The Dish near Palo Alto, California blasts us across the Atlantic Ocean for this edition of Small World. And we land in Albi, France, located in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. It is the largest metropolitan region of France by area, larger than the Netherlands or Denmark. The region was named without regard to historical context, and solely on its geography. Midi means southern France, and Pyrenees refers to the mountain range on its southern border.
The first human settlement in Albi was during the Bronze Age, and remains that have been unearthed indicate that it was a Roman settlement at one time. There is speculation to how the town got its name. Some think it comes from the Celtic word, alb or alp, meaning high place; and other speculations trace its namesake to the Latin word, albus, for white, a reference to the limestone cliffs nearby. Around 51 B.C., the town was known as Civitas Albigensium and the territory was known as Albigeois.
Albi is home to some of the world’s most beautiful architecture, and one of the most famous structures is the Palais de la Berbie. It was built in several stages, starting in 1228 A.D. and culminating in 1306 A.D. The palace was built after the fall of the Trencavels; and the rise of Bishop Durand de Beaucaire during this period allowed for the construction of an elaborate structure that eventually achieved the look of a citadel. It included a congregational hall with a tower, an ecclesiastical tribunal and a prison in the first phase. The Bishop feared for his life because of popular uprisings so the walls that face the city are built up considerably more than the south-facing walls
Over the coming centuries, there was much work done to the inside and outside of the palace, all with different influences based on the styles of the time. Due to limited resources, the Palace had times where it was not developed. Albi also fell victim to the Hundred Year War and destruction from the famine and looting of the Great Black Death. By the 19th Century, the Empire of France had declared the Palais de la Berbie a national building. In 1905, the separation of Parisian church and state ended the palace’s original function as home to the clergy.
Another important work of architecture in Albi is the 150-meter “Old Bridge” (Pont Vieux) built in stone during 1035 A.D. and then covered in brick afterwards for additional support. Designated by the UNESCO World Heritage Center as an important international monument, it is located in the Saint-Salvi Quarter and is a testament to the high-level of economic and urban development of that era. The city of Albi’s architecture is a reminder of another time, and is evidence of advanced cultures from centuries ago. As a town of only 50,000 set in ‘old-world style,’ Albi is a fitting example for our Small World.