Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the most Parisian of all the Parisian artists during the Belle Epoque, was actually born in a wealthy family in the World Heritage City of Albi, located an hour drive from Toulouse in southwest France. The area is considered one of the most magnificent attractions in the region due to the Albi Cathedral, built between the 13th and 15th centuries on a precipice towering over the Tarn River.
To access the site, you walk across the aptly named 11th century “Old Bridge,” thought to be the oldest working bridge in France, and then up into the cathedral complex. Adjacent to the church, the Palais de la Berbie is an equally magnificent walled fortress where the ruling Bishops lorded over their citizenry.
It is within this setting where you enter the courtyard facing the magical Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. The courtyard is bordered by brick walls extending over 100 feet high, so it only makes sense to welcome a group here with an opera singer belting out the haunting “Habanara” aria from Bizet’s Carmen. We all sort of stood there transfixed by the beauty of her voice as it caromed around the medieval stones.
The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum owns the largest collection of the artist’s works in the world. Over 1,000 paintings, lithographs, drawings and preparatory studies are here, including 31 of his famous cafe posters. Many of the crowd favorites depict the bohemian cabaret life of Montmartre from the Moulin Rouge to Le Chat Noir. The main draw is Lautrec’s original Moulin Rouge advertisements, but it’s really how the paintings tell the story about Paris and the painter during that era that is so engrossing.
There’s also a 156-pax theater auditorium with two movies running daily about the life of Lautrec.
During our visit, a country lunch was served on farmer’s tables inside the museum’s banquet hall seating about 50 people. The local meats, fresh vegetables, strong cheeses and all of the rest of the food for lunch is purchased at Albi’s grand market in the middle of town, lodged inside a turn-of-the-century steel structure designed like a Parisian railway station.
As we left, the North Americans in the group—all extremely well traveled—said the Midi-Pyrenees region of France is a place that the MICE industry should get to know better. We couldn’t agree more.