Toulouse, Conques & Albi
More photos here
A 7.40 am flight meant meeting Julie from Art Pursuits and tour guide Richard Plant at Heathrow Terminal 5 before 6.00 Which means the convenience of stopping overnight at the Heathrow Garden Hilton has rarely been greater. Still, waking to an alarm set for 4.30 is never going to be fun. As 5 o'clock is well before the end of the rush hour my Freedom Pass couldn't be used, which meant I had to buy a ticket - £6.30 for two stops! Passing through both airports was smooth, with vaccination qr codes scanned when leaving the ramp/tunnel thingy in Toulouse.
Leaving Toulouse Airport we were coached to Moissac for lunch. The restaurant had been warned of two vegetarians in the party and had prepared...vegetables. But cooked nicely in spices and such and so rather delicious. The apple pie desert was somewhat flat - more an apple pizza - but yummy. Then the Cluniac abbey of Saint-Pierre for its cloisterfull of Romanesque capitals (see photo right) and its spectacular tympanum.
Then on to Toulouse in our coach, and the Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra. In the evening was our first group dinner at Le Bibent, a fish restaurant which catered well for the two veggies. Some hummus to amuse our bouches, a stuffed egg thing and some spicy lentils, followed by a mille-feuille.
An early 8.15 start for our coach to the village of Conques, on the way stopping at the town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, a medieval treat (see photo right) of narrow streets, wood-frame galleries, and two sociable cats.
We had a beverage break (at which I established my morning hot chocolate habit) before continuing to Conques, another spectacular medieval treat of a town (see photo below) with its famous Last Judgement tympanum over the door of the pilgrimage church of Sainte-Foy. Another fixture of medieval art history lectures is the reliquary of Sainte-Foy which is in the treasury here. Around the apse end was pretty too (see photo right)
There was an included lunch in the middle of our explorations which included the a goat's cheese and onion tart, with apple slices, some spicy lentils, and a desert course consisting of four deserts (see photo below).
That large lunch, and a late return to Toulouse, meant the need for more food in the evening was minimal, so a shower and an early night was chosen by me.
A civilised 9.30 start for our day in Toulouse, beginning with big brick Romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin (see photos above and far left), with its spectacular octagonal bell tower and much impressive sculpture, inside and out.
Independent lunch for me was a filled bagel called Le Veggie, with salt and black pepper crisps and a can of peach iced tea, eaten on a stone bench in the Capitole square in front of the hotel, disturbed only by a beggar who I disturbed back by telling him sorry I'm English, in Italian. A fruity cake was taken back to my room with vanilla redbush tea.
The afternoon began with a visit to the Jacobins Monastery, something of a Dominican mother church having connections with Saint Vincent Ferrier and local Saint Antonin and housing the relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Then we returned to Saint-Sernin for a visit to the Musée Saint-Raymond next door, an ex-prison and ex-hospital that now houses an archaeology museum, in which we admired bits of stone, naturally, and sculpture busts and sarcophagi. It was around this time that we realised that having shown our vaccination passes at the door we didn't need to wear masks in museums.
The evening was free for 'independent activity' but a bunch of us joined Richard and Julie and ate in the hotel's restaurant. Cassoulets were a feature here, the total consumption of one being a meat-eater's badge of honour, it seems. Vegetarian options were available, but were not seen to prove one's manhood in any way.
Today to Albi, and boy did it rain. After coffee, or hot chocolate, we crossed the road to take in the enormity of the cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, and get somewhat soaked. Inside there's a Last Judgement fresco on the west wall missing its middle, and so lacking its Christ (see near photo above right), and overall painted walls of various levels of garishness. For lunch Julie, Richard and me found a place for tasty pizzas.
In the afternoon the outside of the fortress-like 13th-century Palais de la Berbie (see photo right) was admired first. It was the home of the Albigensian archbishops, but is now home to a collection of the work of local lad Toulouse-Lautrec. Not most of us's thing, but it was warm indoors and some of the interior spaces were fine. Those of us who were mostly admiring the latter cut the visit short to let Richard take us around the church of Saint-Salvi.
Back in Toulouse in the evening we had our farewell dinner at Les Caves de la Maréchale at which a good time, and food and wine, was had by all (see group photo below).
An earlyish coach to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a steeply-approached medieval town which went from persistent rain to torrents of hail during our visit - the rain gushing down the steep streets on our descent made for an unforgettable experience. But it was memorable for the right reasons too - more medieval loveliness (see photo below). A local bar got to serve a bunch of seriously soaked brits with hot beverages before the coach came to take us to the airport. Toasty lunch items were consumed in the airport before check-in, but there were no problems or delays in the homeward journey. When I arrived home in the evening there was still no little dampness about my jacket and feet.
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