Villefranche-de-Rouergue – a celebration of local life and produce…
The Aveyron region of France is known both for its abundance of local produce, its raw and captivating landscape and its intriguing gastronomy and if Conques was fuel for the soul of the ancient pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela, then surely Villefranche-de-Rouergue was a feast for the senses.
The pilgrims route in Aveyron
The journey between the two towns, first along the meandering valley of the River Dordou and through the plateaux and vineyards of the Marcillac and then over the plunging hills to the gorges of the River Aveyron, must have felt like both penance and delightful pleasure and if, like me, those pilgrims arrived in Villefranche as the sun dropped down over the hills, this 13th century “newly built” bastide town with a distinctly southern feel, must at first glance, have seemed like a sleepy haven of calm and a refreshing grid of orderliness.
The bastide towns were of course designed with the main focus on the market rather than the church, with a tidy network of streets emanating away from the central square. And if again like me, those pilgrims found themselves in Villefranche on a Thursday morning, they’d probably have been woken by the comforting buzz of a town that is going to market. Not much has changed over the centuries and you should take your time over your morning bowl of hot chocolate or pot of coffee before heading out, because this is a market not to be rushed.
The market of Villefrance-de-Rouergue
Filling the central Place Notre Dame and spilling out from the shade of the covered arcades and the tall timber framed houses of the wealthy merchants of centuries past, the market oozes down the narrow streets of Villefranche like an interactive artist’s palette with sizzling colours melting into one another and tantalising aromas, teasing you from one stall to the next.
First perhaps you’re hit by the sweet smell of garlic, onions and fresh leeks which lull you over to a stall awash with freshly picked vegetables and fruit. Then you’re lost in a haze of lavender, coriander and herbs or perhaps you catch a breath of the sea as fresh fish calls from the chilled side of a van. From there you might hunt amongst the vast platters of steaming delights like ready to eat mussels and stuffed duck or the sweet, sticky scent of fresh patisseries and cakes. And just when you think you’re senses are spent, you’ll find yourself wafting on the cloud of freshly baked bread, spiced fruits and handsome ground coffee, admiring a table groaning with overweight cheeses or torturing yourself over a stall piled high with sausages and salamis pleading to go home in your basket.
This is local life at its most vibrant, with the young and the old ducking in and out of the bright colours of the peppers, linens and pottery and jostling to catch the gossip or lock horns with a local hawker to get the best price. There’s an ironically biblical feel as nuns huddle in the vast porch of the collegiate church to sell a mixture of cheap trinkets and homemade preserves and the sound of music from a group of travellers brings home what a delicious assault on the senses of the weary pilgrim this town must have been.
This is a town that’s in love with fine, local food and produce and throughout the summer, if you haven’t feasted enough on the hedonistic pleasures of the Thursday market, you can head down to the shade of the plane trees in the Place St Jean late on a Tuesday afternoon. Pull up a chair or throw down a rug and sample the many delights of the Marche de Producteur, a sort of ready-made picnic with an endless choice of local delicacies to enjoy, followed by music and dancing at the bandstand.
And the celebration of life doesn’t end there because throughout the summer, this town throws itself into a heady enjoyment with fireworks in July of course, an animated street theatre in August (Festival de Theatre de la Rue) which threads, laughs and dazzles its way through the narrow streets of the town and other smaller markets every Saturday and Sunday.
As I was to discover, this ever so slightly schizophrenic town does have a quiet and spiritual side but if it’s the luxury of simple self-indulgence and the unspoilt enjoyment of nature’s bounty that you’re looking for, this is a town you will love as well as a town that you’ll find hard to leave.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer