A plan from the dark days of history
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: email@example.com. 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.