Rapid population growth and the need to effect better control of the development of the region of south-west France known as the ‘Rouergue’ – originally the homeland of a Celtic tribe (the ‘Rutheni’) – brought about the medieval equivalent of a rural development policy. It began a period of town building by king and count alike which was to last for 150 years, from 1229 until 1373, during which over 300 bastides, or ‘new towns’ were built. Five are in the department of Aveyron.
In spite of their number, and many common characteristics, the bastides retain individuality and are fascinating towns to visit. They were invariably built on a hilltop, or some other easily defensible position, and had a fortified perimeter. Most usual of all, they were built to a rectangular grid layout, with narrow alleys (carreyous) for access to backs of houses and their gardens, and a narrow separating gap (andrones) between houses to limit the spread of fire and enable rain and waste water disposal. Typically, bastides were built around a market square, often with a covered section (les halles) or covered arcades (cornières) built out of the ground floor of the houses surrounding the square.
At Villeneuve d‘Aveyron the town was grafted onto a Romanesque monastery, and later became one of a small number of bastides royales used as a royal base during the construction of the other towns. Of all those in Aveyron, Villeneuve does not follow the characteristic rectangular layout, but rather has a network of narrow roads radiating from the central church. Lovely arcades feature around the tiny village centre, from which carreyous seem to run in all directions.
Perched on a steep-sided hill in the south-west of the département, the 13th-century fortress town of Najac dominates the wild gorges of the Aveyron. Najac is one of many villages embroiled in the early 13th-century religious saga of the Cathars, the ‘Good Men’, as they were called, of a breakaway religious following persecuted by the Pope and his agents, and, in the case of Najac, condemned to build the church of St Jean at their own expense. They were the lucky ones; many died in flames for their belief.
The village, one of the most beautiful in France, is essentially one long street perched on a ridge. Its timber-framed houses have a relaxed air about them, leaning companionably on their neighbours for essential support. The walk to the castle precincts is well worth the effort, such as it is, for it gives a splendid view both of the village and the surrounding Aveyron countryside.
To the north of the River Aveyron, the town of Villefranche de Rouergue was founded in 1252 by the Count of Toulouse, Alphonse de Poitiers. Here the town follows the typical plan: regular in layout with narrow streets intersecting at right angles and leading to a central square bordered by arcades which today are the focal point of a colourful and lively market. Central to the town is the huge church, which literally dominates everything.
La Bastide l’Évêque
La Bastide l’Évêque was founded in 1280 by the Bishop of Rodez as a rival to Villefranche, and is built on a plateau overlooking the Aveyron valley. Here the design has greater simplicity made possible by its more isolated position. Compared with the other bastides of Aveyron, this is the smallest, and few of its original defences are evident, though the main entrance archway is singularly impressive. This is a quiet place, off the beaten track, and a delight to visit.
Like Najac, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue is classed as ‘One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France’; it was founded on monastery land in 1281 by King Philippe, and is arguably the finest example of a bastide, with ramparts, ancient gateways, narrow streets and forty-seven delightful arcades around a central market place. Today, the village is witnessing a revival of traditional trades and skills with the growth of artisanats producing bags, knives, tapestries, hats, floral decorations, wrought-iron metalwork and leather goods.