Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which lies on the edge of the Aveyron Valley, is understandably proud of its distinguished origins. It is an hour's drive from Conques, another Major Midi-Pyrénées Historical Site, and boasts a superb heritage and an idyllic setting dominated by the russet roof-tiles of the French Midi.
Alphonse de Poitiers, fascinating character, was the brother of Louis IX, better known as Saint Louis. He founded Villefranche-de-Rouergue in 1252
Bastide towns were created to bring hitherto scattered groups of people together, to work the land effectively, organise economic life and build trading networks. They have distinctive checkerboard layouts with perpendicular streets leading to a central square.
The still-intact Villefranche-de-Rouergue is a magnificent example of the urban planning that developed alongside the bastide towns. Its dense network of streets is carefully organised so as to lead in to the main square, which is surrounded by arcades topped by Gothic and Renaissance houses. Here, the proud Notre Dame Collegiate Church stands triumphant, a gigantic stone structure housing a bell porch.
Whilst Najac and Villefranche-de-Rouergue have different attractions, they form an outstanding pair that is just waiting to be discovered during enriching and fun holidays.
Notre-Dame Collegiate Church (14th and 15th centuries)
The width of the church is equal to its height, and the ample proportions of the nave afford clarity of view (and of hearing) to thosewho come to worship here.
The exterior of the edifice is very simple: there are no flying buttresses, merely internal reinforcements that neutralise the pressure of the vaults and serve to separate the chapels - this is typical of the southern Gothic style.
The apse is dominated by the luminous glory of its 15th-century stained-glass windows, and the choir houses an authentic 15th-century masterpiece : the stalls, carved by André Sulpice, display a wealth of bizarre creatures, and a number of bawdy scenes - in sharp contrast with the Virgin of the Annunciation.
La voute du monastère de la chartreuse de saint-sauveur
The Carthusian Monastery
This Carthusian monastery is set slightly apart from the city, on a slope once covered with vines. It is concealed and silent, just like the monks who once inhabited it. Funded by a bequest made by Vézian Valette, a wealthy Villefranche merchant, building work started in 1451, and was completed in 1459. During those eight years, four to five thousand stonecutters were working there at any given time, not to mention the local inhabitants! The work was overseen by two master-masons, Conrad Rogier and Jean Coupiac, and embellished by sculptors Pierre Viguié and André Sulpice. Hidden behind a rather forbidding exterior, the monastery itself is a feast of masterly 15th-century architecture. The small cloister is a marvel of Gothic art from the late 15th century, in sharp contrast to the large cloister, which is plain and severe, but nonetheless imposing. The chapel is lit by some beautiful stained-glass windows, and the choir stalls, carved by André Sulpice in a similar fashion to those of the Collegiate church, depict bizarre creatures and one or two bawdy scenes.
"And after came the company of the Black Penitents, more than two-hundred strong, marching two-by-two at an equal distance, with many candles and lamps. They carried before their cross a banner made of a very rich golden tissue, with a background of crimson satin..." Thus a Célestin brother described a colourful parade, in sharp contrast to the black robes and masked faces of the Penitents themselves, marching by in tight formation. Add to this the voices of a choir chanting their arrival, and one can imagine a display not soon to be forgotten - one which deliberately and publicly contrasted the poverty of life on earth with the richness of life in Christ's glory. Dating from 1642, the chapel is laid out in the form of a Greek cross surmounted by two rather strange belfries, sitting one on top of the other. Had the Célestin brother been describing the chapel rather than the parade, he would doubtless have gone into great detail over the colours of the magnificently-painted wooden vault. The richness and extravagance of the chapel's interior is strikingly different from its plain and simple exterior aspect.
The bastide square, the town's commercial heart, still plays an essential role to this day. The proof can be seen in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where one of the region's finest markets is held on Thursday mornings. At the foot of the Notre Dame Collegiate Church, the market stalls sell typical Aveyron produce: farçous (chard and bacon pancakes), aligot (mashed potatoes with cream and cheese), truffade (potatoes with garlic and onions) and fouaces (orange-flower water brioche), together with foie gras, confits, cured meats and local speciality breads, etc..
Situated in the western Aveyron, Bastide Country (Le Pays des Bastides) is set in a craggy landscape, where limestone, ochre sandstone and schist form vast plateaux, mountainous forests, a valley, and gorges bounded by the river Aveyron.
During the early part of the 13th century, south-western France saw both a population explosion and considerable political upheaval. These factors, together with a desire to capitalise on their own lands, to round up the scattered populace, and generally to organise the economy, drove first the counts of Toulouse (Raymond VII and Alphonse de Poitiers) and then the Kings of France and of England to develop a strong policy of land-management.
Thus were born the bastides - more than three hundred of them. "New towns" ahead of their time, they were open to commerce, the development of which was considerably boosted by the proximity of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostella.
Spontaneously built on the virgin soil of a plateau, Sauveterre adopted an extraordinarily symmetrical and innovative system of town planning: that of a large rectangular grid, composed of blocks of buildings separated by a network of streets set at precise right-angles to each other, and dominated by a huge central square, the hub of the town's commercial activities and its political and judicial institutions.
Elsewhere, mediaeval housing developments were grafted on to more ancient settlements, and were of necessity adapted to fit around existing fortifications and hilly terrain, which reduced both the clean, right-angled lines of the streets and the regularity of the blocks. Good examples of this "bastidising" process are the ancient castle town of Najac, established upon a long and narrow rocky spur dominated by a mighty fortress; and Villeneuve, a Romanesque sauveté (protectorate), which came within the ward of a Benedictine priory.