France: Land of the Musketeers

WHERE IS the world’s largest brick building? The Cathedral Metropolitana, in Medellin, Colombia? The Qabus tower in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran? Or Battersea Power Station?

All lay claim to it, as well as the Basilica of Albi. Well, having now been to Albi, all I can tell you is that the other contenders are ‘aving a laff.

Built as a fortress against the heretic Cathars (and taking two centuries, from 1282 to 1480, to finish) Sainte Cecile dominates the skyline of Albi in a picturesque way that helps make it one of France’s most visited attractions.

Its stern exterior is uniquely striking, a towering fortress that reminds you this is the land of the Three Musketeers, where even priests were fighting men.

The wonderfully ornate interior is one of the few in the country to escape the desecrations of the anti-church French Revolution.

Frescoes dating back to the Middle Ages (including an enormous Last Judgement from the 1470s), more than 200 statues, one of the most beautiful organs in France and a frescoed ceiling that is the largest Italian Renaissance painting in France all deserve superlatives of their own.

Staggering out under the weight of all that holy art, the perfect counterpoint lies a short distance away in the Toulouse-Lautrec museum.

His famous drawings of Paris low-life, humanising prostitutes and absinthe drinkers, are on display here in the town where he was born in 1864.

The unique collection includes some sketches from his prodigal youth and all 31 cabaret posters that brought him fame during his lifetime. For an odd souvenir, look for a copy of his cookbook, giving a glimpse of the fun he and his artistic pals had out of life.

If that gives you a thirst, you’re in the right country, and one of the right parts of it, to do it justice. This is Armagnac country and the three main areas of Haut-Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Bas-Armagnac lie a picturesque drive away.

There’s no better way to explore the countryside than by car, visiting pretty towns with their own unique characters.

Auch, once the capital of Gascony, has a maze of old streets and the fine Gothic cathedral of Sainte-Marie. Cahors is a jumble of Roman and medieval ruins, with the fortified Pont Valentré being a favoured spot for photographers.

If the smaller towns pale, Toulouse itself beckons. The centre for the European Airbus programme, as well as a university town, it is a multicultural city with an intimate heart, strong culture and young nightlife.

Called ‘The Pink City’ because of its brick buildings, it contains several notable cathedrals and a delightful 18th century Capitole.

The Capitole’s plaza hosts morning markets and is surrounded by shady arcades with some excellent cafés: check out the decor in the Grand Café de l’Opéra.

The whole area could have been designed for people watching.

Toulouse has the most interesting collection of 16th and 17th century Renaissance buildings in France and a walking tour taking in these merchants’ homes, built on the wealth of indigo, is worth the effort.

The River Garonne divides Toulouse and river cruises are another great way to explore.

Find another world Just outside the city, Cité de l’Espace reminds us of Europe’s fledgling space programme. A scale model of the Russian space station Mir and interactive exhibits allow you to experience space travel for yourself without leaving the ground.

From the Middle Ages to the Space Age in one giant step …

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