Sunday, June 14, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (2)

June 13: Heresy, but Strikes Cancel Decadence

Albi is a small-ish French town with a centre made up largely of recycled brick-built Renaissance town houses on a medieval street plan. It also has some stunning views across its river, often involving its cathedral, which is also brick-built.

Whereas most great churches have to be read as works of faith or of art, this one sits there as a naked assertion of power. It looms like a fortress, unembellished on the outside apart from some gargoyles and a completely irrelevant stuck-on Gothic carved stone canopy on one side (and it lacks any Romanesque grace); as Angela commented, it could have been built in the 1930s in a fit of Art Deco sparseness. But it goes back further than that. Funded by the proceeds of the Inquisition, plonked down to assert Catholic authority amidst this notorious hotbed of heresy, it's a serious piece of building.

Until you go inside, anyway.

The stone rood screen, a mass of Gothic carving, at least fits the medieval theme. Likewise, the painting of the Last Judgement, lurking below the great cathedral organ, is a typical exercise in cheerful period religious sadism, and doubtless served to tell any lingering Cathars what was coming to them. But the trompe l'oeil painted decorations over most or all of the interior walls are just silly. Apparently, they were financed by the local woad merchants who made the town rich at one time and who also built most of those Renaissance mansions, which at least might explain the amount of blue involved.

Anyway – while the more offbeat wood-and-brick mansions, and the views across the river from either side, and the formal garden of the old bishop's palace, are all worth seeing, there are basically two plausible reasons to take an hour-long train ride from Toulouse to Albi. The cathedral is one; the world's most comprehensive collection of the works of local boy wonder Toulouse Lautrec would be the other. Well, before setting out on that journey, we'd been wandering round Toulouse, killing time before our train, when we witnessed what the French call a manifestation – a good old (if peaceable) political demonstration, complete with a small contingent of bored-looking cops observing with perspex shields at their feet, and unconvincing punk band playing from the back of a pickup van. We left them to it and caught our train. Then, when we arrived at the Toulouse Lautrec museum, we were reminded that such things have implications. It was shut because the public servants who staff it were on strike.


It was a hot day. We went off and drank some more liquid. Fortunately, the cathedral was our actual identified reason for going, and the town in general was sufficient bonus.

Evening, back in Toulouse: I'd had a minor yen for some moules, so on the basis of having seen it and one bit of online research suggesting it was good, we hit a local seafood restaurant. It was indeed good, and the moules were amazingly generous (as were the profiteroles). Some stuff does work out.

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