Paul Wade walks the mediaeval streets of Albi, the formidable 'ville rouge' where Toulouse-Lautrec honed his genius.
'Cathedral or fortress?" No matter how many times I visit Albi, that is my reaction to the 79-metre tower and massive walls of Cathedrale Sainte-Cecile. The largest brick structure in the world when it was built in the 13th century, its militaristic architecture demonstrated to the defeated supporters of the heretical Cathar religious movement that the Catholic Church was back in charge.
Next door, the equally formidable Palais de la Berbie reinforced that statement. Today, the bishop's palace houses the revamped Musee Toulouse-Lautrec (museetoulouselautrec.net), the world's largest collection of works by the locally born artist - and proves that his social observation extended far beyond the Parisian demi-monde. Add works by Matisse, Dufy, Gauguin and more, and the palace's 17th-century gardens and terraces to admire, and this is a museum where we could spend all day.
The cathedral and palace are both built from handmade brick, as is virtually everything else in Albi, giving rise to the nickname of la ville rouge. Looking closely, we spot 500-year-old thumbprints here and there in the baked clay.
The winding streets in the mediaeval town offer more reminders of the past.
Half-timbered houses are topped with a soulheilou, a covered roof terrace-cum-storehouse that is perfect for drying ham as well as laundry. Street signs are in two languages: modern French and ancient Occitan.
Traditions also continue with food and wine. In Les Delices Lamarque (11 rue Sainte-Cecile), I am offered a hard biscuit - "We call them janots; we dip them in gaillac, our local wine." Even the grape varieties link to the past, with Occitan names - the white grape variety is the len de l'el and red is fer servadou.
And, half an hour from town is the Chateau du Bosc, where Toulouse-Lautrec spent a happy childhood in what is now the home of his great-niece, Madame Nicole Tapie de Celeyran. She is passionate about her ancestor and points out the animals in the Aubusson tapestries that inspired his early drawings and his caricatures of relatives, drawn on the wall of what is now the gift shop. She describes the leg injuries that inhibited his growth and explains: "Everyone in our family is short, and the redingotes [long overcoats] of the day made him look even shorter."
What we like best about Albi is the juxtaposition of old and new. The streets buzz with cafes and small, well-priced restaurants, and independent shops. In the remains of the 13th-century Saint Salvi cloister, where monks once meditated, students chat. And, in front of the cathedral, skateboarders flaunt their skills.
On our last day we visit the Musee de la Mode, a private collection housed in a converted convent that reflects fashion spanning 300 years.
"Who needs Jimmy Choo?" whispers my wife, as she peers at satin pumps from the 1830s. In the five cleverly lit galleries, highlights range from exquisitely embroidered waistcoats to a Mad Men-style 1950s cocktail dress.
Getting there Air France has a fare to Toulouse (the nearest major airport) for about $1790 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr on a Qantas aircraft), then to Paris (14hr) and then to Toulouse (80min); airfrance.com. There are various car hire companies at Toulouse airport (distance to Albi is about 70 kilometres) and there are regular trains and buses.
Mercure Cite Episcopale d'Albi is a former flour mill, with 12 of the 56 comfortable, modern rooms overlooking the Tarn and the city, Po river from $120 (breakfast extra). Phone +33 5634 76666, see mercure.com.
La Tour Sainte Cecile is a stylish four-room chambre d'hotes in a 16th-century brick tower; rates include tickets to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. From $160, reduced for subsequent nights; breakfast included. Phone +33 5814 05152; see toursaintececile.com.
La Reserve, on the outskirts of town, is a 22-room Relais & Chateaux hotel with lawns running down to the Tarn; from $250. Phone +33 5636 08080; see lareservealbi.com.
La Table du Sommelier (20 rue Porta) is a jolly bistro serving hearty portions. The owner, Daniel Pestre, who was once France's sommelier of the year, showcases the best local wines. Phone +33 634 62010; see latabledusommelier.com. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Bruit en Cuisine ( 22 rue de la Souque) has Albi's best view of the cathedral. Julien Callens's well-priced modern dishes also impress. Phone +33 6383 03795. Closed Sunday evening and Monday.
Clos Sainte-Cecile (3 rue du Castelviel) is a former schoolhouse where the playground is now a lovely shaded terrace and menus are chalked up on the old blackboard. Phone +33 5633 81974. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
At L'Esprit du Vin (11 Quai Choiseul), the Michelin-starred chef, David Enjalran, excels in intensely flavoured creative cooking. Phone +33 5635 46044; see lespritduvin-albi.com. Closed Sunday and Monday.