When you’re standing at the foot of Sainte Cécile cathedral in Albi and think about times when there was no electricity, the Earth was still thought to be flat, when it took a day to travel to Toulouse instead of an hour, and the tall red brick building represented most of the power in the city, you just about get a glimpse of just how impressive a place it was for many years. The height. The girth. The gargoyes. It would put the fear of God in you.
Our plan for the day was threefold – a trinity, so to speak – visit the cathedral, have a bit of lunch, visit the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. For my father, it’s discovery. For me, it’s a case of cultivating the kids against their will.
They drove me mad during the drive there. I got to the point of threatening to reach back and hitting whatever connected first. “Don’t make me stop this car!”, I growled. They pretended to care. For five minutes.
They pushed and shoved each other from the car park through the old town of Albi. My father looked at the buildings, I spent my time telling the little monsters to stop bouncing off curbs, leaping over bins and wanting to spend their pocket money on rubbish. They were briefed before entering the church: “The bishop will come and throw us out if you don’t behave. Make the sign of the cross now. No, you don’t have to believe in God, you just have to respect the fact that other people do.” Trying to put the fear of God in them.
We went 40 steps up to the treasure room. Gold and crystal crosses, bits of dead people – sorry, “relics” – and fancy hand-embroidered priests’ robes presented in tower rooms of the cathedral. Very nice. “Don’t touch *anything*!” We went on to the cathedral itself, audioguide glued to one ear. Well, my father, anyway. I was following the kids, trying to interest them in certain details and keeping them from sitting on anything old. They liked some of the decorations. They were even delighted to find the 12 apostles amongst the statues and decided one of the dozens of angels sculped in the frieze looked just like their cousin. “Look! Heidi! Seriously! I *swear* it’s her!”
They were very impressed by the 7 circles of hell depicted behind the altar. “There’s a special hell for people who like dessert???” La gourmandise – gluttony – is not exactly considered a mortal sin in France, you see.
We lit a bunch of candles for my Mum. It would have been her birthday – 71 – but she didn’t make it that far. She would have loved Albi. And she loved Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, so this trip was very much for her.
After a brief stroll through the town and a quick look through the covered market, we stopped at the brasserie Grand Café Le Pontié on the main square. It’s reputation is a bit checkered, but we were very well received and had a lovely lunch. There is a nice (though a bit expensive) children’s menu that includes grissini and cream cheese dip for the kid, a choice of child-sized main courses from the adult menu and a dessert (Pierre ordered a profiterole with ice-cream and chocolate sauce and loved it). We had traditional steak tartare and a rather nice bottle of Gaillac.
The restaurant must have been renovated recently – it looks really good and has a nice feel to it. There is a cozy couch/lounge area with a fire place and Pierre informed me there was a piano in the restrooms. (He sneaked off twice to play “Le petit poney” and chopsticks on it while we waited for dessert and coffee).
On we went to the museum. “Do we *have to*?” (Yes. You do.) I thoroughly enjoyed… OK, not quite. My father thoroughly enjoyed the visit while I dragged the youngest through the rooms, pointing out this and that, and doing my best to help him fill out the children’s artistic treasure hunt the museum provides for the younger visitors. I love museums, but I also believe that museums, like cinemas and book shops, are very personal pleasures that are hard to share with other people. I was there more as a tour guide and mother than in any personal capacity. I saw things I liked, but having one eye on the little hands of children (“There are SECRET ALARMS all over the room! And they will call the POLICE if you get too close because they will think you want to steal something!”) and trying to shift the listless carcass of a teenager through an exhibition takes rather a lot of your attention away from the art.
We arrived back at the ticket desk after a little over an hour to return our audio guides and completed treasure hunt forms. The man who gave me back my driver’s licence shook my hand and congratulated me on my children’s manners, saying how nice it was to hear “please”, “thank you”, and “Sir” from kids nowadays. “Excuse me, could you point out which kids you are talking about, exactly?” Yes. He really was talking about *my* kids. Well, I never…
It was not permitted to take photos in the museum, but I could not resist snapping a quick pic of a teenager being cultived under duress. It’s a beautiful sight.
We drove home just in time to get the start of Toulouse’s rush hour traffic, but managed to weave our way through and arrive home in The Sticks for gin o’clock followed by a nice dinner of chipotle wild boar stew with rice and a bottle of Pessac-Leognan.
PS: No children or teenagers were harmed in the production of this blog post. They may, however, have gone to bed a little smarter that the night before. If you are interested in getting more information about the UNESCO heritage site that is Albi, visit the website of the Albi Tourist Office or UNESCO. A trip is definitely worth it.