A plan from the dark days of his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JOHN MINNERY

South­west France is a fas­ci­nat­ing place, not just for the wine, food and scenery, but be­cause it is home to some un­usual and strik­ing me­dieval planned towns. The story of these has long fas­ci­nated me. We re­cently hired a car in Bordeaux and trav­elled cross-coun­try to Toulouse so we could visit some of these spe­cial towns called the bastides, prob­a­bly from the French word batir, to build. There are at least 700. Sim­i­lar planned me­dieval towns can be found else­where in Europe, but France has the great­est num­ber.

They were built mainly be­tween 1200 and 1400AD. What’s re­ally spe­cial about them is that they were planned, laid out and reg­u­lated be­fore they were built, then each was given a spe­cial char­ter. Their strate­gic lo­ca­tions and reg­u­lar­ity make them so dif­fer­ent from other me­dieval set­tle­ments and en­hance their in­ter­est and charm.

They came about, though, from an es­pe­cially tur­bu­lent his­tory. The re­gion was long fought over by France and Eng­land. Much of it was dev­as­tated dur­ing the Al­bi­gen­sian Cru­sade against the Cathars in the early part of the 13th cen­tury. The bastides were cre­ated for many pur­poses: to stake a claim over dis­puted lands, to help re­pop­u­late aban­doned ar­eas or to pro­vide oases of ur­ban se­cu­rity for scat­tered farm­ing pop­u­la­tions. They were also an av­enue for mak­ing money through spec­u­la­tive land sub­di­vi­sion. King Ed­ward I of Eng­land and Count Ray­mond VII of Toulouse were pro­lific builders of bastides, but so too were other no­bles and even monas­ter­ies.

They were de­signed with a reg­u­lar grid of streets cen­tred on an open mar­ket square sur­rounded by arched shel­tered ar­cades and some­times with a spe­cial mar­ket hall. Ac­cess to the square was phys­i­cally con­strained so taxes could be col­lected. Many were later walled. The town char­ters gave the res­i­dents new free­doms and rights, but they also spec­i­fied the week­day for each town’s mar­ket, which re­mains the same today.

There’s now a well-es­tab­lished bastides tourist route through south­west France (just fol­low the clever sig­nage) as well as a Mu­seum of Bastides at Mon­flan­quin. Some have grown into larger towns (like Villeneuve-sur-Lot), oth­ers have re­mained as at­trac­tive small towns (such as Mon­pazier and Mont­pel­lier). They are a fas­ci­nat­ing part of France’s built her­itage and well worth a visit. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive L’Oc­c­i­tane his-and-her treats of Ce­drat AfterShave Cream Gel with notes of berg­amot, nut­meg and cedar; and a lim­ited edi­tion Rose Shea Hand­cream re­leased to mark L’Oc­c­i­tane’s 40th an­niver­sary this year; $82. More: au.loc­c­i­tane.com.

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