Nestled in the Catalan Pyrenees of Southwestern France, you can find the charming village of Villefranche-de-Conflent. Not only is this mountain town on the list of France’s Most beautiful Villages, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Known for its fortifications, medieval streets, and mountain backdrops, this hidden gem is one to add to your travel bucket list. Although a popular tourist destination in the region, Villefranche is definitely not as packed as other bigger cities in the South of France during the holidays.
Arriving in Villefranche
To save some money, avoid the crowds in the Côte d’Azur, and enjoy my last few days of summer vacation,I decided to take a day trip to Villefranche-de-Conflent from Perpignan. Transportation for this trip was only 2€ round trip and included a regional train (20 mins) and bus ride (45 mins). In the train, make sure to sit by the window because you’ll pass by some beautiful orchards and vineyards in the countryside.
Once you arrive at the train station, you can either walk to the village or hike directly up to the fort! I decided to visit the fort first because in the summer it can get warm and sunny quickly in the Pyrenees. The hike up to the fort takes about 20 minutes and is medium difficulty just because of the incline. You definitely need to be wear appropriate shoes here because the path is quite rocky. I was out of breath by the time I reached the top, but maybe if you are in better shape than I am it will be easier! There are also shuttle busses available if the climb is not accessible for you.
The Fort-Château Libéria
The Fort Libéria is an 17th century military fortress that protected the town during numerous wars of Louis XIV. Villefranche is located near the border between France and Spain and the territory was often disputed. Thanks to a treaty in 1659, the area became French!
Today a small part of Catalonia remains in France, though the Catalan is not as widely spoken here as it is in Spain. Since I arrived at the fort just before opening time at 10 AM, I was one of the first people there and was able to explore the fort without a crowd.
The name “Libéria” is a reference to the “free” state of the village. Ville franche, or ville libre means free city in French. Walking around the fort you can discover its watchtowers, chapel, barracks, crypt, and even a women’s prison.
The entry fee is 7€ for an adult ticket, only payable in cash. Reduced prices are available for children. Overall this fort was worth the price and the climb! I had fun taking pictures of the mountains and village below, learning about French military history, and getting lost in the different chambers of the fort.
On the way down, I was able to take an underground path called “les milles marches” installed under Napoleon’s reign. This 180 meter descent of pink marble leads all the way back down to the village. Although it’s only 734 steps and not actually 1,000, it was quite the trek! It’s also possible to ascend to the fort this way, which is nice because it’s a lot cooler than hiking under the Catalan sun!
The Medieval Village of Villefranche-de-Conflent
After visiting the fort, I wandered into the village to see if it really was one of the “plus beaux villages de France.” Spoiler alert, it is beautiful! The buildings are stone with pastel colored wooden shutters.
The shops sell local artisan crafts like pottery, soap, jewelry, leather goods and more. You are also sure to find Catalan specialties like Roussillon wine, sheep’s milk cheeses, dried sausages, and sweet Rousquille cookies.
One interesting item that I noticed in a few shops were witch charms and ornaments. Apparently they bring good luck and ward off evil sprits! According to local legend, the witches lived in the Pyrenees caves throughout the winter, then came out to celebrate the holidays in the Spring with the villagers. This is a refreshing story to hear since most tales about witches end up with a not so happy ending.
For lunch, I ended up at Le Relais de Villefranche becuase I saw they had some affordable pizza. It wasn’t the most spectacular pizza in the world, but it hit the spot after a long morning walking around. If you aren’t vegetarian like me, I would recommend trying some traditional Catalan food.
Once I finished my lunch, I decided to visit the city’s ramparts, also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This time the entry fee was 4€50. The ramparts, were not as exciting as the fort, but it was still a nice place to walk around and see some more views of the city. It was also nice that it was mostly covered because as I mentioned before, it can get quite hot and sunny in this region, especially in the summer.
Some other things you can see on a day trip to Villefranche-de-Conflent include caves! There is one cave close to the ramparts called Cova Bastera which is unique because it has some of Vauban’s fortifications inside. Unfortunately this cave was closed when I visited. There are a couple of other caves called Petites et Grandes Canalettes, which are not too far from the village. I decided not to walk to the caves this time because I was already pretty exhausted from all the exploring I did earlier. I’ll just have to visit another time. Perhaps I’ll go in the winter so I can see some snow on the mountains!
I hope you enjoyed reading about my day trip to Villefranche-de-Conflent! Make sure you are following the blog by wordpress or email to get updates about more Pyrenees adventures.
À la prochaine,