The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                               PAGE FIVE
In Southwestern France:  Albi revisited
                                                                                                                                                          by Arthur Gillette

We covered two major features of the Tarn département's charming Albi - Sainte Cécile, 
the largest brick cathedral in the world and the Berbie Palace complex - in our February 2004 issue, 
which you can see at FRANCE On Your Own. Since then, the town of some 52,000 inhabitants
has become a candidate for inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List, 
and the more serious a candidate since it has undertaken a considerable pro heritage facelift. 
We felt an update was appropriate; Arthur Gillette recently visited it for us and filed this report.

As regular readers know, I'm intrigued by toponymy; so a first question on my mind was whence 'Albi'?  As is often the case in France, the answer is not simple.  That should have been 'answers', since three surfaced during my visit.  First, a local notable of Roman times ~ one Albius ~ may be recalled by the name or, second, located on a steep promontory overlooking the Tarn River, Albi may stem from the Celtic root for 'hillock' ~ alb or alp, or third, the name may refer to nearby chalky (white = albus in Latin) cliffs.

The last explanation is hardly valid today because, at least in the old town center, the almost universal light red brick building material seems to exude a pinkish haze.  Until recently brick was considered vulgar and, perhaps mainly in the 19th century, façades and other external walls were clad with a stucco/cement coating, now being carefully scraped off to reveal the attractive ancient color and half-timbered structures.

Woad Wealth

A visit to Albi would, therefore, be woefully incomplete without a stop at a fine example of the original architecture's newly revealed appearance, La Maison du Vieil Alby.

La Maison du Vieil Alby. Courtesy Office de Tourisme d'Albi.  All rights reserved.
La Maison du Vieil Alby

This 15th century house was to be torn down, but, the tide of awareness of local heritage having begun to turn favorably, was in 1966 acquired and restored by the Municipality which then entrusted its administration and animation to the local Association for Safeguarding Old Albi.  Today, volunteers ensure a friendly and informative welcome to visitors who can see a variety of exhibits on the town's history and such famous sons as painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec as well as relevant slide shows.

One intriguing feature of the Maison de Vieil Alby, visible in the above photo, is the top floor balcony.  This was no summer banquet area but a place to dry the precious pastel plan (woad, in botanical English and isatis tinctoria in Latin) from which an expensive blue dye was extracted ~ and which contributed mightily to the wealth of old Albi.

And now a couple of unexpected (by me, at least!) American connections!

Lapérouse Statue.  Courtesy of Wikipedia from web site.  All rights reserved.First is the Museum devoted to the 18th century scion of a local family that had been ennobled in 1558, Jean-François de la Pérouse.  Joining the French navy at 15, and soon rising to become an officer, then captain, he was entrusted with several missions in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  During the American war of independence, he supported the insurgents and, among other ventures, attacked British settlements in Hudson's Bay.

Looking at his statue in Albi today, I couldn't help wondering whether George Washington's wig influenced his, or the other way 'round.

After American independence was won, he was assigned to undertake a 'round-the-world expedition designed to complete the earlier discoveries of Captain James Cook.  Having explored such far-flung sites as Kamchatka and Australia, the expedition foundered on the reefs of Vanikoro (Solomon Islands) in unknown circumstances.  Over the years, and as late as 2005, divers have discovered a number of artifacts from the wrecked vessels, and some are hauntingly displayed at Albi's Musée Lapérouse.

Anchor at Musée Lapérouse, Albi.  Photo courtesy of Office de Tourisme d'Albi.  All rights reserved.

And the other American connection?  Simply the fact that Albi has been town-twinned since 1994 with Palo Alto, California!  In addition to some 1200 individual trips one way or the other, this arrangement has promoted many exchanges in such areas as music, dance and youth (twelve groups of 15- to 20-year olds for three weeks in each town), not to forget bicycling.  In 2009 a group of people from Albi and nearby biked in California.

An excellent way to end your visit with an overview reminder of Albi is to take a tour on the Tarn with a gabarre river boat.  Its name stems from the ancient Greek kaboros meaning 'lobster', but soon extended in Byzantium to include 'boat'.  Until the railway arrived and stole their freight business in the 19th century, the flat-bottomed gabarres sailed downstream as far as Bordeaux.  Some were dismantled there and sold for wood; others were painfully hauled back upstream by men, the riverside haulage paths being too slippery for beasts of burden.

A Gabarre on the River Tarn, Albi.  Courtesy of the Office de Toursime d'Albi.  All rights reserved.Le Pont Vieux, Albi.
                                A gabarre on the River Tarn                                             The Pont Vieux dating back to 1040

One highlight of the half-hour cruise is slipping beneath the Pont Vieux, indeed one of the oldest bridges in France since its planning dates from 1035 A. D., and its construction began in 1040.

Practical Information:  To consult the Tourism Office web site in English click here:
The office has abundant free documentation available, also in English.  Ask for the Albi Lifestyle Label file.

For information on the strolls Arthur guides to enable you to discover Paris Through the Ages
please go to our MARKETPLACE page and scroll down to the end.


Easy-to-Book banner

Make online hotel booking simple and affordable with
Save money because every hotel room offered is guaranteed to have the
best rate available on the Internet:  no reservation fees, great choices in
Paris, throughout France, Europe and the world ~  from 1 to 5 stars! 

Notes from Narbonne . . . Snowflakes to Suntans

                                                                                                                                                                   by Marlane O'Neill

Marlane O'Neill in Narbonne - Copyright Marlane O'Neill 2009.  All rights reserved.
As I sit here inside with all the windows wide open to the balmy spring air, the memories are fading of the depth of winter cold, hauling up logs of wood to burn in the fireplace that was lit most every day.  Here, in mid-April, the birds are chirping, the trees are full of fresh green leaves, the flower boxes have already lost their daffodils and we are averaging temperatures in the low 70s or mid to high 20s Centigrade.  I've put away my winter jackets and taken out the sandals and flip-flops.  The weather is so warm we have had a picnic or two recently.  It is Spring after all, and thankfully she acting her part. 

What is more surprising though is that we had this weather the first week of March!  However, March is a fickle month, and the Narbonne in the Snow.  Photo copyright 2010 by Marlane O'Neill.  All rights reserved.second week of March brought us unprecedented SNOW!  Not the light, melting snowflakes to which we are accustomed in the South of France; the kind that disappear on contact and light the sky up with lovely white twinkles.  This was a serious snowfall, so rare that the last time anyone could recall such an enormous deluge in Narbonne was over 30 years ago! 

It started on the first Sunday of March.  The initial warmth of the month quickly disappeared into freezing temperatures.  The sunny blue sky turned a deep leaden grey, and big fat snowflakes started blanketing the town.  Initially they melted into the ground.  But they kept coming and coming well into nightfall.  By the next morning there was about a foot – yes, a foot – of snow covering the city.  The quiet, white world of snow was enhanced by the fact that Narbonne is mostly closed on Mondays.  The city prefers to have a lively Saturday and a snoozy Monday.  Many shops and restaurants are closed but banks and such are open.  Thus, the light foot and automobile traffic kept much of the snow pristine.  So it made for wonderful picture taking and walking. 

page 4previous page                            next page page 6