Albi, looking UNESCO-picture-perfect
Albi was my first French home, and for years I carried around a heavy, lump-in-the-throat nostalgia about it.
We lived there for two years in the early 90s; our first daughter was born there; I easily imagined staying there indefinitely.
But professional changes led us to spend a few years in Touraine, and then return to the Midi-Pyrénées area: not to Albi (sniff -- no, sniffed), but to Aveyron -- as you all know.
Rodez is now less than an hour's drive from Albi, but when we arrived, the road was sinuous and slow, and we immediately figured out that with two small children, we weren't going to get back to Albi that often.
I was shocked, though, as I planned a day trip there last weekend with one of our exchange students, to find that I had not been back for exactly (to the day!) 7 years -- not counting, of course, driving past the town on the way to Toulouse.
Tourists come from far and near...and why wouldn't they?
A lot has happened there, even since 2008. The Episcopal City of Albi, including its cathedral, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, giving it the same worldwide cultural standing as Chartres Cathedral or the Pont du Gard.
Albi was a tourist attraction even when I lived there, but the swarms of visitors in early May, and the rather alarming number of tourist-trappy-looking restaurants sprung up around the cathedral, attest to a significant boost in the town's popularity.
The St. Salvy/Salvi Cloisters, May 2, 2008
My favorite place in Albi, and one where I could always find a moment of cool calm when I lived there, is The St Salvy Cloisters.
I'm glad I got this photo 7 years ago, because this time around, the cloisters were overtaken by a boisterous and vociferous group of young (but adult) Spanish tourists using the secluded site to take multiple photos in a variety of oh-so-amusing poses.
Their raucous photo shoot took over half an hour, so I gave up on any hope of cloister "zénitude," as the French would put it -- athough I did think that was what cloisters were for, even now. Call me old-fashioned.
Blooms have replaced the dirt in the previous photo, so at least I can reflect from the comfort of my own computer
The day marked a turning point for me.
Yes, Albi, you are drop-dead gorgeous, certainly, at least at first glance, the most beautiful medium-sized city in the region. I will definitely be back before 7 more years go by -- although perhaps in February.
And yes, you deserve your UNESCO status, and I might add in passing that the powers that be did a fantastic job fixing you up. You wear your honor well.
But, finally, after many years of "what-ifs," you no longer feel anything like what used to be home.