A few days ago, I had coffee with two friends in the centre of Villefranche-de-Rouergue. This Aveyron town, some 25 km from us, is one of my favourite towns in the region. It’s an attractive place, steeped in history and occupying a magnificent site on a hill stretching down to the River Aveyron. The 13th-14th– century collégiale (cathedral) towers over the town centre. But something is very wrong there.
My friends and I sat in Les Colonnes, a café/restaurant on the edge of the main market square. Villefranche is a typical bastide town, established in the 13th century, with a large, arcaded square surrounded by streets in a grid pattern. The streets should be thronging with people, but it was deathly quiet on Thursday afternoon.
Admittedly, Thursday morning is market day in Villefranche. The market is one of the largest in the area and attracts stallholders and customers from miles around. Then, you can’t find a place to park and the hubbub resonates around the tall Renaissance buildings and the collégiale. By lunchtime, everyone has gone home and there’s little to show that the market has taken place at all.
Even allowing for the Thursday afternoon effect, the town centre is dying. In its heyday, Villefranche was on a major trade route as well as on one of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and held several weekly markets as well as bigger fairs.
Today, it’s like a ghost town. Every other shop is empty and some have had “à louer” (to let) signs in the windows for years. The Italian delicatessen, the cheese shop, the fishmonger, the antique shop, two bookshops and a long-established clothes emporium, to name just a few, have all gone. A few national chains and dress shops hang on.
The town council has tried to attract more shoppers by extending the free half-hour parking to one hour, but free parking is useless if there is nothing to shop for.
The causes? Multi-factorial, no doubt, including rising rents and charges and the rise of internet shopping for certain items. One of the major ones, though, is the proliferation of out-of-town stores that have sprung up like mushrooms. They offer easy parking on-site and, generally, everything you need under one roof. The fields that bordered the main routes into Villefranche when we arrived 20 years ago have been swallowed up by ribbon development.
I am just as guilty as anyone of hastening the decline. I rarely venture into the town centre anymore, except for a specific reason. For people with busy lives, a trip to the supermarket is quicker and easier than going from shop to shop.
Villefranche is not alone in this. Our préfecture, Montauban, has gone the same way. Only the high street chains are able to survive. The approach roads are crammed with gaudy warehouse-type shops and gigantic billboards. It looks more like America than rural France. And no doubt the same is happening in towns throughout the country.
The solutions? Offering free parking is just shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Maybe in years to come, the pendulum will swing back. It’s hard to see a way out of this decline, though.
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