Bastide Towns
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Deep in the heart of the middle ages, life was pretty rough in South-West France. In an effort to bring a bit of stability to the area, 'new towns' were planned and built. These towns were built around a strict grid layout, and also usually fortified, and aimed to bring a bit of stability and security to the inhabitants while also adding to the strength of the respective sides (English and French) in the region.

Some bastides had a more specific military purpose, and were built as a result of 'tensions' during the hundred years war. Hence many are found between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Many changed hands between the English and French, some several times, during this period.

The layout of a typical bastide town includes a central square, several large streets running from the square to the edge of the town, and a grid pattern of narrow passages between these main streets. The central square historically had a sheltered hall in the middle for market days, and a series of arched passages around the edges.

The towns offered a degree of safety, tax concessions and exemptions from military service to their inhabitants, and a small plot of land on which inhabitants could build a house.

The churches in bastide towns were often also used for defensive purposes, and designed and built with that in mind.

Of course, some 700 years or so later, these towns preserve their original form to varying degrees. Some have become sprawling large towns, others have largely disappeared, but the area has a good number of towns  that have passed the centuries largely intact.

Where are bastide towns found

I consider the 'centre' of the bastide region to be the Monflanquin - Monpazier - Villereal area in northern Lot-et-Garonne (my 'sunflower area'), since there are a particularly high concentration of bastide towns within easy reach of each other, including the three mentioned above - Villereal, Monflanquin, Monpazier - plus others including Eymet, Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Tournon d'Agenais, Beaumont, Castillones and Domme.

Other bastide towns are found further south eg Fleurance and to the east and west of the area.

Some of our favourite local bastide towns include:

Villereal

The most remarkable feature of Villereal is undoubtedly its intact 14th century market hall dominating almost all of the central square - and still used for markets today. A wonderful lively small town, with a myriad of back streets to explore. Certainly the least commercialised  town among those listed here, and probably the most lively outside the May - September holiday season.

Villereal was founded in 1269 by Alphonse de Poitiers, in an effort to keep the English at bay. This didn't work and the English occupied the town during the Hundred Years War.

Located in the northern part of the Lot-et-Garonne department.

Monpazier

A really amazing town, that has preserved its medieval centre almost completely intact. The arcades and market hall are still there, there are no cars in the centre, and there is little to stop the illusion that you have stepped back 600 years in time. Unmissable. The town is very quiet outside the holiday season. Listed as 'one of the most beautiful villages in France'.

Monpazier was founded in 1284 by Edward 1 of England.

In 1594 and 1637 the town of Monpazier was the centre of peasant insurgence, triggered by the terrible conditions following the end of the Wars of Religion. On both occasions the rebellions were violently suppressed.

Found in the southern part of the Dordogne department, approximately 16 kilometres east from Villereal.

Monflanquin

Similar in style and perfection to Monpazier, it loses a few points by no longer having its central market hall, but gains them back by being on top of a hill with lovely views on the surrounding countryside and by being slightly less touristy. Monflanquin is on quite a steep hill, that adds to its charm. Listed as 'one of the most beautiful villages in France'

It is worth driving a few miles south of Monflanquin on the Villeneuve-sur-Lot road simply to turn around and drive back again - the view of the town, with its ancient houses spreading down the hill, always seems to catch the sun and is one of the great views of the area.

Founded in 1256 by Alphonse de Poitiers.

Domme

A little larger than many of the bastide towns, Domme is perched high above the Dordogne River and has wonderful views of the river and countryside. Unusually among the bastide towns, it retains part of its original fortified walls and the gateways into the town. Perhaps the overly perfect restoration and over-commercialisation of the town reduces the feeling of authenticity that is found in, say, Monpazier. However a visit remains a 'must'. There are also some very good caves accessed from in the centre of the town. Listed as 'one of the most beautiful villages in France'

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