drove across the bridge to our hotel. If the old bridge could survive the cataclysmic floods of the Tarn in the 18th Century, it certainly can survive our small erratically driven rental car today.