No medieval junketing, barely a craft shop in sight, Villefranche-de-Rouergue must be as close as you can get to what a French provincial town used to be like. It’s a small place, lying on a bend in the Aveyron, 35km south of Figeac and 61km east of Cahors across the Causse de Limogne. Built as a bastide by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1252 as part of the royal policy of extending control over the recalcitrant lands of the south, the town became rich on copper from the surrounding mines and its privilege of minting coins. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, its wealthy residents built the magnificent houses that grace the cobbled streets to this day.
Villefranche is home to arguably the loveliest bastide square in the region, place Notre-Dame. It’s built on a slope and you enter at the corners underneath the buildings. All the houses are arcaded at ground-floor level, providing for a market (Thurs) where local merchants and farmers spread out their weekly produce – the quintessential Villefranche experience. The houses are unusually tall and some are very elaborately decorated, notably the so-called Maison du Président Raynal on the lower side at the top of rue de la République. The square’s east side is dominated by the church of Notre-Dame with its colossal porch and bell tower, nearly 60m high. The interior has some fine late fifteenth-century stained glass, carved choir stalls and misericords.