We have been on holiday now for 24 days. We are starting to work our way back up France .
Our journey to Albi took us through early morning rushhour in Toulouse. Sally sat nav told us there was a two minute delay on the route and this was confirmed by the overhead gantries. Signs told the french to respect the men in orange - the road workers. They did none of this weaving in and out , changing lanes from the fast one to the slip road with impunity.
Well – it’s horrible histories again and what have we got. It’s now the somewhere between the 12th and the 14th century . The catholic church is centred on Rome and on the Pope. All of Europe is Catholic. It’s David versus Goliath. It’s the minnow San Marino against Barcelona in the European Cup Final. There is only ever going to be one winner in this match.
The pomp and ceremony, the statues, the relics and the ritual of medieval Catholicism against a tiny community of simple folk trying to eke out a living weaving in a tiny corner of France. They want to live a quiet life
doing their own thing. Don’t we all? And they are not that enamoured with veneration of saints, statues ancient relicts – a bone of some saint or other or a piece of the real cross. They believe in two gods. One evil who created the world and everything in it. Shades of Satan then. And the other good. They want to be good but they feel they don’t need the hierarchy of the church nor any of its trimmings. They believe that their bodies are vile but their souls need liberating and this happens sometimes after death if you are lucky. If not sadly you get reincarnated again. A bit at odds with church thinking of the day. There is trouble ahead.
To make matters worse they believe men and women are equal – shock horror. That is a touch radical and that they don’t need clergy. That does the local parish priest out of a job. It’s a head on collision with Rome it’s heady mixture for disaster. Marriage wasnt important and whilst the church believed that procreation was a duty, the Cathars believed that it was sinful to bring another life in to this vile world to
suffer before they reached perfection. Oh dear you know this is never going to end well.
They believed that suicide is painless and it makes many changes to their vile bodies leaving them free to get to a better life in heaven. What happens next is the usual inquisition, The Catholic church call them heretics. The Cathars feel it’s the catholic church that is the heretic . The only result is that the church is going to win whatever happens.
The pope sent out a crusader army under the command of the Abbot of Citreauz. Beziers was besieged in 1209. When killing the inhabitants the soldiers were told to kill everyone and God would know his own. 20,000 were killed CAthar and catholic alike.
The Inquisition was established in 1234 to uproot the remaining Cathars in Carcasson and other towns and continued right through the whole of the 13th century and into the 14th. It succeeded in crushing Catharism as a popular movement and driving its remaining adherents underground.Cathars who refused to recant were hanged, or burnt at the stake. A bloody history but one that was repeated many times in the name of religion. The Cathars
were sort of written a little out of history until recently . Melvin Bragg did a talk on it some years ago. A few streets are now renamed the Allee of the Martyrs, the Allee of the Cathars . And this part of France now seems to have come to some kind of peace living with its Cathar history.
This Cathar history was one of the reasons we always wanted to get to this part of France to see Albi a city featured heavily in the Albegensian crusades.
Our journey was fairly straightforward. A couple of hours and hopefully we would have found our destination right in the shadow of the great cathedral. It was going to be a touch hit and miss. The aire de camping car was small with only about 10 / 12 spaces for motorhomes. It was free and it was possible to stay for 48 hours. We knew we would need luck. We could arrive and there would be plenty of space or equally it would be full to the gunwhales. We could just about see the aire below us when we arrived but couldn’t work out how to
get to it. We did what we normally wouldn’t do. Went down a one way street to it. There was one space left easily accessible for Suzy and another in a corner better suited to a VW camper. Had we arrived ten minutes later there would have been none . It really is hit and miss.
The cathedral towered above us. OK then so we are back to superlatives. Huge – the tower towered above us heading as if skywards. Impressive - it is built of brick and is apparently the largest brick building in the world. It took 200 years to complete. It looks like a fortress and feels like one. You felt cocooned inside against the world outside. . It is an all powerful symbol that must have put the fear of God into everyone who saw it. We entered via the main door in the side. This is unusual for a church. Under a gothic stone structure which sadly looked a little out of place. Inside it inspires you. Gothic through and through. High lofty ceilings painted rather than carved in stone. There were the usual side chapels but they did not intrude into
the space. We lit a candle at one to St Cecilia. Whether you were religious or not it inspired in a way many churches and cathedrals do not.
There were renovations going on in and out of the building. Some of the outside had scaffolding hiding its raw beauty. Inside it hid the carved stonework and woodwork of the choir stalls. But for 2 euros each we could go into the grand choir and see the high altar and the medieval stonework. It was a stunning space behind the rood screen and we could take photos. Better still there were not many people about so none of the pushing and shoving of some spaces. For a further 1 euro each you could go down to the crypt. We didn’t bother. Despite being dark inside – the windows were so high up in the building it has to be one of the more awe inspiring interiors I have ever had the privilege to see. Even if you are not religious it is a one off building which has the ability to move you. To feel for the builders who built it, the brickmakers who made the millions of bricks for
its structure and for the people who worshipped within its walls. If a building can speak to you Albi shouted.
Outside was quiet . The town seemed dead. Shops were sadly closed as we walked to our next destination the museum dedicated to Toulous Lautrec who was born in Albi. We looked at the 8 euro entry fee and changed our minds. Inside were some paintings but we felt it a bit pricey and didnt seem worth the entry fee.
Instead we walked around the gardens of the museum which were free. The walk took us along the battlements with views over the river and into the gardens below. Box hedging designed in fleur de lys shapes, white climbing roses clambering up the walls. The museum was again built in the solid brick style which complimented the cathedral behind it.
Albi was a lovely place to while away an hour or two but it was time to move on. We are now in Bastide country and the next part of our tour would take us from bastide to bastide.
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