Austerity and splendour

What do most people think of when they hear the word Albi? Perhaps that it was the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  or the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars?  I think of a fortress-like church.  I recently went back to Albi for another visit.  Construction of the cathedral, for that is what the fortress-church actually is, started in 1282, at the end of the persecution of the Cathars.  The massive building was designed to intimidate and impress, to show the domination of the Catholic church over its surroundings.IMG_4705

It is very impressive, wouldn’t you agree?  The building is in a style called Meridional Gothic, distinctly different from the Northern Gothic style which gave us cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Rouen or Notre Dame de Paris.  The whole shell is built entirely of brick, and there are no flying buttresses – instead the semi-cylindrical abutments on the outer walls transfer the weight of the vaults to the massive foundations.

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It took over 100 years to build the shell of the building, and the massive belfry was only finished in 1480, almost 200 years after construction began!!  The belfry is 78 metres high!

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The cathedral is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world, an impressive 113 metres long, by 35 metres wide!  It totally dominates the old town, which of course was the aim.

The fortress aspect of the exterior includes details of military architecture, such as the observation tower below:

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There is hint of the more well known northern gothic style in the monumental porch on the southern entrance.  Unfortunately this was undergoing some restoration, so it isn’t all that visible.

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The interior of the cathedral is in stark contrast to the exterior.  Where the brick walls on outside carry no decoration, inside the church not a single square inch remains undecorated! (Or the inside of the church is decorated to within an inch of its life??)

The decorations on the vaults were painted by Italian artists between 1509 and 1512.  On a blue and gold background, the ceiling depicts the promise of salvation.  The west wall, below the organ loft, is taken up by a monumental depiction of the last judgement, painted by Flemish artists from 1495 to 1500.  Unfortunately, at one point a door was cut into this wall, which meant that the central portion of the painting was lost!  The paintings were a way of instructing a populace which was largely illiterate and/or did not know enough Latin to read the Bible.

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The painted walls have not been restored (read re-painted) since they were finished.  Some of the walls have been cleaned, removing centuries of dust and grime, and the difference is noticeable.  On the very right you see a wall which has not been cleaned – the colours are incredibly vibrant on the cleaned walls!

The rood screen and the choir enclosure are in the flamboyant gothic style and were carved by the best craftsmen of France during 1477 – 1484.  The detailing is incredibly fine and ornate!  The statuary on the exterior of the enclosure represents the Old Testament, whilst on the inside, characters from the New Testament are depicted.

The walls above the choir stalls are decorated with angels, and the fields between the angels are painted with mythical creatures.

A few of the angels have lost arms, but all of them have their heads.  And there seems to be something missing from the canopies which are in between the angels – but what?

And here is a statue of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of the cathedral:

I hope I’ve shown you enough of the interior of the cathedral to make you want to visit it for yourself!!  From Saint-Chinian, Albi can be reached by car in just under two hours – it makes for a good day trip.

The cathedral of Sainte-Cecile is an amazing work of art – do allow yourself enough time to explore it. An audio guide is available, which offers good explanations of the interior of the church.  From the tourist office, the Albi City Pass is available, which is a day pass for the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, located in the former archbishop’s palace.  The pass also gives reduced entry to a number of other museums and attractions in Albi.

I’ll write about the palace and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in due course – promise!!

Pit stops

Wikipedia defines a pit stop thus: “In motor sports, a pit stop is where a racing vehicle stops in the pits during a race for refuelling, new tyres, repairs, mechanical adjustments, a driver change, as a penalty, or any combination of the above.”

On a day out, a pit stop is for refuelling, perhaps a driver change, and definitely a visit to the bathroom!! 😀

In last week’s post I told you about my visit to the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret.  To get there, we took the scenic route, via Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet, and we stopped off in Mazamet to visit the farmers market.  The weather in Mazamet was somewhat grey and damp, but the market was interesting, and we found some tasty morsels to buy! 😉  After a brief pit stop at a cafe in Mazamet (coffee for some of us, hot chocolate for the others), and a long-ish walk back to the car, we set off to cross the Montagne Noire, the black mountains, for our real pit stop destination at Cuxac-Cabardes.  The drive was beautiful, the road snaking up the mountainside, passing into the low hanging clouds, higher still past little villages and the occasional cow, until we started to descend again.  On the other side of the mountains the weather was clearer, and by the time we reached Cuxac-Cabardes, the sun was peeking through the clouds!

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I had booked a table at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac, and when we arrived at 12:30, the dining room was already half full!  The welcome was warm and friendly, and soon we were seated at our table and handed the menus.  The Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac is in a modern building which dates from 2006.  The building belongs to the municipality – a previous hotel was destroyed in a fire, and the community leaders wanted to maintain the facilities and services for the village.

For us, Cuxac was the perfect lunch location – the village of Brousses was only 10 minutes further down the mountainside.  Three of our group went for the menu at €18.50, and I decided to opt for the Cassoulet, foregoing a starter.

Here are the starters:  goat’s cheese with honey and pesto in a crispy parcel:

IMG_4821 and salad with preserved duck gizzards and smoked duck breast:

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Two of my companions had the salmon filet, which was cooked to perfection!  For one of the servings, the tomato compote came in a separate little dish.

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Confit de canard (duck leg preserved in its own fat) was also on the menu, and very tasty it was too:

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Here’s the cassoulet I was served:

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The cassoulet comes ready prepared from Maison Escudier in Castelnaudary, and it is served in the traditional cassole.  

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It was absolutely delicious, and I managed to eat all of it!! 😀

I did have room for a little dessert after all that cassoulet:  two scoops of wonderfully creamy ice cream!

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There was also panna cotta with a fruit sauce:

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And then there was the house speciality – a dessert called crepiterole.  It sounds very droll, and is an amalgam of crepe and profiterole – a thin pancake (crepe), filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with hot chocolate sauce!

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We went for a little stroll around the village after that wonderful lunch, before setting off to our next destination, the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret, where we caught up with some people who, like us, had enjoyed their lunch at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac.  Small world??  No, more like ‘small village’!! 😀


Another recent day out found me in Albi, where the pit stop was eagerly awaited by my companions and myself, after lots of walking around this wonderful town!  The story of my visit to Albi is for another blog post, but here’s a picture to whet your appetite:

IMG_4711The restaurant L’Esprit du Moulin is in a little side street, not far from the main square and the famous cathedral.  I had eaten there many years ago, when it was called La Tete de l’Art and owned by a different proprietor.  Some of the decor has changed since then, but the lovely cosy atmosphere remains.  The restaurant is in an ancient building with lots of quirks, and the dining room is more of a series of rooms.

The tables were nicely laid with white tablecloths and napkins.  The lunchtime menu was €18.00, with a very good choice of dishes!  We ate two different kinds of starters – salad with crispy goat’s cheese, and salad with turkey gizzards – both very delicious!

Only two of us chose the same main course, so here are three pictures:  Salmon with beurre blanc sauce:

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Poached chicken breast with wild mushroom sauce:

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Sea bass with a herb sauce:

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All very nicely prepared and tasty!!

Nobody chose the same desserts, so there were four wonderful ways to end this meal:

Fondant au chocolat, a kind of chocolate sponge with a melting centre:

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Tiramisu:

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Nougat ice cream with a blackcurrant sauce:

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Caramelised apple tart (tarte tatin) with vanilla ice cream:

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A truly wonderful meal!!  So, suitably fortified, we continued our visit of Albi, and I’ll give you another sneak preview of what there is to come in a future blog post – watch this space!

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