A long road to woad city

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There was a huge children’s rugby carnival underway in Montauban as we left this morning. We had hoped to pick up a velo route along the Tarn River from Saint-Sulpice-La-Pointe so took an indirect route on quiet roads through rolling farm country. In the end we couldn’t follow that route so we rode extra distance with a lot of abrupt, little hills towards the end of a long but scenic day.

Cresting the final hill late in the afternoon we saw Albi in a wide valley with its splendid brick cathedral glowing pink and dominating the town with its Catholic might. We will stay here for a few nights with Couchsurfing hosts Dan and Bettina. They welcomed us warmly into their home adapted from a centuries-old pise farm building. We had an aperitif and cassoulet for dinner before heading into town for Albi’s big night out – the Nuit Pastel.

In our ignorance we didn’t know that the wealth of Albi was originally built on the production of the blue dye pastel – woad in English (Isatis tinctoria). Before the advent of indigo, blue was a difficult and therefore expensive and profitable colour to produce.

It seemed that all Albigeois were in the city for their annual Nuit Pastel. There were choirs singing, circus performance and dancers swinging (from ropes and to music) and steam punk-costumed performers riding fantastical contraptions through the streets. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum was open late and for free but we preferred to wander the streets with the crowds looking at the floodlit cathedral, bishop’s palace and city ramparts.

The night finished with a dramatic, close-quarters fireworks performance before a massive and appreciative crowd in a place behind the cathedral. It seemed like a risky business with body-mounted fireworks and the odd incendiary breaking free and squittering through the crowd.

We liked the look of our bed when we finally got home.

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