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.

Black and white photograph by Guilbert of Toulouse-Lautrec painting himself entitled Mr Toulouse paints Mr Lautrec
Mr. Toulouse paints Mr. Lautrec by Guilbert Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Artist

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.

Maison de la rue des Moulins, girl lying in bed Toulouse Lautrec
Bemberg Fondation Toulouse – Maison de la rue des Moulins Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Toulouse-Lautrec Poster of Aristide Bruant with black hat, red scarf and cane
Aristide Bruant © Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

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

Albi from the river with red buildings and cathedral in b ackground
Albi from the river © Gregory Cassiau, OT Albi

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.

Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Overhead view of red brick Le Palais de la Berbie Albi
Le Palais de la Berbie © Ludovic Blatge

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.

Toulouse-Lautrec Flèche dog image
Toulouse-Lautrec’s dog Flèche © Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

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

Overhead view of the Abbey of Sorreze where the Lautrecs wereeducated
Abbey of Sorreze © L. Frezouls

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

Colourful tapestry by Dom Robert at Sorreze Abbey with flowers
Dom Robert Tapestry

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. Here’s a potted history of Tapestry in France.

Lautrec village

View from bottom of cobbled steps in steep narrow passaagemway leading up to warm pink house in Lautrec Village
Lautrec Village © D. Vijorovic

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

Ruins of the Chateau de Montfa in park with tree in front
Chateau de Montfa Mary Anne Evans

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

View of park and trees in front of the Chateau du Bosc in the Aveyron region
Château du Bosc in the Aveyron Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Toulouse-Lautrec the cook

Toulouse-Lautrec was a great cook, producing meals for his friends to celebrate the completion of a painting, or just to celebrate. After this death, Maurice Joyant produced a book of his recipes, The Art of Cuisine.

It’s full of possible, and not so possible, recipes, and a lot of small nuggets of information about seasonality and regional foods.

Many of his inspiration for cooking came from his early childhood. Later in life his mother sent fresh food and wine from her château near Bordeaux.

More about the Art of Cuisine of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Where to Stay outside Albi

Château de Mauriac

Facade of the Chateau de Maurian in the Tarn with two round towers and imposing gateway
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

Image of blue outdoor swimming pool at the Chateau de Salettes in the Tarn
Château de Salettes outdoor swimming pool

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 in Albi

Apart from the two châteaux I’ve recommended here, it’s easy to stay in Albi and take trips out from there.

Hotel Alchimy

Hotel Alchimy Restaurant with orange walls and neo-classical decoration, Albi
Hotel Alchimy Restaurant, Albi

Hotel Alchimy
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.

Hotel Alchimy
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

L’Autre Rives bed and breakfast

L’Autre Rives is an excellent, welcoming bed and breakfast about 15 minutes walk from the cathedral across the Pont Neuf giving wonderful city views. 5 double bedrooms are decorated in different styles from Scandinavian to Baroque. Breakfast included and all for decent rates from €100 to €140.

View of Albi from across the river showing old red brick bridge over river, and old houses leading up to high cathedral against dramatic cloudy sky
Albi from across the river © Marion Schneider & Christoph Aistleitner

L’Autre Rives
60 rue Cantepau
Tel: +33 (0)6 75 47 01 51

Viewfrom window of ivy covered rooves and countryside with vineyard against cloud backdrop
The glorious, undulating Tarn © Mary Anne Evans

So that’s the story of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Tarn. I hope you enjoy the tour as much as his art.