Specializing in Eastern Europe, I spend a lot of time in Europe’s little countries, where there’s a finite number of cities worth exploring. Traveling through France, though, I’m struck by how deep this country’s bench is. You could spend weeks in France, never set foot in the heavy hitters, and still have a great trip. One of my favorite examples of this is the utterly underrated city of Albi.
Like its most famous former resident, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi is a lovable underdog. Sitting an hour off the freeway between Carcassonne and the Dordogne, Albi gets missed by most tourists. Maybe that’s why it’s such a delight. It’s a red-brick, sun-parched town with a strollable old center, a magnificent fortress-church, and a half-day’s worth of engaging sightseeing.
Albi was the home city of the Cathars, those “heretical” Christian rebels who stood up to the Pope in the Middle Ages. (They’re also called the Albigensians, after their home city.) After they were defeated, the Vatican built this huge, humorless cathedral — more fortress than church — as a stake in the heart of Albi, and the Albigensians.
Inside, the cathedral’s opulent artwork drives home this same fire-and-brimstone message. The Last Judgment altarpiece makes the consequences of disobeying the Church gruesomely clear.
Next to the cathedral sits the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, with the finest collection of the talented artist’s work outside of Paris. And just beyond is this stunning garden overlooking the Tarn River. Some cities are characterized by a color, and when I think of Albi, I think of the gentle maroon of sunbaked bricks.
From the cathedral, inviting streets fan out through town. And, like any great city, Albi hides plenty of surprises behind its eye-pleasing veneer. This medieval cloister — packed with a picnicking field-trip group during my visit — is a tranquil eddy that sits, almost unmarked, off the main drag.
The fortified medieval villages (or bastides) in the countryside near Albi are equally enchanting. I dropped in on a few recommended in our Rick Steves’ France guidebook, but my favorite was Castelnau-de-Montmiral — with what may just be the cuddliest main square I’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t had a long drive ahead of me, I could have happily settled in here for a drink…or a week.
Most travelers give Albi a miss. But that’s a mistake. Stop here for a lunch break — or even spend the night — and you’ll have this fine city all to yourself.
Next stop: the Dordogne River Valley.