Villefranche de Conflent

Villefranche de Conflent is a tiny mediaeval village folded into a crease cut by the little river Têt into the Pyrénées, near Andorra. It seems almost frozen in time behind its massive walls, which bind the village into its slot between the Têt and Cady Rivers and the overhanging mountains. I arrived there at 6.30pm on a September evening from a day riding the Little Yellow Train up into the Pyrenean alpine meadows, just as the sun was softening over the ramparts and towers preparatory to sliding behind the marble cliffs of the Pyrenees. villefranche-de-conflent As I trundled my little overnight bag across the stone bridge and through Porte de France at the eastern end of the village, I was unsure exactly where in Rue St-Jaques my hotel was, but there are only two main streets in Villefranche de Conflent, Rue St-Jacques and Rue St-Jean, which run parallel to each other for the length of the town, so I knew it would not be too hard to find.  chambres-d'hotes-de-l'ancienne-posteIt turns out that every building has a wrought iron sign depicting the character of its occupation, and I instantly recognised right on the corner ahead of me the carrier pigeon sign for the Chambres d'Hôtes de l'Ancienne Poste representing its previous life as the post office. The village was founded in 1091 with construction of the ramparts under the Count of Cerdagne because of its strategic location, as it was then on the border between France and Spain. It was made tax-free to attract skilled residents such as  merchants, artisans, tanners and metalworkers, a prosperous past which is reflected in the architecture of the houses, which were built around 1300 from the pinkish local marble and other stone. The general plan is that the streets are narrow and the buildings tall because there is no room to expand within or outside the walls. Stables and animals were on the street level, business on the first floor, and people lived on the third and fourth floors. This pattern somewhat continues today with the ground floor of most buildings being given over to numerous restaurants, jewellers, antique bookshops, a speliological society, a bank, a pottery shop, and assorted nick-nack stores, with people living above (the current population is about 250 people). The scale of the buildings was clear in my hotel, which has 23 steps from ground floor to first floor and again from first to the second floor. These are seriously tall ceilings! villefranche-de-conflentAs evening fell I wandered up and down the streets, and as they are not long, perhaps 400 metres end to end, I wandered up and down them again. The streets were almost empty, the August holidays having ended, and the dozens of restaurants stood hopefully lit and open for the few people strolling in search of dinner. I looked at a few places but did not fancy being the only person in the place, watched and watched over by hopeful servitors, and ended up having a pancake in a tiny place that had 6 or 8 people in it. I have to say it was not a great choice, a rather bland wholewheat pancake with a few pieces of scallop, a small pichet of very ordinary white wine, and one scoop of ice-cream for €22. However my mind was less on dinner, and more on the very large spa-bath in my hotel room which was calling me (well, shouting at me really!) because I had been up since 5.30am to drive to Villefranche followed by a long day on the Little Yellow Train. I spent the rest of the evening reading in the bath - oh how I miss my bath when I am living in France, where I have only a shower! I had a very pleasant breakfast in the hotel, with a particularly nice selection of cheeses from the local part of the Pyrenees which is a very pristine environment, which Helene served with croissants, plenty of coffee and hot milk, and interesting information about the region. Although the building is vast there are only 3 rooms available, more like suites really. Hotel-ancienne-posteMine had a four poster bed, 2 armchairs, a desk, several wardrobes, an entry foyer, and a bathroom bigger than many other hotel rooms. I could west look down into the entry courtyard, the Place du Génie, and to the Bastion du Dauphin to the left and the Bastion de Corneilla to the right out the bedroom windows, and over the roofs to the hills from the window in my foyer. I have inserted a map at the end of this article because there is not one available online, and it shows parking, amongst other things. I know that some people do not care too much about their hotel or hotel room, but I do like a bit of charm and local flavour in my accommodation, and I did enjoy the Ancienne Poste. imageAfter breakfast I went up into the ramparts (entry €4 through the Office of Tourism at the western end of Rue St-Jaques) which are very interesting, with access to a great amount of the ramparts. The fortifications were largely rebuilt and strengthened by Marshall Vauban under instruction from King Louis XIV in about 1680. Vauban was an extraordinary man, born into minor nobility but left destitute and orphaned at aged 10, he became the foremost military engineer in France and possibly Europe at that time. He was responsible for fortifications at about 300 cities, but his work at Fort Liberia and Villefranche de Conflent became a benchmark for future fortifications in Europe and England. image The ramparts are on two levels running around the top of the walls, and covered so they can not be shot down at from the heights. They have arrow-slits so that archers could shoot outwards, or in to the courtyard. There are little cupolas projecting from the ramparts in places so that things could be dropped. There are also ramparts running around at the base of the walls. After the ramparts I flagged down a 4WD vehicule which was marked Fort Liberia; it was €10 to go up to the fort and back again, which seemed a bit much - until I did the trip. It was a very rough drive of almost 10 minutes up a very poor track full of washouts and switchbacks, very hard on a vehicule. fort-liberiaI spent about an hour climbing up and down and around endless flights of stone stairs, some of which were a bit stressful for anyone who might get vertigo (me). I had intended to go back down to the town by the Thousand Steps, a completely underground set of stairs connecting the fort with the town. I did start down a very low, steep and narrow set of stairs and thought, "not for me", but apparently It was the wrong set of steps and the actual Thousand Steps is quite moderate. I do really regret not having done it, another time perhaps. fort-liberia Amazingly, Fort Liberia has been privately owned since 1925, including having been bought as a wedding for present for his wife by a man with very odd ideas in 1955! It is, along with the village of Villefranche de Conflent, a UNESCO monument. There are so many things in this area that I did not see, which always seems to be the case. I am kicking myself that I forgot to back and see the huge fortified natural cave accessed from the village, the Cova Bastera.  There are apparently spectacular caves, and a large monastery nearby, but my time had run out. Villefranche is a very charming little village, and is classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Handy Facts Villefranche de Conflent is a comfortable 35 minute drive from Perpignan, but it is also served by train and bus from Perpignan. The local train station, Villefranche Vern, is the departure for the Little Yellow Train which serves the highest railway station in France. Villefranche does not get snow and the road from Perpignan is open all year. The Chambres d'Hôte de l'Ancienne Poste does not appear to have a website but it can be booked through airbnb. Entry to Fort Liberia is €9. A laminated information sheet is available for a €2 deposit. There is a coffee shop and bar in the courtyard. The walk up from the village to the fort takes, I am told, about an hour. The descent of the Thousand Steps underground staircase (it is really 734 steps) takes, I was told, 15 minutes, but I saw someone rather roll their eyes when this was said. map-villefranche-de-conflent  
Like this?
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on Google+