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August 17, 2017

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The Lautrec legacy

The alcoholic aristocrat Toulouse-Lautrec ruled Paris’ brothels, but he also called quiet Albi home

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, born a rich man and a descendent of the Counts of Toulouse, lived, painted, whored, drank and died, of syphilis, at age 36. Because he shares a birthday with me (and no one else of note seems to), I feel a certain gratitude.

The four-foot, six-inch Toulouse-Lautrec (a congenital condition prevented his legs from growing as an adolescent) painted in larger brushstrokes than he could have guessed. He died a failure in 1901, the usual irony: his understated painting of a red-headed laundress sold for $22.4 million in 2005.

Today he is the most celebrated son of the beautiful medieval city of Albi in the French southwest. Albi’s Musée Toulouse-Lautrec (Palais de la Berbie; Place Sainte-Cécile; museetoulouselautrec.net); adults €8 for permanent collection, €10 for exhibits, kids under 14 free; closed Tuesdays in low season) unveiled in 2012 with 1000 paintings, drawings, lithographs and posters, qualifies as the largest single-artist museum in the world. Housing it is the Berbie Palace, also known as the Bishop's Palace, a 13th-century castle overlooking the Tarn River and the majestic Pont Vieux, a 1000-year-old bridge.

The 750-room palace qualifies as a work of art in itself: its medieval rooms -- one reserved for torturing heretics -- vaulted arches and 13th-century tiled floors are as compelling as its art. A painstaking restoration turned up paintings under plaster, found floors under floors and discovered a secret passage from the bishop’s quarters to the nearby convent.

The galleries are a traipse through the life and works of the artist. His little-known early works, the tinkering of a young man, are at times broodingly beautiful. There are compelling portraits of Lautrec by his peers. One likeable work captures him as amateur chef -- yes, a gastrognome --toiling blissfully among the pots.

The collection concludes with Lautrec as Post-Impressionist interpreting Parisian life in the fin de siècle. So the bishop’s quarters have been taken over by the brazen cancan dancers and frumpy prostitutes of Montmartre. Resurrect the bishop and he might jump through a stained-glass window.

The Lautrec heritage doesn’t extend much further. His likeness turns up on a menu or two. The family home on Rue Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec has a simple plaque and no public access. The restaurant Le Lautrec (13/15 Rue Toulouse-Lautrec; restaurant-le-lautrec.com) on the same street has a reputation for using the artist’s recipes, but this is a fib: it’s merely one of the few restaurants left in France to treat foreigners like cretins.

The cathedral could eat Albi

In the 21st century, Albi is simply one of the loveliest cities in France. In the 13th century, it had been an episcopal city, a seat of high and tyrannical religious authority. And because it is such a superbly preserved medieval city, its core was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

The presiding icon is the hulking Sainte-Cécile cathedral, which looms over the city like a raging tyrannosaurus. If it were to topple over, you’d wonder if all Albi might be crushed under it. But the bullying exterior gives way to an interior packed like a treasure box spilling over with 16th-century wall paintings, Renaissance frescoes and religious tchotchkes.

The Bishop-Inquisitor, whose name was Bernard de Castanet, had erected this colossus to celebrate the vicious extermination of an estimated half-million Cathars, a runaway Christian sect that challenged Vatican doctrine and privilege in the 13th century.

When Rome’s “crusaders” asked how to distinguish Catholics from Cathars during the massacres, the response from Rome was “Kill them all. God knows his own.” And so they did.

Below the organ, the Last Judgment fresco revels in sinners undergoing a kickline of medieval grotesqueries, while a troupe of bewildered nudists appears to be wandering in the background.

Elsewhere in Albi’s downtown, the aforementioned convent with its secret passage has become the Musée de la Mode (17 rue de la Souque; musee-mode.com; adults €6, kids 9-14 €4; closed Mondays), a little jewel of a museum exhibiting French costume from the 17th to 20th centuries.

It comes driven by the singular passion of owner-curator Dominique Miraille: He purchased the wreck of the Covent des Annociades and spent 12 years restoring it. This would become home for the 10,000 mint costumes he’d been collecting since his 20s. Nothing wrong with an unbendable obsession.

History, artistry and sartorial craftsmanship fuse in these threads. The flamboyant costume of the late 18th century, the time of the French Revolution, will arrest anyone who grew up on The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Tale of Two Cities, and that rollicking screen swashbuckler, Scaramouche.

Albi’s monuments are impressive, yes, but the puzzle of medieval streets that weaves around them is their equal. The flaneur, wandering without purpose, becomes happily lost among cobbled streets, narrow passages, twisting alleyways, half-timbered shops and gabled houses (a sublime movie set, only the ghosts are real).

The city’s other essential stroll takes you along the banks of the Tarn an hour before sunset. It’s magic to the eye: Albi’s old bridge and skyline take on a hue that melts from ochre to pink, flattering even the galumphing cathedral. Lautrec should have painted it a hundred times.

Medieval and deliciously modern

The artist loved food and no wonder: It’s always a pleasure to eat in the French sud-ouest, which means duck every which way: foie gras of duck liver, duck breast, duck rissoles and never least, juicy, crispy-skinned duck confit preserved in crinolines of its own fat. There’s no shortage of duck in Albi.

At Le Goulu (Le Grand Hôtel d'Orlean, 1 Place Stalingrad; hotel-orleans-albi.com) “the glutton,’ which has been feeding Albighensians since 1902, chef Guillaume Arguel ventures beyond tradition in a handsome room with shades of grey and beige and splashes of vibrant modern art.

Elegantly plated dishes, such as deeply smoked herring atop julienned celeriac, follow through. A signature main is a juicily roasted lamb shank rising like a Gothic steeple out of a meadow of thyme, carrot puree, oyster mushrooms and savoury baby potatoes. Dessert of raspberry sorbet and chocolate pot de crème with butter crumble confirms the impression of a first-tier kitchen with second-tier prices.

Albighensians urge tourists to drink local, the product of Gaillac, the nearby wine region nowadays upgrading from plonk to wines of quality.

Exploring Gaillac, the traveller might pause at the Château de Mayragues (81140 Castelnau-de-Montmiral; chateau-de-mayragues.com), a boldly bio-dynamic winery offering top-of-the-line labels and a medieval chateau for overnighting. The property has been a vineyard since 1609. Owner Alan Geddes spent the past 30 years restoring the chateau and he applies the same energies to his wines.

Make time for the town of Gaillac in the heart of wine country. An amble through the Abbaye Saint Michel wine museum (Place Saint Michel; 
patrimoine@ville-gaillac.fr) is worth your time and lunch at the Le Table du Sommelier (34 place du Griffoul; latabledusommelier.com) on the square is a fine idea.

Proprietor Daniel Petrie was elected best wine waiter in France in 2004 and his restaurant is clever with the grape: every glass of wine comes tagged and labelled, and the customer can purchase the bottle at the restaurant’s in-house wine store.

Food is no afterthought: think puff pastry tartlet stuffed with fresh tomatoes and warm chèvre, baked seafood in Parmesan crumble, duck roasted in a foie-gras sauce and the sort of cheese tray you only find in France (one might come here only to eat cheese).

Pigeon: the new duck

Veteran travellers know France has the most beautiful countryside in the world, and Gaillac doesn’t disappoint. A distinct figure in this verdant, rolling landscape is the pigeonnier. The pigeon house has a long history in the vineyards: the birds were a delicacy on the plate and it was their poop that fertilized the soil. Some observers even claim it was responsible for the distinct flavour of the wine.

They came built of stone, brick and wood and clay, and in every style from farmhouse simple to chateau elaborate. The Tarn area alone has 1700 pigeon houses and a Circuit du Pigeonniers acts as a novel thread for tourists on the move. In some cases, pigeonniers have been converted to gites, cottages for rent.

Must-do day trips from Albi lead to bastides, the walled hill villages of Cordes-sur-Ciel and Puycelsi. All cobbled streets and half-timbered and arcaded houses, they crawl with tourist busloads in summer (oddly, neither are mentioned in Lonely Planet’s France).

Puycelsi was founded by Benedictine monks in the 10th century. Its ramparts stood up to devastating sieges in the 13th and 14th centuries. Restored in the 1950s -- its critics have called it “over-restored” -- its walls, streets and colours evoke a medieval fairy tale.

Cordes-sur-Ciel perches on a hill 25 kilometres from Albi. Classically photographed afloat in morning mist, it’s a ghostly medieval pile. But inside its walls, its sloping main street is a gauntlet of souvenir shops, cafes and hotels. In one of the better hotels, tourists can be seen tucking into foie-gras terrine under a canopy of 300-year-old wisteria.

Its principal tourist attraction is the Musée Les Arts du Sucre et du Chocolat (33 Grand Rue Raimond VII; artdusucre.fr), one of the world’s more original museums. It’s all about the oeuvre of Yves Thuriès, a famous pastry chef and chocolatier who runs 55 shops in Paris.

The building is a multi-storey sculpture garden, with entire street scenes, paintings, flowers, food, muskets, swords and a voluptuous ebony nude forged in sugar and chocolate. It recalls those miniature cities made of toothpicks and paper clips or souvenirs from Lourdes. One might give a hoot, but only because so remarkable a journey should end on a sweet note.

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