There was a Rip Van Winkle-esque feeling to our days in Morlaas, chomping on duck hearts and supping fine wine, but we escaped the sunny haze of indolence only two days older, not twenty years. From Morlaas to Millau, it was due to be our longest day of driving, around five hours uninterrupted or a few more if we took some leisurely breaks.Leisurely breaks being one of the over-riding themes of the trip, we naturally took this option, and the majority of our leisure time was spent at the town of Albi.
Albi had come recommended to us by Claire’s father, both because it was directly en route and because the cathedral was supposed to be nice. We first stopped for lunch at an out-of-town shopping centre, and crazily almost continued with the drive: there was a long way to go and we wanted to crack on. The decision to pop into the town we were already in was a very lackadaisical one – eight people had no strong opinion, and I reckoned, hell, why not? So, hell, why not, we popped in.
It always helps when the sky is blue, the sun is warm, and the air sings with the excited cry of children and jiggles with the skimpy tops of French girls, but Albi seemed awfully nice. It has a charming historic city centre, which we barely explored due to our limited time, but would certainly reward a couple of days of amiable strolling and ice-cream eating. We found an underground car park, and surfaced at a square, in which was a grid-like fountain, shooting up jets of water. Like excited children, most of the group skipped through the plumes of water, and if we’d left Albi there and then I think most would have declared the visit a success. But there was still the small matter of the cathedral to visit.
Albi Cathedral – or the Cathedral of Saint Cecilia (Cecilia was basically a hard-to-kill martyr from the Roman era, and who became the patron saint of musicians by singing to God before her death) – is a gloriously unsubtle presence in Albi. Purporting to be the largest brick building in the world (I know of two that disagree), it is a fortress-like construction started in the late 13th Century. The fortress-like design is no coincidence – Albi was at the centre of the anti-Cathar crusades, that saw the likes of Carcassonne besieged and tens of thousands of people in the region killed. After the Catholic Church has rooted out most of the Cathar heretics, they built Albi Cathedral as a show of power, reminding everyone who was in charge. It’s truly a beast: a brutish brick construction that imposes its will upon the surroundings. While I would never describe it as pretty – though the side porch is very ornate – it certainly makes an impression.
As does the interior – for totally different reasons.
I’ve talked a few times of the Wow moment that Wonders should induce, and walking into Albi Cathedral certainly qualifies. Wow. Everywhere inside is exquisite, colourful details, way over the top, but tastefully so, never garish, never gaudy. As a 21st Century citizen who has seen many cathedral interiors, I was impressed; as a 13th Century peasant who has only seen the inside of farms, I can only imagine the trembling awe it must have inspired. There’s so much to see that it’s quite overwhelming, and I fairly quickly made my mind up – I will have to return. Our trip to Albi was just a passing one, and not nearly long enough to absorb this amazing interior. Another one to add to the Wonder list, I reckoned.
Interestingly, the group of nine had a mixed response. All thought it impressive, and all appreciated the terrific contrast between stark exterior and elaborate interior, but the depths of that impression varied. Mark, for example, declared it better than Carcassonne, in his opinion, but Colin reckoned it wasn’t a stand-out piece if compared to various Italian works. I can only go my own experience, and my own lasting impression, and for that reason I’ve stuck with my decision to add it to my candidate Wonder list, for a return visit, but I wonder how it will fare after spending time in Italy.
As with everywhere we’d visited, all of us would happily have spent a week in Albi, but time was pressing, and two hours had to be our limit. Another treat was ahead anyway – the Millau Viaduct.
My review deals with my very favourable impression of the Millau Viaduct, my new no. 3 (at time of writing) World Wonder, but what I don’t cover there is the sheer delight that was the town of Millau. If not for its amazing bridge, none of us would ever have heard of Millau, but after a couple of days there I think it became everyone’s favourite town of the trip. A petite place of around 20,000, with a charming historic centre of narrow, winding, virtually pedestrianised streets, it certainly had an awareness of tourism ,but was not at all infested with them. Its entire air was unassuming, with plenty of leisurely bars and cafes, and a ton of charm round every little street.
The town is just the beginning too, and if you feel like venturing beyond the charming centre and breaking free of serene sunshine days of supping coffee, the Tarn Valley offered trips down the river, or paragliding, or the Micropolis – which I now know to be the “City of Insects”. There are museums, notably a glove one as Millau likes to remind you it is good at making gloves, and nearby are the caves where Roquefort cheese is made. And all these are just tasty sprinklings to that succulent cherry on the top that is the Millau Viaduct. Sure, if you’re after the Ibiza experience, Millau might be a little mellow for you, but if you are otherwise a human being I could bear to speak to, Millau is a delight.
Everything about Millau was a hit, from the cheap pizzas and very cheap wine we ate on our first night, to the farmers’ market we stumbled upon on our first morning, to my first steak tartare experience in a lovely courtyard restaurant. Ok, the jazz festival that appeared to be on seemed to only highlight somewhat below par musicians in a town square, but we kept clear of that. And the construction site next to our hotel meant a very early wake up call, but its testament to Millau that none of that bothered us.
From our favourite town of the trip to our least... Avignon was next. Avignon was the scene for my third Wonder of the trip, the Palace of the Popes, but it wasn’t to be. This time of year, Avignon has a large arts festival, one the world’s largest. Terrific, you might think, but after hours of driving and on a day that reached 36 degrees, it wasn’t quite what we were after. Crowds of tourists, swarms of performance tossers, and a general sense of total fatigue were not what we after. Because of the festival, we weren’t staying at Avignon, instead with a hotel at nearby Nimes, and so we couldn’t even freshen up upon arrival. It was simply a few hours in a hot car followed by a few more hours trekking around a crowded town centre. Still, I got a nice photo of the group outside the Palace. Well, except Justin.
On a different day, at a different time of year, with a different temperature, and with the benefits of a shower and some air con in advance, Avignon would have been wonderful. Like with everywhere we visited, I could see that it held the promise of loads of charm, with a historic centre and some very impressive buildings. The Palace of the Popes too has a great facade, although an hour wandering around the interior didn’t inspire me as much. But we visited it at the wrong time and in the wrong mood, which is why we were all happy to not return the following day, as originally planned.
This means that I haven’t officially visited Avignon’s Papal Palace, as I need to visit every place twice before offering a review, and usually need to feel I’ve done the place some sort of justice. I’m happy to revisit some time in the future, when I can enjoy it, and not feel hot or bedraggled or that I’m doing it out of a sense of obligation. I saw Carcassonne at its best, I saw the Millau Viaduct at its best, but the Papal Palace was not seen in the best light. To have forced myself, and the others, to visit it the following day, would not have been fun. And the whole point of the holiday was for fun (and food).
Instead, we spent the next two days in Nimes. And Nimes was a pleasure.