From the Occitan word bastida, meaning a group of buildings, bastides were the new towns of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although they are found all over southwest France, from the Dordogne to the foothills of the Pyrenees, there is a particularly high concentration in the area between the Dordogne and Lot rivers, which at that time formed the disputed “frontier” region between English-held Aquitaine and Capetian France.

That said, the earliest bastides were founded largely for economic and political reasons. They were a means of bringing new land into production – in an era of rapid population growth and technological innovation – and thus extending the power of the local lord. But as tensions between the French and English forces intensified in the late thirteenth century, so the motive became increasingly military. The bastides provided a handy way of securing the land along the frontier, and it was generally at this point that they were fortified.

As an incentive, anyone who was prepared to build, inhabit and defend the bastide was granted various benefits in a founding charter. All new residents were allocated a building plot, garden and cultivable land. The charter might also offer asylum to certain types of criminal or grant exemption from military service, and would allow the election of consuls charged with day-to-day administration – a measure of self-government remarkable in feudal times. Taxes and judicial affairs, meanwhile, remained the preserve of the representative of the king or local lord under whose ultimate authority the bastide lay.

The other defining feature of a bastide is its layout. They are nearly always square or rectangular in shape and are divided by streets at right angles to each other, producing a chequerboard pattern. The focal point is the market square, often missing its covered halle nowadays, but generally still surrounded by arcades, while the church is relegated to one side.

The busiest bastide founders were Alphonse de Poitiers, on behalf of the French crown, after he became Count of Toulouse in 1249, and King Edward I of England (1272–1307), who wished to consolidate his hold on the northern borders of his Duchy of Aquitaine. The former chalked up a total of 57 bastides, including Villeneuve-sur-Lot (1251) and Monflanquin (1252), while Edward was responsible for Beaumont (1272) and Monpazier (1284), among others. While many bastides retain only vestiges of their original aspect, both Monpazier and Monflanquin have survived almost entirely intact.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

France features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The best places to go in spring

The best places to go in spring

Springtime is beautiful, with its big blue skies and flowers in bloom, so there may be no better time to travel. If you're thinking about getting away, here are…

14 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
20 fantastically romantic places

20 fantastically romantic places

Whether you're looking for a beautiful beach to share a sundowner on, or you want to get lost in each other amongst the bustle of a city, these are the best pl…

09 Feb 2017 • Tim Chester camera_alt Gallery
26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month