Pilgrimage For Art And Food In The Midi-Pyrénées

07/09/2012 02:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2012


If you have never heard of the city of Albi in the south of France, don't feel bad. When I was invited there on a press trip by the French tourism agency Atout France I had no idea either. "But Edward, it is a beautiful city in the Midi-Pyrénées," I was told, which sounded to me like the middle of nowhere. The next thing I hear is that one of my favorite artists, Toulouse-Lautrec, was born in Albi and his museum there has the largest collection of his art in the world, close to 1000 pieces. That clinched the deal.


So there are five of us, American journalists, meeting in the city of Toulouse. The next morning we start our journey through a dozen of the ancient towns and villages that make up part of the famous Catholic pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. But the agenda of our press trip is a pilgrimage of a different kind: art, history and gastronomy.


The beautiful medieval city of Albi with its ancient bridges over the river Tarn delivered more than I had hoped for. Its Gothic Sainte-Cécile Cathedral has an intimidating, fortress like appearance, but inside it is a totally different story. The opulent interiors, with their sumptuous mosaic and fresco decorations, made a huge impression on me. I could have spent the whole day there, but damn, we had only half an hour before being whisked away for the rendezvous with Toulouse-Lautrec.


His museum recently reopened after a lengthy remodeling and its newly refurbished elegant galleries made me forget that I was in the "middle of nowhere." I was stunned to see how many major works by the artist belong to this museum. After Toulouse-Lautrec's death his family wanted to donate this vast collection to a major museum in Paris, but the answer was a polite "Merci beaucoup, but NO." And that's how this museum in Albi was born. If you ever find yourself in this charming city, I suggest that you stay there for at least two days to give yourself a chance to enjoy it.


The tiny town of Conques with a population of a few hundred people sits high in the mountains and looks exactly like the setting of your favorite childhood fairytale. Every stone in this city is ready to tell you a story.


But the best thing happened when the city's mayor took us on a midnight tour of its 11th century Saint Foy Abbey-Church. Even for me, being an atheist, the experience was overwhelming. The spiritual minimalism of its architecture evoked for me the essence of such modern and contemporary artists as Kazimir Malevich and Ellsworth Kelly.


One day and a few ancient cities later we are at the Chateau de Mercuès, the epitome of a fairytale castle. A former Episcopal palace, this beautiful building is now a hotel and well-known winery. In the middle of the night I got out of bed and walked outside to see the castle at night, pinching myself to be sure that I was not dreaming.


Another day, another city. But this time it is the city of Condom, I kid you not. We are staying in a rather unappealing hotel, and in the city center I encounter the most unappealing artwork of the whole trip -- the bronze sculpture of the Three Musketeers, given to the city by a second-rate Russian sculptor. At the rescue comes the invitation to go to taste Armagnac at a private museum and wine storehouse. I am not a big drinker and ten o'clock in the morning is definitely not my idea of the best time to down my liquor. But here I am, sniffing and sipping a variety of Armagnacs with unexpected enthusiasm, ready to pay for it with a huge headache. And you know what, the rest of the day I traveled with the biggest smile on my face.

Our trip ended where it started, in the city of Toulouse. We had a walking tour through the historic center of this bustling university city of 600,000, and finished with a mouth-watering goodbye dinner, where I indulged myself with plenty of foie gras, fully knowing that upon my return home to Los Angeles this delicacy would be outlawed in California.

Banner Image: Summer solstice in Toulouse. Photo by Edward Goldman

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.