You may not have heard of Albi. It’s not one of the more popular destinations for people visiting France from abroad, but the French are well aware of this gem.
Albi is a small city an hour away from Toulouse in the midi- Pyrenees, part of what was formerly known as the Languedoc. It’s easy enough to get to (just an hour away from Toulouse) but spare yourself the Toulouse train station and rent a car to visit.
The main attraction here is a massive and fabulous monster of a cathedral, Sainte Cecile, that towers over the city and is visible from just about every angle. The cathedral is the largest red brick building in Europe and arguably, the world. In fact, the entire city is a red-bricked wonder. And of course UNESCO is there to confirm that it is worth a visit.
Albi doesn’t have a lot of museums like some other French cities, but for lovers of the artist, there’s no more important collection than that of the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s home town has at its heart a museum dedicated to the man himself with large collection of his works, donated by his family after his death.
You need not spend a lot of time in Albi – a couple of well-planned days should allow you to explore and enjoy the city. But one reason to to visit and maybe stay a bit longer, is the food. Albi has no lack of delicious bites and lovely places to enjoy them in.
We’re recommending a few good spots for a low-key trip. These places aren’t the gourmet choices that crop up in the few articles about Albi. These are suggestions for those who, like us, planned the trip on whim, couldn’t be bothered with reservations and wanted to eat well whenever without having to get dressed up.
Now Albi may not be the last word in cassoulet, the gorgeous and creamy stew with white tarbais beans, confit duck legs and a variation of other ingredients, depending on where you are, from cuts of lamb to Toulouse sausage to stewed tomatoes. But sitting as it does near the great trio of cassoulet, Toulouse, Carcasonne and Castelnaudary, it does have something to say.
This being one of our favourite dishes, we set out to find the best we could in 3 days. This meant eating cassoulet three days in a row. Yes, you heard right. As rich as this dish is, that turned out to be a pleasure. The best we found was at the simple, traditional Lou Sicret, Occitane for the Secret And entering the place bears out this feeling. You get there by a plain arcade. Walking in, it feels more like you’re headed to buy office supplies than visiting grandma’s culinary grotto. But once you enter, you find yourself in a charming courtyard, sparsely decorated with wooden clogs, plants and stoneware.
The cassoulet wasn’t the only traditional favourite that was outstanding there. We also tried the mushroom omelette, made with the fat cèpes that are so abundant in southern France at this time of year. No filling wrapped in plain tasting eggs, this omelette tasted as if were infused with the flavour of the mushrooms.
Good for: traditional. If you’re having cassoulet or want to know more about regional food, this is the place. But word of warning: Go when hungry as the portions are large. No need to dress this up: you won’t finish. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
1 rue Timbal - 81000 Albi
Once you’ve had your fill of cassoulet, you’ll be more ready to accept that some of the best quick bites to be had in Albi are actually Basque bar-cum-restaurant, La Chistera.
Before we get to the food, the first thing to say about La Chistera is – order the Sangria. It’s one of the best we’ve ever tasted. Oh, how rich, oh, how delicious, oh, how easy it went down. We had already decided on a second when it occurred to us to ask more about the recipe. Beyond the wine, brandy and liqueurs normally included in a sangria, this one had, gin, rum vodka and god only knows what else because we couldn’t keep up with the long list. Delicious as it was, we declined a second.
We tried the tallo, a grilled corn round topped with grilled skirt steak and prawns which was the best version and surf and turf we’ve had in a long time. This was food you eat with your hands, catching the fishy, meaty juice in the robust tallo.
Though we didn’t have time to go back and try the options we missed, we had Brebis Navarrais (a Basque sheep cheese) with black cherry confiture, grilled seasonal vegetables, dried duck breast with apple, marinated peppers and cuttlefish with garlic sauce.
Good for: a quick bite and a perfect sangria. When you’ve had your fill of cassoulet, this is the spot. If you’re lucky, it might be a warm evening and you can enjoy sitting outside in the shadow of the cathedral with an acoustic guitar player to serenade you.
10 place Monseigneur Mignot (behind the Cathedral Sainte Cécile) - Albi - May 63 43 62 41
Café le Pointié
Café le Pointié is perfectly set on the Place du Vigan. We recommend it not so much for outstanding cuisine (though we enjoyed all we ate there) but because it is optimal place to wile away the hours, writing, reading or people watching while enjoying an aperitif or a light meal. We made it our base and returned there at various points, either for a drink or to have a bit outside the normal restaurant meal hours.
That said, there is a big menu and much on it is tasty. We had the grilled duck breast with mango sauce and a hot goat cheese salad. While Albi in general did not seem to be as keen on a variation of local aperitifs as other places, we really enjoyed the Lagrima white port, served with a foie gras toast.
Good for: watching the world go by. The food won’t blow your mind. But if you’re looking for pretty good food, fast service and a seat near a fountain and one of the best people-watching spots in the city - Cafe le Pointie.
Place du Vigan, 81000 Albi, France
If you find yourself in Albi on a warm Saturday or Sunday, we would also recommend Le Clos Sainte Cecile, a lovely family restaurant with a flowery courtyard in the shadow of the cathedral. They serve two good quality and reasonably priced set menus at lunch a dinner.
Walk it off
If you’ve already enjoyed the Cathedral the the Toulouse Lautrec museum, take a walk over the Pont Vieil or saunter around the garden behind the cathedral on the Tarn, enjoy the exquisite views and get ready to do it all again.