Villefranche de Rouergue, a listed bastide

Villefranche de Rouergue is an ancient walled city.

Villefranche de Rouergue
A tiny medieval house

It is nestled at the confluence of the Aveyron and Alzou, in the heart of the historical region of Rouergue.

Villefranche de Rouergue is listed as Grand Site of Midi-Pyrénées, City of Art and History and Bastide of Rouergue.

Western Aveyron is a land of limestone, sandstone and shale plateaus cut by the deep canyons the river Aveyron carved.

It is known as the Land of Bastides.

These picturesque walled cities were built along the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

Exempt from custom duties and taxes they were therefore essentially devoted to trade.

Villefranche de Rouergue – Birth of the bastide

In 1099, the Count of Toulouse Raymond IV of Saint-Gilles founded a town on the left bank of the river.

However, this new town had no church!

The inhabitants therefore had to attend services in Saint-Jean D’aigremont, on the right bank of the Aveyron.

However, the demographic expansion and political instability of the 13th century encouraged the Counts of Toulouse to reorganize the administration of their fiefdom in order to boost the local economy.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Maison du President Raynal
Maison du President Raynal

As a result, they founded several villes franches – free cities and granted them privileges and custom duties exemption or franchises – in order to attract new settlers.

Alphonse de Poitiers, King St-Louis‘ brother, inherited the County of Toulouse in 1234, when he married Jeanne de Toulouse.

He founded Villefranche de Rouergue in order to transfer the administration of the County of Rouergue from Najac and therefore establish his authority.

Villa Franca was thus founded in the 1250s on the right bank of the Aveyron and was granted its first charter regulating commercial customs.

This long list of franchises stimulated local trade and economy, while its ideal location turned it into the region’s trading platform.

Villefranche de Rouergue was indeed situated at the edge of the fertile Causse de Villeneuve and Plateau du Segala, but also in the vicinity of silver, copper, lead, tin and iron mines.

Finally, it also stood at the crossroads of ancient roads and along the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

Villefranche de Rouergue’s decline

Villefranche de Rouergue’s commercial success was such that during the 15th century King Charles V granted the town the right to mint.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs
Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

Sadly, the plague of 1628 decimated a third of the population and therefore put a brake on the city expansion.

The peasants’ revolt (Jacquerie des Croquants) that took place 15 years later largely contributed to the city’s decline.

Followed the Wars of Religion of the 16th century.

The slow economic recovery was halted in December 1775, when a massive earthquake destroyed over 600 homes as the city sit on a fault line!

Once again great efforts were put in place in order to revive the economy.

In 1779, Villefranche de Rouergue was therefore elevated to the status of capital of the newly created province Haute-Guyenne.

However, the positive effects of this expansion were unfortunately short lived.

Villefranche de Rouergue after the French Revolution

The bastide indeed lost its status in 1790, during the French Revolution, when the country’s territorial administration was redefined.

Rodez became the préfecture of the newly created department of Aveyron and Villefranche de Rouergue a sous-préfecture.

The city slowly sank into oblivion.

Champ des Martyrs Croates

However, a tragic episode that took place during the German occupation, brought the city to public attention.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Halle au Gras market
Halle au Gras market

Indeed, on September 17, 1943, Croatian soldiers, who had been enrolled against their will into a pioneer battalion of the 13th SS division, rebelled.

They captured and executed the German officers in charge of the town and liberate it.

However, their success was short lived as the Germans re-captured the city within 24 hours after a deadly street fighting.

Most Croatian survivors were executed and buried in a place since known as Champ des Martyrs Croates.

Only two of the alleged leaders, Eduard Matutinović and Božo Jelinek, managed to escape.

The latter was promoted to the rank of officer and awarded the French Legion of Honour.

Villefrance de Rouergue, a historic walled city

The ramparts and fortified gates of Villefranche de Rouergue were demolished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Les Promenades, a series of shaded walks, today replace them.

However, the old bastide has retained most of its medieval architectural heritage, and boasts a wealth of historical buildings.

Pont des Consuls and Fontaine du Griffoul

The Pont des Consuls or Vieux Pont was built around 1331 in order to replace a ford.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Pont des Consuls
Pont des Consuls

Its two towers served as toll houses in order to collect entry fees.

Such was their importance that they were added to the city’s coat of arms!

A 3rd tower marked the city entrance and served as a prison.

The three towers were demolished in the late 18th century.

The Consuls (mayors) of Villefranche de Rouergue also built the Fontaine du Griffoul (Historical Monument) in 1336.

Place Notre-Dame

Most houses that surround Place Notre-Dame, the town’s central market square, were rebuilt after the fire of 1497.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Arcade Alphonse de Poitiers
Arcade Alphonse de Poitiers

Their ground-floor arched galleries provide covered space on market days.

The busy square indeed hosts the weekly market with its local producers’ colourful stalls.

These beautiful Flamboyant and Renaissance mansions with mullioned windows, carved doors and sculpted facades, are listed Historical Monuments.

The Maison du President Raynal boasts a stunning facade, and the courtyard of Maison Dardennes a superb Renaissance stair-tower with carved figures.

Notre-Dame Collegiate church

Construction of the Collegiate began in 1252 and lasted three centuries!

The 58m high bell-tower was completed in 1589 and has a special and unique feature.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Notre-Dame Cathedral
Notre-Dame Cathedral

The arched porch is indeed open on four sides and therefore spans the street.

The church has an unusual story!

All through the Middle-Ages, Rodez and Villefranche de Rouergue were indeed rival cities.

Each city therefore wanted to build the most prestigious cathedral.

However, the Hundred Years War and the lack of funds limited the ambitions of the inhabitants of Villefranche de Rouergue!

They indeed had to settle for a more modest edifice; the size of the foundations suggests that the original plans were drawn for a much larger building.

Notre-Dame is therefore completely out of proportion!

This doesn’t deter it though from being outstanding.

The portal with an openwork gable is indeed stunning.

The interior is equally impressive, both for its size and architectural features.

Notre-Dame is listed Historical Monument.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Chapelle Sainte-Barbe
Chapelle Sainte-Barbe

Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs

The Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs is located on the Promenade du Languedoc, one of the walks developed on the site of the former ramparts.

It was erected in the early 17th century after the deadly episode of the Wars of Religious.

Halle au Gras and Chapelle Sainte-Barbe

The Halle au Gras is located at the rear of the church as it was built (1888) on the site of the cemetery.

This cemetery was indeed decommissioned and transferred outside the city boundaries in the mid-19th century.

The only reminder of the cemetery is the Chapelle Sainte-Barbe which was built in 1711 against the rampart.

The covered market is of course open on market days and it also accommodates local fairs and events.

Chapelle Sainte Emilie de Rodat

The Neo-Gothic Chapelle Saint Emilie de Rodat was built in the 1950s on the site of the former Couvent des Franciscains.

Villefranche de Rouergue - Chapelle Sainte-Emile de Rodat
Chapelle Sainte-Emile de Rodat

All that is left of the 13th century convent demolished at the French Revolution, is the Chapter House.

This building has become the chapel’s crypt.

Dom Odilo Hitier commissioned the architect Bosser with the construction of the chapel in order to commemorate the achievement of Emilie de Rodat.

In 1816, the abbess indeed founded the Institut de la Sainte Famille (Institute of Holy Family).

This charitable association was essentially dedicated to the education of young orphans.

Department of Aveyron
Coordinates: Lat 44.349746 – Long 2.035381

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Pont des Consuls  –  Chapelle Sainte-Barbe  –  Chapelle des Penitents Noirs

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