It’s amazing how much you learn about a place you thought you knew, simply by taking the time to walk around it. We live about 25 kilometres from Villefranche de Rouergue in Aveyron and have shopped there regularly for 14 years. But you rarely look at places in your own backyard through the eyes of a tourist.
This town with its slate roofs and dark stone is built on a hill sloping downwards to the River Aveyron. It sits on the fault line between the undulating Ségala with its clear streams and the arid causses of the Rouergue, dotted with dolmens and menhirs. Surrounded by steep hills, it’s reminiscent of a mountain town.
A bit of history
Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse, founded the original town in 1099 on the left bank of the River Aveyron. It failed to thrive there and didn’t even have its own church. So, in 1242, Alphonse de Poitiers moved the town over to the right bank of the river. At the same time, he transferred the administrative capital of the Rouergue from Najac to Villefranche.
To assure the town’s prosperity, Alphonse granted it various fiscal exemptions. In 1256, Louis IX granted the town a Royal Charter, confirming its privileges. It was even allowed to mint its own coinage from copper and silver mined north of the town along the fault line.
Merchants and nobles moved in and in its heyday Villefranche had a population of around 10,000. Its position on the Roman road linking Cahors and Rodez and on the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle were factors in the town’s growing importance and prosperity. Villefranche’s fortunes waned after the Revolution, when it became a sous-préfecture, second fiddle to Rodez.
The town had a final burst of glory during World War II. On 17th September 1943, a group of Bosnian and Croatian soldiers, who had been pressganged into the German army, mutinied. They liberated and held the town for a day until the Germans retook it and summarily executed most of the insurgents.
Villefranche is a splendid example of a bastide, of which there are more than 300 in southwest France. Bastides were the medieval version of new towns like Milton Keynes, often built over earlier settlements. The bastides were intended to concentrate a growing population, favour the development of trade and, above all, to provide protection in turbulent times. They marked a significant development in urban planning. Streets in a rigid grid pattern surrounded a central, often very large, square – a far cry from the meandering alleys of early medieval towns.
Collégiale de Notre-Dame
On one side of the central Place Notre-Dame is the massive collégiale, built in the 13th-14th centuries, with a tower 58 metres high. It’s worth waiting for midday to hear the elaborate chimes marking the hour. Arcades surround two sides of the square, which is lined with Renaissance merchants’ houses. Most of the medieval buildings around the square were destroyed earlier in a fire.
The town is full of narrow side streets shielded from the sun by high-walled houses and festooned with washing lines high up, as they no doubt were in medieval times.
Sometimes you come across a curiosity like this elaborate 16th-century porch.
Villefranche got its bridge, Le Pont des Consuls or Pont-Vieux, in about 1321. Previously, people had to cross the Aveyron via a ford. Now it’s simply a footbridge and the often heavy traffic crosses the river by a more modern bridge a few metres downstream.
Today, the town’s population (c.13,000) is not much bigger than in medieval times. It has suffered noticeably from the economic crisis. Along the Rue de la République, formerly a thriving shopping street, shops are closing down one after the other. Last week, I noticed at least three more, including the bookshop we normally use, sadly. The centre has also declined in the wake of out-of-town shopping mall developments.
Nonetheless, Villefranche hosts a thriving weekly market every Thursday where smallholders rub shoulders with bigger producers and you can still hear Occitan spoken. It’s colourful, noisy and conforms to everyone’s idea of how a French market should be. In summer you can barely move for tourists and second home owners and parking spaces are like gold dust. I greatly prefer it out of season. But then I prefer Villefranche out of season generally.
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