The Tarn is a gorgeous area in the Midi-Pyrénées region in the south of France. Its major city, Albi, is well known but the rest of this hilly, peaceful and rural part of France remains a bit of a mystery to most visitors. It’s always fun to discover a new French region, and if you have a purpose it’s a double pleasure. So here’s the story of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Tarn.
Toulouse-Lautrec is famous for his images of fin-de-siècle Paris in all its exuberant reality. His posters of the nightlife of Paris bring the dancers, the drunks, the prostitutes and the entertainers to life. They become real people in his paintings which capture their lives behind the scenes. A girl pulling on her stocking; two girls kissing in bed; a couple at a bar…all are portrayed in sympathetic intimacy.
The inspired, aristocratic artist’s impact on the world has been huge. But he died as the results of a life lived too dangerously at the age of 31.
Albi, the Red City
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 in Albi. The ‘red city’ centres round the old medieval walled town where the imposing, lofty 13th-century Sainte Cécile cathedral and the Palais de la Berbie, the former bishop’s palace, reigned supreme.
Step into the bishop’s palace, now a museum celebrating Albi’s famous son, for the largest and best collection of his art. And for a fascinating view of Toulouse-Lautrec’s world.
It takes time to reach those famous posters which we all know and love. Paintings of horses and dogs, friends and family fill the early rooms, along with surprises. I had no idea that he was such a good cook, celebrating a new work of art by inviting his friends to a meal with special invitations and the menus that he sketched for his guests.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s life might have been short but it was pretty full. I came out of the museum with a real feeling about how he and his subjects – most of whom were personal friends – lived and loved.
Discover more about the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
While you’re in Albi, stay on the theme and eat at Le Lautrec restaurant. It’s housed in the former stables of the Hôtel du Bosc, where he was born. You can’t get into the house, but you can order some of those Albigensian dishes the artist knew.
Try the salad of hearty (and I mean hearty) sausages produced locally, then move onto cassoulet of duck – with sausage. Unless of course it’s a Friday in which case the cassoulet will be made of fish, following the church’s law of no meat on saint’s days or Fridays.
An aristocratic family
Toulouse-Lautrec was descended from the Counts of Toulouse who, like all local bigwigs, owned their fair share of châteaux and vineyards in and around the south of France. The early life of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Tarn was one of privilege and security.
An aristocrat’s education
An aristocratic boy would have been expected to have a hunting, shooting and fishing kind of education. In the case of Toulouse-Lautrec this wasn’t possible. He wasn’t a healthy child and he was initially educated at home. A love of art and his natural talent took him to Paris with his mother at the age of 8 where he was taught how to draw and paint.
The education Henri should have had
For a look at the other kind of education a young aristocrat would expect, take a trip to the Benedictine Abbey of Sorèze, just a one hour drive south of Albi.
Founded in 754, it became a Royal Military School in Louis XVI’s reign in 1776. This was where all the males in the Toulouse-Lautrec family, apart from Henri, were educated.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s father was a typical aristocrat who spent his time hunting and womanizing. An eccentric of the old school type, he cared nothing about convention and turned up one day to lunch at the family château wearing a tutu (apparently).
Dom Robert tapestries
Although the point of going to Sorèze is to get a bit more of Toulouse-Lautrec’s family history, I found the second part of the Abbey more interesting. It’s a museum dedicated to Dom Robert, a Dominican priest and artist whose highly coloured works became highly decorative tapestries. For anyone with any interest in tapestries, this is not to be missed.
The little village of Lautrec, half way between the Abbey and Albi, belonged to the Lautrec family. No traces remain of their ownership, but it’s a delightful village with a beautifully preserved medieval covered market and square,and a great view over the Agoût valley and the Black Mountain and the Pyrenees. Wander the narrow streets and try the small shops selling local products and clothes dyed with the woad or blue pastel that in the past brought the area its wealth.
Lunch in the pretty walled courtyard of Le Jardin du Clocher in rue de la Le Rode just down from the main square (telephone +33 9 83 65 54 56 and they speak English). It’s a very small village so you can’t miss it!
The ruined Château de Montfa
A 15-minute drive east brings you to a gentle hill and at the top, the Château de Montfa which once lorded it over the region. It belonged to Toulouse-Lautrec’s father but is now a peaceful ruin. It’s worth climbing up the stony track to the summit where parts of the stronghold are being restored by an enthusiastic team of locals who are more than happy to down tools and talk about the project.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s childhood at the Château du Bosc
To the northwest of Albi, the Château du Bosc lies just outside the Tarn department, in the Aveyron. It’s full of Lautrec memorabilia from the days the young boy spent here: toys, letters and sketches. It’s probably the nearest you’ll get to the painter and his life.
Château de Mauriac
Go west of Albi and you’ll come to the Château de Mauriac where the young painter spent many holidays with his cousins. It’s owned by the painter Bernard Bistes whose works fill every room. Take a tour or even stay the night here; it’s run as a bed and breakfast by the artist’s son, Emmanuel Bistes.
Château de Salettes
You won’t need to use the excuse of Toulouse-Lautrec in the Tarn connections for a visit to the Château de Salettes. This warm stone castle once belonged to the family, who were attracted as much by its position in the wine-producing area around Gaillac as its beauty.
Enjoy a dinner and overnight stay here (expensive but very good). If not, be sure to eat lunch. Oh, and the wines are well worth buying as well.
Where to Stay
Apart from the two châteaux I’ve recommended here, it’s easy to stay in Albi and take trips out from there.
The latest hotel in Albi to open is also the best – and very chic. Just a few steps from the centre, the Hotel Alchimy now occupied a renovated Art Deco building. Each of the five rooms or suites is themed; I stayed in the Roman Empire and very imperial it was too. There’s a good, and good value restaurant. Eat either in its terracotta splendor, or on the terrace.
10-12 Place du Palais
Tel: +33(0)5 63 76 18 18
Prices Prices start at €160 but rise to around €250 during the high season
Location Around a 4-minute walk to the medieval centre, the cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum
Maison d’Hôtes du Pigné bed and breakfast
The Maison d’Hôtes du Pigné is a prettily decorated 3-bedroom bed and breakfast and about as central as anybody could want. Breakfast included and all for decent rates of between €135 and €155.
Maison d’Hôtes du Pigné
8 Rue Chanoine Birot
Tel: +33 (0)6 11 04 55 07
Location Around a 2-minute walk to the medieval centre, the cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum
So that’s the story of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Tarn. I hope you enjoy the tour as much as his art.