John Reps Bastides Collection
Surely the most distinctive of the bastides is Villefranche-de-Rouergue, founded in 1252. Alphonse de Poitiers’s senechal, Jean d’Arcis, concluded a contract of pareage with the Bishop of Rodez who agreed to provide the site. This was located on the Aveyron River at the mouth of the Alzou at the crossing point of the two main roads of the region, one leading from Cahors to Rodez and the other linking Montpellier and what was to become the site of Montauban.
The Bishop's land sloped sharply upward from the right bank of the Aveyron River. Part way up that incline the planner chose the location for the marketplace whose northwest and southeast sides are defined by two principal streets whose alignment follows the slope of the steep hillside. Four other major streets intersect the first two more or less at right angles. Taking the same orientation as the two streets leading directly up the slope, dozens of other very narrow lanes provide the boundaries on the southeast and northwest sides of the many long and narrow blocks.
The number, shape, and size of the blocks thus differ substantially from those in any other bastide. Because the blocks are so narrow, buildings have little depth. To compensate for this, owners of lots built their houses and shops much higher than elsewhere, and buildings of three, four, and five stories are the norm. Down the centers of these blocks and parallel with the minor streets andrones separated the rear walls of the shallow buildings and channeled rain water and household wastes to the river. In this feature, too, Villefranche de Rouergue, stands apart from others where andrones (if they exist) are found between the side walls of adjoining buildings.
Roughly half-way up the slope and bordered by four of the main streets is the market square bordered on all four sides by continuous arcades. Facing the square at its southeast corner is the enormous collegial church of Notre Dame, begun in 1260 but whose lofty and massive clock tower dates from 1581. That tower, dominating the marketplace, stands like a four-legged giant whose limbs form part of the arcaded street passing under the tower alongside the elaborate church portal.
So steep is the slope that the upper quarter of the marketplace had to be terraced in the eighteenth century. A stairway was built to provide access to the terrace from the lower level. Standing near the northwest corner in front of the terrace is the huge iron crucifix. The buildings fronting that side of the market square and rising above the terrace are of special character. The one in the center with double gables is of such a height that it exceeds even its four and five-story neighbors. Indeed, all around the marketplace are buildings taller than one finds at any of the other bastides.
Elsewhere in the town one can find many other buildings of merit, although some are difficult to see as they face the numerous narrow streets that define the distinctive size and shape of this bastide’s blocks. Another much smaller square is of interest. This is on flatter land and contains the town well. Known as the Place de la Fontaine, it is reached from a stone stairway leading to the lower level where the water is contained in a carved stone basin.
A short distance to the south and east is the late thirteenth century bridge known as the Pont des Consuls. This connected the bastide to the older settlement on the left bank of the Aveyron River. On the bastide side of the river the bridge, now open only to pedestrians, leads directly to the lower end of the Rue de la République, one of two streets that climb steeply toward the Marketplace from the lower portion of the town. The view up this narrow thoroughfare is limited by the tall buildings on both sides, and the eye is directed to the great church tower looming above.
Words and even photographs fail to convey adequately the distinctive character of this place. Villefranche de Rouergue is indeed unique among the bastides and one of the most remarkable examples of medieval urban planning.