Today is la fête de la Pentecôte (Pentecost) in France – for those of you who think I don’t know my dates, this was posted late on Monday. And in keeping with the tradition of public holidays it’s cold and grey. In fact, the weather the whole weekend was lousy. In addition, the entire area’s electricity went off at 13h15 on Saturday and EDF didn’t restore it until 20h00. This necessitated a move to Plan B for the dinner party we were holding that evening. It will have been even more annoying for the disco and funfair at our local village – both dependent on electricity to pull in the punters.
However, that wasn’t what I intended to write about. Instead, I’ll return to one of the only sunny days we’ve had so far this year when I took a little trip into the Aveyron. I’ve already written about the spectacular site at Peyrusse le Roc, which I visited that day. But my first port of call was to Villeneuve-d’Aveyron, a compact bastide town a few kilometers from Villefranche-de-Rouergue towards Figeac.
As ever, out of season few people were around, just the townspeople going about their daily business. I was the only “tourist” – conspicuous with my camera and notebook. Everybody smilingly wished me “bonjour”. You don’t get that in Paris.
The Hundred Years War was behind the urban development of SW France during the 13th and 14th centuries. Some 600 new towns (bastides) were established to provide protection to local people, accommodate the growing population and develop trade and commerce. Raymond VII of Toulouse built Villeneuve in 1231, an outpost at the northernmost limit of his lands. Only four others were built in the Aveyron, which was on the edge of the conflicts: Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Najac, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue and Labastide-L’Evêque.
Villeneuve is like other bastides in that the streets are in a grid pattern around a central market square. La Place des Conques has characteristic arcades that protected the stallholders’ goods. However, not all the alleyways are arrow straight and some meander around improbable corners, testifying to a settlement that existed here long before the founding of the bastide. In the 11th century the Bishop of Rodez had already established a sauveté around the church: an enclave protected by the Catholic Church in which temporal laws had no authority.
The Romanesque parts of the church of Saint-Sepulcre date back to the 11th century. The church was later enlarged in the Gothic style in the 13th century and houses a series of wall paintings dating from the 14th century, depicting pilgrims on the route de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, presided over by Christ in Majesty. You are not allowed to use flash photography, hence the slightly hazy photos.
Raymond never got much benefit from his bastide, since he died in 1249, three years after its completion. His son-in-law, Alphonse de Poitiers, who built the bastides of Villefranche and Najac took over. When he and his wife Jeanne died in 1271 (Jeanne in suspicious circumstances), the domain of Toulouse went to the crown of France.
Villeneuve originally boasted four tower gateways. Two remain – la porte Haute at the top of this post (the main gate, which served as a prison at one time) and la tour-porte Cardalhac.
The town also has a Musée des arts et savoirs populaires, which was closed when I was there. In fact, it looked definitively closed but perhaps that was just because it was out of season. Villeneuve also celebrates its medieval past with a fête at the end of July each year, featuring costume parades, a feast and fireworks.
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