Albi

I’ve just been on my first outing as a local OAP.  I’ve joined Lou Rossignol club des ainés and yesterday we went on a coach trip to Albi, site of one of the most magnificent cathedrals in France.

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Photos of the Albi 2015  outing

Up before dawn, we set off in the dark on the three and a half hour coach trip .  (Trips like this remind one how big France is, in width as much as length.)  I really should get up earlier; it is so wonderful watching the sun gradually light up the hills, though as we passed from the department du Gard into first Aveyron and then Tarn, the sunny dawn turned into a grey, cold day – what a contrast to the day before (and today).

But still, it is a beautiful journey, with the steep hills of the Cévennes giving way to a richer, more rolling countryside, with the odd glimpse of a chateau or manoir. We were a friendly bunch of about two dozen (more animated than this photo suggests!).

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Easy-going conversation occasionally slipped into song, usually led by Jacqueline Ruer, an old friend from choir days.

I passed through Albi three years ago. in glorious blue sunshine.  Yet despite yesterday’s grey skies, the cathedral still took my breath away.  Built in the 13th-15th centuries, it is an immense brick edifice, its exterior resembling a fortress rather than a cathedral.  All the might and power of the Catholic church, recently victorious against the Cathars, is displayed in this gigantic, deceptively simple, magnificent exterior, all of it in  lovely red brick.

Then you climb up the steps to the entrance and inside your visual mind is blown away by an extraordinary single, high nave (there are no side aisles or transepts). Literally every inch is decorated.  There are, as you might expect, some religious scenes, such as the splendid and scary Last Judgement, a huge mural by Flemish craftsmen, painted on the curved walls of the bell tower.  Even more spectacular are the roof vaulting’s Renaissance frescoes on a blue background. Painted by Italians from Bologne in the early 16th centur, amazingly they have so far not needed restoring.

I was not so keen on the large collection of statues, but I was much taken by the extraordinary non-religious patterns on the walls, surrounding for example, the tall windows. Their most unusual, geometric motifs are the sort of decoration you might find in a mosque.  I wondered if there had been a Moorish or Arab influence but surprisingly the guidebooks say almost nothing about them.

This is the Cathedral Sainte Cécile and, as you might expect of a building dedicated to the patron saint of music, it has one of the largest and best organs in France.

After this visual feast it was time to eat, in a restaurant near the cathedral.  This was an excellent meal, beautifully presented, reminding us that the Gard is not exactly tops on the French gastronomic map.

In the afternoon we visited the Palais de la Berbie, home to the Toulouse Lautrec museum. Again, resembling a fortress rather than a palace, it was the home of the bishops and is as splendid as the cathedral, which it predates.

These days it is a museum, housing in particular, the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. I have to confess that I was ignorant of the quantity, quality and range of Toulouse Lautrec’s work, aware only of the paintings and posters from the last part of his life in Paris.  What was so great about this museum – the largest single collection of his works – was starting with the excellent pictures of his teens – pictures of horses and portraits of family, friends and servants – then seeing the lively and stylish portraits of his twenties, and then the already familiar depictions of the sub-life of brothels in Paris.

I have been converted into a huge Toulouse-Lautrec fan and retain in particular memories of, for example, the energetic horse pictures of his adolescence, the touching picture of two women friends (les Deux Amies),  a youthful bacchanalian scene which made me think in its shock factor of Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, the abstract back view of a redhead (quite a lot of effective back views).

The museum is enhanced by its superb setting, with the red brick walls and vaulting of the palace forming a stylish backcloth.

Inevitably exhaustion set in; I had not the energy to look at the other exhibitions in the palace – another, more leisurely overnight visit is required – and only managed to totter round a little of the old city centre, but enough to appreciate that this city enjoyed centuries of comfortable living producing stylish houses.

By the time we returned to the bus, it was raining lightly.  As we left Albi, the bus heating system seemed to go into overdrive, misting up the driver’s windows and making us wilt.  Then disaster, the windscreen wipers packed up, no doubt related to the electrical misbehaviour.  Not only was it raining but we soon passed into thick fog or cloud. Bernard, the poor driver, braked to a sudden halt every ten minutes or so and wiped the windows down with newspaper and towels.  I noticed several nervous passengers quietly fastened their safety belts. Bernard struggled along for an hour until miraculously we passed a garage which was still open and whose mechanic managed to fix the electrical fault, to much cheering from the passengers. (Apparently bus breakdowns are a known feature of past pensioner expeditions.)

Lina Passport, the club president, joked cheerfully that this adventure was a little bonus offered by the club.  She and the other committee members were impressively efficient.  I look forward to me next oap outing.

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