For years I’ve wanted to visit the Toulouse Lautrec museum in Albi in Midi-Pyrénées, a region of southwestern France that we had never really visited. I passed through this area on my first trip to Europe back in 1991, but at the time I didn’t even know who Toulouse Lautrec was. Later in Paris, at the d’Orsay Museum, I discovered his famous late 19th century pastels of prostitutes and dancers.
From Nimes to Albi is quite a trek. We thought maybe a three-hour drive, but what the heck, we haven’t done much driving and it would be a new region of France to explore. As it turned out it was just one of those days where everything was just a little more difficult and took just a little more time than planned. The first hassle was crossing Montpellier to find the A730 heading north from the A9. I still don’t know if exit 31 or 32 is the better choice.
The second delay was more of a pleasant detour. I’ve had a picture of the Millau bridge, Viaduc de Millau, on my desktop for years. I don’t even remember why. I didn’t really put it together that we were heading for that particular bridge until we actually saw the sign with the picture of the bridge. On French auto-routes they always have signs with pictures of what the area is known for – chateau, lake, cows, honey, etc. Sometimes it’s a challenge trying to guess what the attraction is supposed to be, but this one was obvious. It looked just like the picture on my computer. Well, you can’t get this close and not see it, just another 15 kilometers up the auto-route.
Dizzyingly high, it’s an impressive sight well worth the detour and the €6.40 each way to cross, €8.20 in the summer. The rest stop offers a great vantage point you can hike up to. For a light lunch try the capuchins sold at the snack shop, made-to-order crepe-like cones filled with savory gourmet fillings such as smoked trout or Roquefort with pear. Roquefort is actually from this region of France.
Another two hours on a winding country road, beautiful rolling farm land, slow cars, through quaint towns and we finally make it to Albi. Most striking are all the red brick buildings. Even the cathedral is a gigantic brick structure that the guide book describes as a fortress. Inside, every square inch is painted. This is how cathedrals looked in the day. The elegant, bare stone in many cathedrals today is really not historically accurate. Most impressive is the intricately carved grand choer and particularly gruesome mural of the The Last Judgment.
Finally, Toulouse Lautrec. The Albi museum shows the range of his works from earlier times when he dabbled with impressionism or painted horses and favorite pets to his most well know late 19th century Paris posters and candid portraits of dancers and prostitutes. If you’re a fan, it’s a must see.
Now the day is getting late. Thank goodness for the long days of June. I want a picture of Carcassonne in late afternoon light. More detours to try to find gas. US credit cards without the Euro-chip do not work at many gas stations, which also happen not to be attended so you can’t pay cash either. Finally we find gas but it’s another hour drive on a single-lane road through the mountains following a tiny 15 year old Renault that, on tires the size of a mountain bike’s, can’t take curves at more than 30 kilometers per hour.
We finally reach Carcassonne at around 8PM. Amazingly it takes a while to find a view of the medieval cité. How can you miss a medieval cité on a hilltop? According to Lonely Planet the view is the best thing about Carcassonne. We find it, do a quick ooh and aah, take some photos and hit the road. It’s still another two hours home.
Heading east on the A9 with the setting sun behind us, the light is amazing. The vineyards, villages, stone houses, well, everything glows. This continues for more than an hour until finally around 9:30PM the last rays fall behind the low hills.
Back in Calvisson we have the gardianne de taureau that we made the day before waiting for us. With a side of Camargue rice and of course a glass of Cotes du Rhone, it’s a perfect end to an epic day.