|Albi, France Guide
|This pretty town only an hour's train ride from Toulouse has a violent history, easily forgotten amid its many beauties.
Albi, 77km (48 miles) northeast of Toulouse and 200 km northwest of Montpellier (map), lies just south of Les Causses, the limestone plateaus of France's Massif Central. The Tarn River winds its way through the town on its path westward to join the Garonne.
The great Palais de la Berbie and the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d'Albi are impressive reminders of the terrible events that took place here: the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). This series of military operations was ordered by Pope Innocent III, supposedly against the Cathars, who believers in a reformed Christian church based simply on the Gospels rather than on the doctrines of the Church of Rome. Religion, politics, land and wealth were all involved in the struggle, but this mattered little to the hundreds of innocent Cathars burned at the stake.
After the horrors, Albi prospered as a commercial center for the sale of woad (Isatis Tinctoria), a medicinal plant whose leaves produced a popular blue dye.
What to See & Do
Today Albi is a surprisingly pretty and pleasant town with a fascinating museum-worthy medieval center. Come to see the gargantuan fortress-like Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d'Albi, begun in 1282 after the Albigensian Crusade. Its massive and severe red-brick exterior contrasts completely with its vast interior, which is lavishly decorated with frescoes, carved wood and stone, statues and vaults.
Le Marché Couvert (1905) is an excellent example of France's turn-of-the century brick-and-cast-iron central markets, still very much in use today, especially on Saturday, when the weekly market fills the streets outside as well. Beneath the triangular original market building is a modern supermarket (2007), and beneath that, three levels of parking space for cars.
The aptly-named Pont Vieux ("Old Bridge," 1035) across the River Tarn is one of those marvelous medieval engineering works built to last: after more than a thousand years, it's still in use.
There's one Intercités night train between the Gare d'Albi-Ville and Paris's Gare d'Austerlitz. The journey takes 10 hours (no sleeping cars). Most travelers prefer to travel to and from Paris via faster TGV or Ouigo trains with a connection to a TER train at Toulouse, about six hours.
The Gare d'Albi-Ville is a kilometer (6/10 mile, a 15-minute walk) southwest of the Jardin National at the city's center.
Albi's other train station, Gare d'Albi-Madeleine, north of the city center, is open only weekdays for local passengers.
Bus to Cordes-sur-Ciel
The medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, a 32-minute ride northwest of Albi, is a fine destination for a day-trip. LiO Bus 707 makes the 32-minute trip three times daily from Albi's central Place Jean Jaurès bus station, terminating at the La Boutellerie stop in Cordes. A one-way ticket costs €2.
Local City Buses
The historic center of Albi is small enough to be easily walkable for those of normal mobility. Indeed, on foot is the best way to see Albi.
But if you need a lift, local public transport in Albi is operated by LibéA Mobilités, which operates navettes (shuttle buses) from the Gare d'Albi-Ville to locations in the city center, including the Place Jean Jaurès, Jardin National, the Cathédrale, Palais de la Berbie/Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, the Marché Couvert and more. Tickets cost €1.10, can be bought on the bus or via the M'Ticket smartphone app by Ubitransport.
The historic center has numerous cafés, restaurants and bars good for sustenance of all kinds. Many are closed on Sunday, and some on Monday.
Place de Vigan
This broad central plaza on the eastern edge of the historic center has several cafés with outdoor seating good for a drink and a rest.
Le Marché Couvert
In any French town, find the market and you'll find restaurants serving the freshest dishes at low to moderate prices. Albi's wonderful Marché Couvert is no exception: it's ringed with good, simple restaurants serving more interesting menus. Not all are open every night, but most are at lunch.
Rue de la Piale
One block south of the Place Sainte-Cécile and the cathedral, this short, narrow street features three small restaurants offering outdoor dining and varied menus at moderate prices.
Cloître de Saint-Salvy
Hidden in the Place du Cloître de Saint-Salvy at the west end of the Collègiale Saint-Salvy church are two quiet restaurants beside a historic arcade good for indoor or outdoor dining.
Albi boasts dozens of quality places to stay, from simple bed-and-breakfast houses to posh Relais et Châteaux resorts. Some are near the Gare d'Albi, others are close to the Jardin National in the city center. Here's how to find them: