I love the French “Most Beautiful Villages of France” classification, as it points out interesting villages with a rich heritage. It is a good starting point when I don’t know my way around. Sometimes I am a bit disappointed by the village, depending on when I visit. But the classified Villefranche-de-Conflent is a true gem that captured my heart immediately!
Villefranche-de-Conflent is a fortified village that was founded in the 11th century by the Count of Cerdanya. A part of the Catalan Pyrenees, Villefranche-de-Conflent had a strategic location in an area that changed hands between the French and Spanish occupiers now and then. In 1654, the village was taken by the French again, who were determined not to lose it to the Spanish once more.
So new fortifications were needed, and at that time the famous French military engineer Vauban was the man for the job. He perfectly understood how to protect Villefranche-de-Conflent from enemies who could hide in the surrounding mountains. Vauban reinforced the ramparts and made them higher and incorporated some of the medieval towers into the modernised fortifications. Like the Tour du Diable (Devil’s Tower) below, which even got cannon embrasures.
Wrought iron signs
It was interesting to learn a bit about Villefranche-de-Conflent’s history when my family and I wandered around. The village itself is not too big, and in autumn it is not busy at all. Entering by the Porte de France, we walked along the Rue Saint-Jacques to the Porte d’Espagne and then back on the Rue Saint-Jean. That pretty much covers the whole of Villefranche-de-Conflent. I absolutely loved the wrought iron signs that you see everywhere, taking us back to the days when the region produced a lot of iron. Even today you will still find some “ferronniers d’art”, or ironsmiths, mostly producing art. It became a great game to play with the kids- to guess the different professions and crafts that the signs represented.
At the Place de l’Eglise we stopped for a drink. In summer, you will find more terraces here, however even in autumn we found a nice little café for a ‘pause’. The kids wanted to roam around a bit more, as they had seen some interesting shops. I think they are mostly touristy shops, but if you look around, you’ll find some local artists as well. And our sons definitely wanted to check out the store full of iron signs. Not the real vintage stuff, but reproductions that the boys started to collect a while ago. I preferred looking at the facades and iron signs, and I spotted a most unusual chair…
World Heritage Site
In Villefranche-de-Conflent, UNESCO has classified no less than three sites as official World Heritage Sites. Of course the fortified village itself, but also the two other Vauban strongholds: Fort Libéria and Cova Bastera. If you want to visit Fort Libéria (read previous post here), you can enter it by the underground staircase with 1,000 steps, starting right after the Saint-Pierre bridge. You will be greeted by Saint Pierre himself, or Saint Peter, holding the key to the Kingdom of Heaven in his hand. Villefranche-de-Conflent is also the starting point of the famous yellow train, going to Latour-de-Carol via 22 stops.