Viewed from the right bank of the River Tarn, Albi's Cité Épiscopale appears as a vast man-made structure that is both harmonious and powerful. With the Cathedral of Sainte Cécile as its high point, it dominates the town with the incandescent red-gold colour it derives from the unique material used to build it: the Toulousain brick"that gives it its extraordinary visual unity.
The Cité Épiscopale grew up in the 13th century around the Cathedral of Sainte Cécile and the bishops' palace, the Palais de la Berbie. The architecture worthy of the greatest fortresses was designed to show the power of the Church, which had emerged victorious from the long crusade against the Cathars (also known as the Albigensian crusade).
The largest brick cathedral in the world
The bishops of Albi were making a bold statement, because Sainte Cécile is the largest brick cathedral in the world. Its walls form a massive surrounding structure, 2.5 metres thick at the base and 40 metres high. The building is 114 metres long and surmounted by the prodigious soaring structure of the keep and bell tower that rises 78 metres in the air, 10 metres higher than the towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
Inside, this masterpiece of Southern Gothic architecture boasts some sophisticated features, notably its painted interior decoration covering a surface area of almost 2 hectares in all. A down-to-earth statistic that in no way diminishes the very strong spiritual dimension of Albi Cathedral.
Inside the bishops' palace, the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
Adjoining the Cathedral of Sainte Cécile, the Palais de la Berbie stands like a citadel. Construction of this building began in 1228. Until the 1300s, the palace was nothing less than a castle, with a keep, towers and defensive walls. From the 17th century onwards, the fortifications on the Tarn side were opened up and the palace was embellished with a French-style formal garden in a balcony location overlooking the river.
The Palais de la Berbie owes its fame to the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec which has been housed there since 1922. It is home to the largest collection in the world of works by the artist, who was born in Albi. In the 2000s, the museum underwent several phases of extension and renovation. After 10 years of work, it reopened permanently in spring 2012.
The Cité Épiscopale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, forms an urban complex of 20 hectares, a medieval ensemble which also includes the Church of Saint Salvi and its cloister (11th to 13th century), the Pont Vieux (11th century) and the Tarn riverside. The Cité Épiscopale is protected by a 64-hectare buffer zone, guaranteeing the preservation of a built heritage that the people of Albi are the first and the proudest to defend.