Last October Carole and I took a trip to the northwestern part of Spain (Roses) for a weeklong hiking trip with an organization we belong to here in Vence called the AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises). We left a couple of days early and spent a couple of extra days coming home because I wanted to explore some of the official “Most Beautiful Villages Of France” that were not too far out of the way. There are five of these villages clustered together just above the northeast corner of Spain where we were headed: Mosset, Eus, Castelnou, Evol and Villefranche-de-Conflent. My goal was to visit all of them (and we did!). Villefranche-sur-Conflent was by far my most favorite in this little group. It’s a tiny little village with a population of only 239 situated at the base of the Pyrénées in a deep, narrow valley where two rivers, the Cady and the Têt, come together. Founded in 1092, it is now part of the Catalan Pyrennes Regional Nature Park. Today it’s probably best known for the fortifications (ramparts, a fort and an armored cave) built by the famous French military engineer, Sébastien Le Presre de Vauban.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Villefranche-de-Conflent is situated less than 40 kilometers north of the Spanish border and it still shares many aspects of the Catalonia culture, including a local language, with its neighbors to the south. Unlike many of the villages built in the mountains, with their steep, narrow, twisting, winding, meandering streets, Villefranche-de-Conflent is laid out in a large rectangle with two mostly straight main streets running from one end to the other on an almost perfectly flat portion of land. There are paid parking lots at both ends of the village, but I found free parking along the road on the south side. We entered the village through the “gate” on the east side and walked west along Rue Saint-Jacques. The village is filled with all kinds of shops, boutiques and restaurants. Carole bought a small stained glass sculputre at Atelier Fait de Verre and we bought some small pieces of pottery at Poterie de la Citadelle.
As you walk through the village you’ll find several small “places” (squares), “L’Hotel de Ville” (the town hall) and the 11th century Church of Saint-Jacques. When you reach the square at the western end of the village you can turn around and follow Rue Saint-Jean back in the direction from which you came. These two streets comprise most of what there is to see inside the village itself. There is a small side street off of Rue Saint-Jean called “La rue des Tisserands,” or “street of the weavers.” For hundreds of years this was the center of commerce in the village, producing untold amounts of wool, silk and linen. Because the cloth accounted for the vast majority of the wealth in the town no tax was placed on it, hence the name of the village (“ville franche” meaning “free town”).
The Town Hall dates back to 12th century. Next to it is a large bell tower, known as the “Viguier’s Tower,” from about the same time period which was used as the town’s prison for many centuries. In 1623 a masonry pyramid was added to the top of the tower. On the wall of the Town Hall you will se the “arms” of Villefranche, two towers, a star and some water (signifying the two rivers), with the crown of Aragon and the Catalan colors (red and yellow) at the top. At the bottom it says, “Non Commovebitur,” or “I will become immovable.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Villefranche-de-Conflent is its fortification. The village is completely surrounded by “ramparts,” strong, tall, wide walls which were first erected in 1669. Vauban was responsible for fortifying the walls and building Fort Liberia, situated on a hill which overlooks the village. Below the village the Cova Bastera, a natural cave which was fortified to withstand artillery fire, provided further protection for the village. In 2008 the village and the fort were awarded inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The ramparts are open to visitors almost every day of the year. The price is quite reasonable, only 4.50€. Carole and I spent about an hour walking through them and were very impressed. You pass through guardrooms, watch towers and long, long corridors as you traverse the edges of the village, high above the houses and shops below. There are numerous little courtyards and everywhere you find the remains of ancient defenses, from arrow slits in the walls to larger openings for cannons. What’s very interesting is that there are openings on both sides of the passageways. Soliders could fire on invaders from the outside, but they could also fire into the village itself if need be. It’s like walking through a secret passageway and its almost impossible not to think back on all the villagers and soldiers who have run through these corridors in former years during times of invasion and war.
Fort Liberia is built on a rocky spur overhanging one of the mountains surrounding Villefranche-de-Conflent. Erected in 1681 by Vauban it reflects his belief that some type of defense on the grounds high above a village was absolutely essential for its survival. During times of peace the fort held anywhere from 50 to 100 men and in the event of a siege it was completely autonomous. It’s built on three levels and features fantastic views over the valleys and surrounding mountains. Inside you’ll find barracks, a chapel and a crypt. There’s even a women’s prison where six women from the infamous “Affairs of the Poisons” were imprisoned during the reign of King Louis XIV in the 17th century. The fort is linked to the village by a pink marble underground staircase, the Mille Marches (Thousand Step) steps (there are really only 734 steps in total) which is built up the side of the mountain. It was originally started by Vaubaun but was finally completed several hundred years later by Napoleon III. The fort is open almost every day of the year and will cost you 7€ to visit.
The third part of the village’s “fortifications” is the Cova Bastera, the fortified cave, located just outside of town. Vauban fortified it to control the entrance to the village. The cannons located here could provide crossfire with those from the ramparts helping to make the village much more secure.
If you vist Villefranche-de-Conflent I would suggest you also consider taking a ride on Le Petit Train Jaune (“The Little Yellow Train).” It’s a small train that has been operating in the Catalan landscapes for over 100 years. It runs from Villefranche-de-Conflent up to Latour de Carol, passing through the train station of Bolquère which is situated at an altitude of 1593 meters (5226 feet) in the Pyrénées. Along the way you will discover several famous bridges, Pont Gisclard, Pont de Cassagne and Pont Séjourné. Mont Luis is another wonderful village along the route worth exploring. Unfortunately, the train was not running when Carole and I were there, so I’ve already made plans to back when it is.
Between the village, the fort, the cave and the Little Yellow train, there is a lot to do in Villefranche-de-Confent. The next time we go back I’m planning on devoting at least two days to this wonderful little area. Have you been to this wonderful little village? If so, leave us a message and tell us about your visit.