Emma Cook, The Guardian, October 26, 2015
No croissants for me; today I’m eating smoked salmon and charcuterie for my breakfast outside Alchimy, a boutique hotel and brasserie that would sit comfortably in any fashionable Parisian street.
But this isn’t Paris; it’s the tiny medieval city of Albi, around 85km north-east of Toulouse, in the Tarn départment. It’s an ancient place of gothic cloisters and half-timbered houses, the latter built from pretty red brick, earning it the name la ville rouge.
The past is very much present in Albi. For centuries, residents of the city would take clay from the banks of the Tarn river and make their own bricks; in many of the houses you can still see medieval thumbprints preserved in the baked clay.
Albi’s pretty red brick buildings earned it the nickname la ville rouge. Photograph: Alamy
It was said that the people of Albi could build anything in brick – and they weren’t joking. Albi’s 13th-century cathedral – Sainte-Cécile – is the largest brick building in Europe. Its austere exterior looks more like a fortress than a place of worship.
Alchimy, in a red-brick square a stone’s throw from the cathedral, opened in February and is the first boutique hotel in town. In red brick and cream, with grey shutters, its exterior fits quite harmoniously with the rest of the pretty Place du Palais but, inside the hotel, it’s a different story. The decor is gleefully 21st century, a confection of mirrors, crystal and glass, with clashing pops of colour – tomato and turquoise walls and magenta armchairs. There’s not a brick in sight.
This is no boutique brand, however, but a one-off, and a family affair; brother and sister Nicolas and Laura Miquel were both born in Albi and moved back to their home city with the aim of creating something different from the traditional hotel. The art deco building dates from the 1920s and was, for a time, a lawyer’s office, but it had stood derelict for 20 years when their uncle, Laurent Miquel, bought it.
Bedroom at Alchimy
It all feels opulent but is reassuringly small-scale: there are only five bedrooms, which are cool and grey, with acres of marble and mirror in the bathrooms, and they are reasonably priced given the level of comfort, with doubles from €148 including breakfast.
The contemporary theme continues with the menu, which is more Mediterranean than traditional Gascon. I dine on jambon ibérique with Basque peppers, gazpacho, and ravioli stuffed with langoustine. I manage to fit in a meltingly light choux bun before collapsing upstairs in my supremely comfortable supersize bed.
Albi old town. Photograph: Alamy
The next day, on my way to the cathedral, I stop off at Musée de la Mode, a fashion museum in a converted convent with some beautiful couture pieces from the past two centuries – from Victorian day dresses to 1960s Givenchy. At a vintage shop next door, collection owner Dominique Miraille sells off some of the old exhibits, and I can’t resist a 1950s handbag – for less than €15.
In the early evening I go to the main Place Sainte-Cecile for some live music; in summer, Albi holds a guitar festival, Pause Guitare, at which Bob Dylan played this year. There’s also a tango festival, Arte Tango, which starts this weekend.
Albi’s most famous son is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born at Hotel du Bosc, a grand mansion in the centre of town. He spent time here as a young boy recuperating from health problems – after two falls, he broke both legs and stopped growing. Unable to walk or ride horses (his passion), he began to draw.
Confetti at the Toulouse Lautrec Museum, Albi, where the artist was born. Photograph: Alamy
More than 1,000 of his paintings, posters and drawings are housed in the Palais de la Berbie next to the cathedral. It is the world’s largest collection of his work, covering everything from his early drawings of horses to his years in Montemartre and the iconic theatre posters which still look bold and modern. I only scratched the surface in a morning but you could easily spend a day here.
The real joy is enjoying his works without the crowds – an exhibition of this breadth would be packed out in Paris or London. It feels like a rare privilege wandering through one almost empty room after another, nose to nose with Lautrec’s intimate interiors of Paris theatres, bedrooms and brothels. So where else to eat my last lunch than the Le Lautrec restaurant, (13/15 Rue Toulouse-Lautrec, +33 5 6354 8655) in the former stables of the Toulouse-Lautrec family home nearby. Sitting in the wysteria-covered courtyard, shielded from the afternoon heat, I enjoy a cassoulet spiced with saffron and Tarbais beans – a traditional Gascon classic. But it’s the dessert I’m really looking forward to; a recipe for tartouillat aux pommes et Armagnac, created by Toulouse-Lautrec. Turns out he wasn’t just one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, he was an impressive cook, too. Lautrec loved food – and drink, of course – and even published a recipe book, which was well regarded, except for the excessive amounts of alcohol he would often add.
His recipe for apple pudding is heaven, minus the half bottle of brandy he apparently recommended in his original.
Afterwards, I sit in one of the cobbled squares close to the hotel; the small bars and restaurants are full, even though it’s mid-week. The glorious rural Midi-Pyrenees are a 30-minute drive away; when I head out there on my last afternoon, there’s barely another car on the road – just rolling fields of sunflowers, vineyards and sleepy medieval villages. You won’t see any coach parties around here, despite the area’s rich history.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Emma Cook from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.