I spent Monday night in Albi, a town to the north-east of Toulouse after which the Albigensian heresy was named.
The town is dominated by the cathedral of Saint-Cecile, which is an impressive - and imposing - edifice; it is also one of the stranger buildings I have seen. The outside is almost entirely red brick, and looks - not without purpose, since it was started in 1282 - like a fortress, with sheer walls rising 40m and no windows (except a few added later) for the first 20. The tower (no delicate spire this) is 78m high. Apparently the walls are 2.5m thick at the base, and though the outworks which protected the doors are largely gone, it would have been a very tough nut to assault without artillery .
On the inside, there is not a brick to be seen. The basic southern Gothic structure was added to greatly in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. A delicate filigree limestone rood-screen and a choir with a large collection of statues (only just saved during the Revolution) is complemented by painting and ornamentation which covers every available space, much of it done by Italians. The contrast with the outside could hardly be greater.
But the cathedral is just the high point (literally as well as figuratively) of Albi. There are lots of Renaissance mansions, a real castle, an old bridge, and other churches (I only visited Salvy, which is a real hodge-podge of styles, from Norman on Carolingian foundations to 19th century rebuilding).
I arrived in Albi at around 6pm on Monday and reached the youth hostel just as it started to rain. The hostel is one of the cheapest anywhere - I paid just 66 FF for a night's accommodation, dinner, and breakfast! Travelling without my interpreter has really revealed the holes in my French, but I managed ok. At dinner I met up with a trainee urban planner who turned out to speak quite decent English, though he was very reluctant to admit it, and we wandered around the town centre after it stopped raining. So I got to see the cathedral and the river (the Tarn) and bridges at night. There were only two other people in my dormitory, and the screens meant that I effectively had a room to myself - but the really nice thing was that I was on the top floor and could see the tower of the cathedral (which is lit up at night) from where I lay in bed! There was a bit of a storm during the night, which was also rather fun.