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Report 1954: A Weekend in Albi

By Veronica in France from France, Fall 2011

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Page 2 of 3: Sightseeing in Albi: Cathedral, Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

photo by Veronica Yuill

Palais Berber

The next day we were in full-on tourist mode: cathedral, Toulouse-Lautrec museum, and just generally sightseeing. Albi's massive red-brick cathedral hardly needs introducing: forbidding and austere on the outside, extravagantly decorated within. It's all about exclusion: even inside the church the choir, reserved for the monks and canons, is walled off from the rest of the church with elaborate friezes. So the plebs who were allowed entry could hear but not see what was going on.

The Toulouse-Lautrec museum is housed in the Palais Berber, which used to be the bishops' residence. I can't say I've ever been a great fan of Toulouse-Lautrec, but I was surprised how much I liked his paintings of prostitutes and many of the small lithographs, especially the ones of the circus. It seemed a shame that the adaptations done to turn the palace into an art gallery had hidden many of the architectural features from view. Many exhibits seemed poorly lit too, though that might have been for reasons of preservation.

We visited the lovely cloister of Saint Salvi as well, tucked away through passageways between two streets; Albi is a very attractive place for just wandering, there's so much interesting architecture to see. It's also interesting to compare it with Carcassonne, another World Heritage site. In Albi there's a total absence of tacky tourist shops selling plastic stuff made in China, and instead a dangerous preponderance of shops I would like to spend money in, like smart kitchen and tableware shops, delicatessens, wine shops, jewelers, potters, and shops selling nothing but beautiful scarves and hats. Steve wanted to buy a pair of shoes but quickly desisted when he found the going rate for shoes was €100 upwards. We restricted our shopping to a miniature milk churn filled with caramels au beurre salé for our elderly neighbour, then decided to have a quick lunch. We chose a bistro on the place Saint-Salvi called les Arcades, where we had two very nice, admittedly copious but very expensive salads -- €14? For a toasted goat's cheese and salad?

Once we were tired of walking, we headed down to the river for a trip on a gabarre, a traditional river boat. This was very much standard tourist fare; there isn't enough water in the river for it to be truly navigable, and it's partly blocked by a weir with no working lock, so the boat just pootled down river for 15 minutes, and then back up again. Unfortunately we shared the trip with a gaggle of Eastern European tourists who all chattered at the tops of their voices and were ecstatic over such exotic sights as children paddling in the river, so it wasn't as peaceful and romantic as it might have been.

That evening we went to the restaurant Stéphane Laurens, which turned out to be right next to the cathedral but tucked into a hidden little square down an alleyway and hence off the tourist track. It was so warm we sat outside again, and were glad we'd booked as most of the people who arrived after us were turned away. Unfortunately the food, while perfectly OK, failed to live up to expectations. I had melon in Gaillac wine with basil sorbet to start with, and was glad I'd chosen it because Steve's plateful of roasted cherry tomatoes and mozzarella was enormous. We both had lamb chops after that, which were "correct", but not exceptional.

For dessert, I must admit Steve had already pointed out that ordering strawberries in September was a fundamental error -- but I didn't want anything too heavy. They were a triumph of presentation over flavour; yet simply sprinkling them with sugar and letting them stand for half an hour would have improved them enormously. The pistachio macarons served with them were nice though. Steve's crème caramel was so solid and untrembling that we suspected the presence of flour. Total, with a bottle of indifferent red Gaillac: €20 more than the Robinson, without the food being any better. We'd rejected the pretentious "water list" in favour of tap water: it offered bottled water from all over the world, including one particularly recherché example at €80 -- presumably you get to take away the Swarowski-encrusted bottle afterwards. I wouldn't bother eating here again; too much emphasis on appearance, not enough on what the results actually taste like, and despite the claims to experimentation, most of the dishes were very standard traditional fare, just tarted up a bit.

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Friday Evening: Dinner in the Jungle

Sightseeing in Albi: Cathedral, Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Musée Lapérouse and Lautrec

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