During the 11th and 12th centuries in France, a small community huddled for protection at the foot of a fortified feudal castle was known as a castrum, or bourg astral, or castellan. A settlement clustered around a church or monastery was called a sauveté—a place of safety. But in the early 13th century a new kind of village appeared on the scene, particularly in the southwest, known as a bastide.
The word derives from bâtir, to build, and in no way suggests a bastion. It’s not to be confused, either, with a Provençal bastide, which is a large farmhouse.
Among the first to found bastides was Count Raymond VII of Toulouse. A supporter of the Cathars, or Albigensians, a religious sect considered heretic by the Catholic church, Raymond was defeated in 1229 by the Crusader knights of France. The 1229 treaty obliged Raymond to marry his only child, Jeanne, to Alphonse de Poitiers, the brother of Louis IX—Saint Louis—and stipulated that if the couple had no heir the territory of Toulouse would pass to France. (And so it did, much later, when Jeanne died in 1271.)
His political power gone, Raymond VII turned to investing in the creation of the new towns—many have Villeneuve in their names—meant primarily as economic ventures. Purpose-built on unoccupied land, these bastides were immediately different from older medieval villages with winding streets that grew willy-nilly over decades. The bastides adopted the regular square grid of ancient Roman towns, with an arcaded market square at the center. In most cases, the church was set off to the side of the square, pointing to the priority given to trade.
Between 1229 and 1337, more than 300 bastides mushroomed across what are now the Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées regions in southwest France—a spectacular burst of urbanization. Their founders were the kings of France and England—Aquitaine at the time was English, by virtue of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry Plantagenet—or local feudal lords, abbots or bishops, often associated in a two- or three-way partnership known as a paréage. Early bastides were not walled, but many built ramparts later, especially as tensions mounted between France and England before the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).
The new towns were divided into equal plots and allocated to the new inhabitants, who had to build their homes within a certain time or be heavily fined. In return for being enfranchised—hence those bastides named Villefranche—the new towns had to concede as much as 50% of their income to the founders, who further profited from taxes on merchandise sold by non-residents.
The bastide gave rise to a new bourgeoisie within the feudal system, creating wealth—witness the surviving mansions in many bastides. A Charter of Customs, reinforced by elected consuls, regulated every aspect of life including hygiene and moral issues. To be charged with adultery, for example, the male offender would have to be literally caught with his pants down by at least two consular agents, after which both culprits would be sentenced to run nude through the streets of town. The consuls were democratically elected for one year by the all-male electorate.
There are far too many bastides to cover all at once, but Villefranche-de-Rouergue, in the Aveyron, is a good starting point for a tour. It was built in 1252 by Alphonse de Poitiers, who became count of Toulouse when Raymond VII died in 1249, and was a mainstay of bastide development. He set the new town at the intersection of the Aveyron River with major roads leading to nearby silver and copper mines. Choosing the northern riverbank, he made the town an outpost on the border with Aquitaine.
The Thursday morning market in Villefranche is one of the region’s best. Climb to the top of the Collégiale church for a bird’s-eye view of the town’s checker-board layout. Inside the church, André Sulpice’s 15th-century woodcarvings on the underseat ledges of the choir stalls depict delightful scenes from daily life. (Known as miséricordes, from the word for mercy, the ledges offered a support to lean against while standing through long ceremonies.) Similar carvings are found in the beautiful Chartreuse, or Charter House, on the outskirts of town. The 17th-century Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs boasts a splendid Baroque ceiling, and both the Maison du Président Raynal and the extraordinary Maison Dardennes-Bernays with its sculpted stairway tower are grand examples of wealthy homes.
From Villefranche, take a detour to the storybook village of Najac to visit its formidable château fortress, also built by Alphonse de Poitiers. On clear days panoramic views from the top extend as far as the Pyrenees.
North of Villefranche, still in the Aveyron, Raymond VII grafted the bastide of Villeneuve onto an 11th-century sauveté in 1231. It’s interesting to explore the two sections and compare their networks of streets. The pure Romanesque style of the church in the section beneath the bell tower and the Gothic architecture of the nave correspond to the two periods of construction. Sauvetés were often built along the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, which is why the Villeneuve church houses faded 14th-century murals depicting a morality tale about the pilgrimage.
Southeast of Villefranche, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue also began as a sauveté. It was reconfigured into a bastide in 1281 by King Philippe III’s seneschal Guillaume de Mâcon. The half-timbered Maison Unal on the square is a typical example of medieval architecture, with cut stonework and double corbelling. In summer the square is enlivened by the Friday night market. Artisans’ traditions thrive here too, from basket weavers to glassblowers and milliners, and Sauveterre knives are collectors’ items.
The Black Prince
Farther west, in the Dordogne, Monpazier is a jewel of a bastide built in 1284 for the English Edward I, who fortified his new town with ramparts from the start. It’s a perfect bastide, with a rectangular grid and a magnificent church set back from the main square. The square has lost six arches, but the medieval covered market, la Halle, still stands. A weekly market has been held in it on Thursdays since the town’s foundation, and in winter it is augmented by mushroom and truffle markets.
Villeréal, founded by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1269, has preserved a splendid heritage of half-timbered houses and a colossal fortified church designed to withstand an English assault—alas to no avail. By 1279, Villeréal was ruled by Edward I, who granted it a charter and set Saturday as market day; it still is today, held in the magnificent 14th-century covered Halle. Some old-timers may remember childhood days when they brought their chairs to the Halle to watch movies on a makeshift screen, a major event announced by village drummers.
Monflanquin, another of Alphonse’s ventures, celebrated its 750th anniversary in 2006 with a gorgeous facelift. The house on the square that reputedly belonged to Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, in fact probably postdates him, but little matter. Exploring Monflanquin is a joy, discovering architectural details such as the personal stamps left by craftsmen on some beams, or the latrines hanging on side walls in the narrow spaces between two houses—often mistaken for firebreaks, the spaces served as gutters. The excellent Musée des Bastides is filled with scale models and a wealth of information dispelling the notion of the “Dark” Ages.
Lofty Tournon d’Agenais, built as a castrum, was reorganized by Raymond VII and again by Alphonse, before coming under English rule in 1281. Its belfry long ago swapped its watchmen for a unique lunar clock displaying the phases of the moon. It’s a tranquil place with views over the Lot Valley, the old Quercy region and plum orchards that are ravishing when in bloom. Said to have been introduced from Damascus by Crusaders, their fruit is dried into the region’s renowned prunes. On August 15th the Foire à la Tourtière celebrates a local specialty made of pastry as thin as rice paper and dosed with armagnac, plum eau-de-vie or rum.
Alphonse founded Villeneuve-sur-Lot on the river Lot hoping to control this major navigable route to Bordeaux. It developed on both banks of the river and a bridge was built as early as 1289. Meant as a peaceful link between the two quarters, it became the scene of brawls between the Blue and the White Penitents, whose chapter houses were on either side. The old bastide has largely been swallowed up by the modern town now, but guided tours allow visitors to climb up the Tour de Paris, where the bastide’s archives were kept. Over the centuries the original Charter of Customs somehow made its way to Atlanta, Georgia, where it remains today. The surviving old streets still carry a medieval flavor, and Place Lafayette is exquisitely eclectic.
Armagnac and foie gras
Vianne, on the river Baïse, is the only bastide named after a woman, the aunt of its founder Jourdain de l’Isle; it was his way of thanking her for leaving him her fortune. He built it in partnership with Edward I, and the ramparts erected under the English king still girdle it majestically, with four corner towers and gates. Rent a boat on the Baïse for a special approach, which takes in the tall, fortified tower of its Romanesque church.
It’s uncertain if Puymirol was originally a castrum, but it became a bastide under Raymond VII in 1246, and later shifted from Edward I to Philippe le Bel of France. The lovely village, perched above the Séoune River, is now home to chef Michel Trama’s three-star restaurant. A fine gastronomic experience is guaranteed, concocted from the region’s freshest produce and sprinkled, when required, with wild purslane picked beneath the ramparts. This is also foie gras country, celebrated at the Musée du Foie Gras by Yves and Geneviève Boissière, staunch defenders of their regional traditions.
Farther south, in the Gers, where the old regions of Armagnac and Gascony meet, the circular village of Fourcès is often identified as a bastide but is in fact a castelnau. Nearby Montréal, built in 1255, switched from French to English rule and back again by 1324, but despite warfare and the loss of its Halle in a 19th-century fire, it has preserved its architectural integrity. The Hôtel de Ville, with its Louis XIII wooden staircase and Renaissance chimney, was once the townhouse of the Marquis Maribon de Montaut, an aristocratic revolutionary who was the first deputy of the Convention Assembly to vote for the death of Louis XVI.
The abbot of nearby Flaran was a founder of the bastide Valence-sur-Baïse. The abbey itself provides a magnificent example of Cistercian architecture. Converted into a farm during the Revolution, its church was used for stocking Armagnac. Today it’s a cultural center where a private collection of some 250 works of art is on loan for ten years—Gainsborough, Manet, Courbet, Camille Claudel, Rodin and Suzanne Valadon, among many others.
A massive 140-foot tower at the entrance to Bassoues offers sweeping views of the countryside. Below, the vast covered market straddles the square and the main street that crosses it, obliging traffic to pass beneath its roof. This unusual feature, together with the square’s half-timbered houses, can be enjoyed from the terrace of the Restaurant du Centre, where a copious three-course meal of homey regional fare is dished out for an extremely reasonable sum. (Reservations essential)
Music and musketeers
Most music lovers know about the summer Jazz Festival in Marciac, but few may be aware that the town is a bastide, founded in 1298 by Guichard de Marciac. As was often the case, there was a three-party partnership with the local Count of Pardiac and the abbey of La Case-Dieu—an extract of the paréage contract, in Latin, is displayed on the huge square, one of the largest of any bastide. The wonderful museum here, Les Territoires du Jazz, traces jazz history with video clips, sound tracks, memorabilia and superb scenography.
Mirande hosts an unlikely but very successful Country Music Festival every year in mid-July. A 19th-century iron-and-stone market hall has replaced the medieval one, but the bastide’s geometric fabric is intact—49 perfect blocks of houses, 164 x 164 feet each. This was another three-party affair and all three built dwellings with towers to enhance their prestige—two towers still stand on the square. Mirande’s church has a surprising flying buttress that leaps over the narrow street alongside—admiring visitor Victor Hugo left a drawing of it.
The real-life inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’s musketeer hero d’Artagnan was Charles de Batz, whose statue stands proudly in his hometown of Auch. The city’s cathedral is one of the most remarkable in France, with splendid stained-glass windows and stunning choir stalls carved with some 1500 characters derived from the Bible, history and myth.
Other bastides around Auch include the important market town of Fleurance, and Saint-Clar, with its two arcaded squares. In the main medieval marketplace you’ll find the superb chambres d’hôtes La Garlande. Cologne has a gem of a market hall, surmounted by the Consuls House and a charming bell tower. Its rosy pink- and red-brick harmony gives it the air of a miniature Toulouse, the “ville rose” only 25 miles away—the ancient capital of Raymond VII’s fiefdom.
Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. www.thirzavallois. com. Find Thirza’s books in the France Today bookstore: www.francetoday.com/store
WHERE TO STAY
La Closerie 7 quai Poult, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, 05.65.45.65.83. Erick and Brigitte Hurault de Vibraye
Auberge du Sénéchal Michel Truchon Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, 05.65.71.29.00. website 
Le Relais de Roquefereau Penne d’Agenais, 05.53.41.40.62. website 
La Garlande 12 pl de la Mairie, Saint- Clar, 05.62.66.47.31. website 
WHERE TO EAT
Michel Trama 52 rue Royale, Puymirol, 05.53.95.31.46. website 
Restaurant du Centre Bassoues, 05.62.70.90.44.
WHAT TO DO
Aquitaine Navigation Buzet-sur-Baïse, 05.53.84.72.50. website
Musée de Foie Gras Ferme de Souleilles, Frespech, 05.53.41.23.24. website 
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of France Today