Escape from the bedlam – the quieter treasures of Villefranche-de-Rouergue on the French Pilgrim Trail in Aveyron...
If you are in the Aveyron region of France, there is almost no greater pleasure than a morning spent weaving your way through the voluptuous delights of the well-known Thursday market in Villefranche. Bu, when you’ve had your fill of the sensual hustle of street life, there’s a more reflective side of Villefranche that is worth exploring.
You might start by ducking into the cool calm of the 15th century Collégiate Notre Dame in the main square where the creak of the pews, the scent of musty stone, the whispered voices and the echoes of footfall on flagstones is stark relief to the mayhem outside on market day. The church itself took 300 years to build and is home to some remarkable stalls which vividly tell the story of 15th century life in all its gruesome glory. And if you’re lucky enough to have caught yourself a guide and have firm thighs and a good head for heights, climb the 163 steps to the clock tower above where you can look down in awe on the scurrying ants of the market and across the patchwork of tiled roof tops to the hills of the Aveyron beyond. There’s a tranquillity here broken only by the swooping of the swallows who also hang like gothic sculptures from the church walls.
Leaving the church, it’s hard to imagine what the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela thought as they arrived in later centuries at the extraordinarily audacious Baroque Chappelle des Penitents Noirs on the northern outskirts of the town. Now home to top musical and theatrical productions to take advantage of the wonderful acoustics, this 17th and 18th century chapel is an ever so slightly bizarre mixture of vast paintings, gilded wood and sculptures, ornate decorations and a painted ceiling which all seems in stark contrast to the sinister and pointed hooded cloaks of the penitents who can still be seen once a year in the streets of Villefranche in their annual procession.
And if the chapel leaves you in need of something more soothing for the soul, head south across the River Aveyron to the 15th century monastery of Chatreuse Saint Saveur, once home to the Carthusian Order, with its vast cloisters and its pervading sense of calm. Built by the widow of a wealthy merchant, part of it now houses the local hospital but the presence of the silent and dedicated monks who lived and worshipped here is never far away.
Once the heat of the day is spent, make your way back to the central square, where as the moon rises, the calming bubble of fountains, lit by a splendid array of coloured lights has replaced the market stalls and the covered arcades quietly echo with occasional footsteps. Now is the time to discover the many restaurants of Villefranche, the outstanding local cuisine and the light, refreshing wines of the regions.
I joined an eclectic group of writers in a small restaurant appropriately named L’Epicurien, where we enjoyed the best of the morning’s market such as delicate ananas (pineapple) tomatoes, dainty, fresh fish, puddings that left you breathless and even a “Macalon” – a long shaped macaroon of course! The food here was as much a work of art as a meal and as the evening slipped into a refreshing shade of cool, we sat outside until the early hours with a cool beer and an easy banter as so many hundreds of pilgrims must have done before us. Soul and senses satisfied and with an ever so slightly heavy heart, it was time come morning for this modern day pilgrim to say goodbye to the Chemin Saint Jacques or pilgrim’s trial and head east towards Rodez.
VilleFranche de Rouerge – the village that celebrates local life and local produce
Conques, Aveyron, a place to nourish the weary souls of travellers
Conques in photos, a gallery of images from The Good Life France
You can find out more about Villefranche de Rouergue and the Aveyron region at www.tourisme-aveyron.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer