and the Albigeois

The next region we explored is called the Albigeois, because its main city is called Albi. We stayed about a half an hour's drive outside of Albi, in a small town called Cordes-sur-Ciel. It was founded in the thirteenth century by the Count of Toulouse as a fortified town during the battles between the Catholics and the Cathars.

(History lesson: The Cathars were a medieval religious minority, who mixed Christian beliefs with beliefs from other religions. For the Cathars, all life was a perpetual contest between God and the Devil, who were equal in power and used human beings as part of their struggle. The Cathar religion seems to have spread from the Middle East to the Balkans and from there to northern Italy, southern France, and the German Rhineland. Wandering preachers spread Cathar teachings. In France the Cathars were known as Albigensians, since Albi was their headquarters. By the start of the thirteenth century the Catholic pope was so concerned at the spread of Catharism that he launched a "crusade" against them, called the Albigensian Crusade. The same pope also encouraged Catholic preachers to do the same wandering around, after the example of the Cathars, and so granted formal approval to the Franciscan and Dominican orders of friars to do just that. Before that time, monks had mostly stayed put in their monasteries.)

Cordes-sur-Ciel is set atop a high hill, so the views over the surrounding countryside are spectacular. Its medieval buildings and streets are still very well preserved, and has become something of an artists' colony in recent decades.

Left: how Cordes-sur-Ciel looks as you approach it. Right: how it looks from the air.

The view over the countryside from the edge of town.

The medieval walls still surround Cordes-sur-Ciel, so you can enter the town only through narrow gates.

The medieval buildings lend a timeless feel to the town.

There are only two main streets (and both are very narrow) that run from one end of town
to the other. (Our hotel is the building with the awnings in the photo on the right.)

The covered marketplace, where fresh produce is sold weekly.

A model shows how Cordes-sur-Ciel looked when it was first constructed.

Cordes-sur-Ciel is a very cat-friendly town! Here a group are waiting for their dinner.

Matt spent his time in the archives in Albi, but Brian and Joe once again wandered around the old town.
They all agreed that of the southwestern cities they had explored, Albi was their favorite.

Albi is set along the Tarn River, and is nicknamed "the Pink" because of the hue that its local stone gives to the town.

The old town is dominated by its thirteenth-century cathedral. The cathedral is really unique, and looks much more like a fortress than other cathedrals of the same era in France (that are built in the High Gothic style). This may be due to the fact that in the thirteenth century Albi had just been conquered by Catholic forces from the Cathars, so the notion of a Catholic cathedral as a fortress may have seemed suitable to the times.

The interior of the cathdral. Left shows the roodscreen, a decorated screen that hid the altar from the
main part of the church, and was common to all medieval churches (in almost all of the churches that survive,
these roodscreens have been taken down). Right shows a painted image of the Last Judgment.

Next to the cathedral is the bishop's palace, with beautiful gardens (designed
by the same landscape architect who designed the gardens of Versailles).

Left: the bishop's palace seen from the river. Right: the view from the bishop's palace across the river.
(The bishop's palace now houses a museum dedicated to the art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,
who came from this area but made his fame as a graphic artist and painter in Paris'
avant-garde Montmartre district in the late nineteenth century.)

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Right: one of his paintings of the Moulin Rouge,
a famous dancehall and bar in the Montmartre district of Paris.

We took a small boat tour along the Tarn River that flows through Albi, and learned
that the river was a valuable transportation route until about a hundred years ago.

Numerous bridges cross the river at Albi.

On the right is a mill dam, created to harness the flow of the river for grain mills.

Left: a grain mill turned condo building. Right: a grain mill turned luxury hotel.

Of course, we also had to locate the churches dedicated to Saint Gerald in the region. There were two:
one at a village called Sieurac south of Albi, and the other at a village called Andouque, northeast of Albi.

The church of St.-Géraud in Sieurac.

The church of St.-Géraud in Andouque. (As you can see, it is fairly rough shape, and no longer used for services.)

As we drove along the dirt track that led us to this church, we passed a modern dam
with the unexpected name of "Barrage Saint-Géraud" ("Saint Gerald's Dam").

Not far from Cordes-sur-Ciel is another of the fortified hilltop towns of the later Middle Ages, this one called Castelnau-de-Montmiral. These towns were called bastides, and were built all across the southwest of France by the kings of France and England, who were fighting over control of the region during the Hundred Years' War. What distinguishes these new towns from most medieval towns is that since they were formally established as planned towns, they were laid out on a grid pattern with a central open square, rather than the hapharzard winding streets of most medieval towns.

This is the central square of Castelnau de Montmiral. Note the covered arcade that runs
all around the main square: this was also a typical feature of the bastide towns.

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