HATS OFF - chapeau! as they say here - to Cynthia St Clair, doyenne of Campbell's Diary buffs and veteran competition winner, who correctly identified the missing link between the Midi city of Albi and the 19th Century cabaret artiste Ari
HATS OFF - chapeau! as they say here - to Cynthia St Clair, doyenne of Campbell's Diary buffs and veteran competition winner, who correctly identified the missing link between the Midi city of Albi and the 19th Century cabaret artiste Aristide Bruant and a Parisian dancer nicknamed La Goulue.
The link? Why, the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, probably best known for his posters advertising them. Toulouse-Lautrec came from Albi. And there you have it.
THERE'S A deceptively comfortable feel to Albi. The outskirts of the city are all ring roads and light industry, housing estates and commercial centres heaving with new-look national chains like Decathlon (sports goods) and Conforama (budget furniture), but the centre is pink and pleasing. A short walk from the city centre car-park beneath the Place du Vigan, through traffic-free streets lined with smart boutiques selling mostly designer underwear, brings you to the heart of the city, built on an eminence beside the river Tarn.
The heart of Albi is dominated by the cathedral. There's little natural building stone in the area, so the older buildings, including the cathedral, are constructed of brick. This gives a mellow and comfortable feeling to the ancient centre of Albi, and a unique character to the mighty cathedral, a building unlike any other in the world, as far as I know. Apart from the ornate entrance porch, the outside is mostly uniform and featureless. You look in vain for the virtuoso architectural ornament and tracery you associate with the 13th century, when building began. If you didn't already know it was a cathedral, you wouldn't immediately assume it was a place of worship. It doesn't proclaim the soaring, flamboyant faith of its founders. It's difficult to know what to liken it to. A barracks? A prison? A fortress? A grain silo, even?
Inside, it's different. There's all the familiar paraphernalia of a large Catholic church, the decoration, the colour, the sculpted saints, the pin-drop acoustics. You wander about thinking your own private thoughts about all this until Wham! (or Paf! as the French say) - and you're faced with the great medieval painted screen separating the two halves of the church.
The Last Judgement is in full swing, although in 1693 some gormless dolt cut away the redeeming central figure of Christ to make a doorway. As usual, it's all right for the great and good, who find their way to heaven, but for us sinners there are seven panels, each representing one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In our 21st century way we might think it quaint, but it certainly isn't pretty. A quick reminder of the Seven Deadly Sins? Gluttony, Envy, Avarice, Idleness, Anger, Pride and Lust. 'My object all sublime', sang Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, 'I shall achieve in time - to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime.' And so it is here. The Gluttonous, obese to the point of being unable to bear their own weight, stagger down to the cauldrons below to be rendered down into yet more fat. The Idle are sentenced to eternal hard labour. The Lustful, bare-breasted and priapic in extremis, tumble through space to the everlasting flames licking at their loins.
Indeed, the man- and woman-kind condemned to eternal punishment are depicted as a sorry lot. Here are the lame, the deformed, the disfigured, the one-legged, the scarred, the scabrous, life's walking wounded . . . we'd better move on.
NEXT DOOR to the cathedral is the slightly earlier Berbie palace, Berbie apparently being a corruption of the dialect word 'bisbia', meaning bishopric. Much of this very fine building is devoted to a Toulouse-Lautrec museum, and here are the originals of Aristide Bruant, La Goulue, Jane Avril, Valentin le DÃ©sossÃ© ('the boneless') and other once bright but now ghostly lights of the Paris demi-monde who so fascinated Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec, scion of a noble house who suffered childhood accidents which virtually deprived him of the use of his legs, had a house in a village called Boussagues, in the HÃ©rault dÃ©partement, many kilometres to the south-east of Albi. From Boussagues it was a short ride to Lamalou les Bains, a place with thermal mud springs reputed to be effective in treating venereal diseases among other conditions, and Toulouse-Lautrec was among those treated. In the later years of the 19th century a casino was built there, for the entertainment of wealthy sufferers while they underwent the cure. The casino is still working, although the gaming machines give way to a season of light opera - not, so far, The Mikado - in summer. Nowadays the village is the southern French centre for physiotherapy. There is a curious notion that Lamalou les Bains is much patronised by mafiosi injured in gun battles, so that when you see a man with his arm in plaster feeding a casino fruit machine you're not certain which is the one-armed bandit.
The clinics operate all the year round and by all accounts provide a marvellous service. Cynics wonder sometimes if patient numbers aren't artificially kept up by the profusion of cracked and uneven pavement slabs and low-level traffic bollards, a constant hazard to the many wheelchairs you see up and down the street. But you're safe enough on the terrasse of the the PMU cafÃ©, the very civilised French equivalent of the UK betting shop. I'm afraid we're not that interested in the turf, but their coffee is excellent. Having bought a paper from M.Guibert's clean, tidy and efficient Maison de la Presse across the road, we settle down to read the news from home and idly watch the passers-by. Here are the lame, the deformed, the disfigured, the one-legged, the scarred, the scabrous, life's walking wounded . . . but this is where we came in, isn't it? There's a moral somewhere here, if only I could get to it.
THANKS TO Louise Hill for this story.
Ever wondered why a French person will automatically barre le sept - that is, put a cross-stroke through the figure 7?
Here's why. When Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the 10 commandments graven on tablets of stone, he read each one of them in a loud voice to the waiting people of Israel. He came to the 7th commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife - or, if he spoke in French, which is doubtful, Tu ne convoiteras pas la femme de ton prochain.
Numerous voices were raised in opposition to this, shouting to Moses Barre le sept! Barre le sept!
Ho ho. Happy August.