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Roadside Tour: Albi's Fatal Awesomeness

I'm not actually at the Tour de France, but even if I was, I'd be on the internet looking up what makes today's featured city and stage-finishing town so memorable.

Doug Pensinger

The caravan of the Tour de France should be settled into the riverside town of Castres, along the shores of the Tarn, by now. Riders were tucked in for the night. Supporting personnel doing the thing they do -- resting their hands for massages, tinkering with bikes, and so forth -- as the Tour rolls on to another day. We've got two days of climbing around the Pyrenees, then a long transfer to Brittany and a day of rest, before week 2 kicks in. I imagine that the caravan never really stops.

But we fans, who follow the race with our imaginations, we can stop anywhere along the route we like. It's tempting to let our thoughts take wing and fly up to Ax-3-Domaines in anticipation of tomorrow's initial GC battle. The Tour isn't like the Giro, one might say, in that the transitional stages are a means, not an end. But that sells Le Tour short, especially in the new era of route planning.

Today is an excellent example. Today, the city of Albi hosted the stage finish. Albi is small, 50,000 people, unlike moderately-sized Montpellier from where the day began. It'd be easy to look past Albi, host of ten previous Tour moments, but it'd be a mistake. Albi got plenty of air-time for its domineering Cathédral de Saint-Cécile, which announcers mentioned in various languages to their home audiences as an excellent example of southern French Gothic architecture. And it is. It's the largest brick cathedral in the world. The race also passed under the brick Pont-Vieux, a thousand-year-old span of eight arches and a drawbridge. Not too shabby.

But Albi's existence extends beyond nice things to see and take pictures of, even if you include the Musee de Toulouse-Lautrec. Albi's history is that of a bloody crusade against a religion that no longer exists, Catharism. Centered in southern France between Toulouse and Narbonne, Catharism thrived in the 12th-14th centuries, spreading to Catalunya and Northern Italy. Its adherents believed in a lot of the tenets of Christianity, but they differed in some important respects. First, they saw the Earth and its inhabitants as fundamentally born of sin, and decided that they were created by Satan, not God. (I'm told this is Christian Dualism, where the two share the billing, but as opposing forces.) This alone was probably enough to put them in poor standing with the pope. Same with their belief that human souls were in fact the genderless souls of angels until salvation day. Genderless... so not a Catholic concept.

Probably the biggest flaw facing the Cathars, given human nature, was being such good Christians. Their chief antagonist, St. Bernard of Clarveaux, described them thusly:

If you question the heretic about his faith, nothing is more Christian; if about his daily converse, nothing more blameless; and what he says he proves by his actions ... As regards his life and conduct, he cheats no one, pushes ahead of no one, does violence to no one. Moreover, his cheeks are pale with fasting; he does not eat the bread of idleness; he labours with his hands and thus makes his living.

Bishop Fulk, in refusing to get tougher on the Cathars, said of them "We have been reared in their midst. We have relatives among them and we see them living lives of perfection." Nothing pisses off a certain type of people (e.g., power-obsessed popes) than seeing other people living better than they do. As the demands of Rome for submission grew, so too did the rolls of the Cathars.

Anyway, Joseph Stalin was once asked about the church and responded, "fuck the pope, how many divisions does he have?" But the Cathars had no such luxury, because in their case, the pope had plenty. On came the Albigensian Crusades, a bloody slaughter of the Cathars that started in Albi and worked its way around southern France until 20,000 "heretics" were put to the sword or the stake. A flourishing religion was no more.

As the Tour de France passed by Albi's Cathédral de Saint-Cécile, fans and riders alike could be forgiven for admiring its severe appearance. But the descendants of Catharism know exactly what it is: a post-Crusade fortress meant to remind the people of Albi and beyond of the power of the church. The massiveness of the building was a clear message to the governed, and if the bell-tower looks at all like an upturned middle finger from a certain angle, I'm sure the several popes and M. Bernard de Castanet, initiator of the current building, wouldn't mind the comparison.

Sadly, a journalist covering the Tour would not have learned all this today, most likely. Albi as a stage finish means it's the scene of a slowly-building anticipation during the last two or three hours of the race, followed by a frenzied mass exodus of riders, team material and personnel, and press. There is no time to visit the cathedral, unless you woke up there. Little time to stop by and view the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec pieces in any one place. No time to savor the atmosphere of a truly fascinating French town. We here on the internet and in TV land have time. We can take note of the Tour's effort to bring alive this world to us. I am grateful for this. But the distance, it's altogether unsatisfying.