Villefranche-de-Conflent, surrounded by the Pyrenees. Above is Fort Liberia.
This little village is easily passed when one is driving to Spain, or to the ski slopes of Font Romeu. Its location is almost hidden amongst the gaunt surrounding peaks.
Villefranche is an eleventh century medieval town that lies strategically between France and Spain, in the lands of the Conflent. Its fortress walls defeated Jaume III the son of last king of Majorca in 1374, and it took six days for French troops to take the town in 1654. Consequently it was heavilly fortified by Vauban in the seventeenth century. It lies at the foot of the Canigou at the heart of the Pyrenees. Classed as one of the 'Most Beautiful Villages in France', Villefranche is one of the 14 Vauban sites retained for UNESCO World listing. Within the fortifications, its a lovely experience to walk down the narrow lanes, where there are a myriad of shops, artists, and crafts people selling their wares.
A little history - in 1092 the Count of Cerdanya, Guillaume Raymond, built the town at the confluence of the Têt, the Cady and the Rotja to make safe the area, as it was strategically very important. At the same time the Bishop of Elne agreed to the construction of the Eglise de St Jacques.
In 1095 the new town is called Vila Franca ('Town of free-trade') by the Count of Cerdanya. These free trade taxes encouraged many different trades: weavers, tanners, drapers, stonemasons, merchants, and by 1277, market rights created a popular market for meat, fish and vegetables at the Place de l'église (where now you can dine and wine at the local restaurants).
1654 brought the Treaty of the Pyrenees dividing Catalonia into South Catalonia and North Catalonia (now known as Pyrénées Orientales); at the same time as when French troops took the town in 8 days, and King Louis XIV married the Queen of Spain. With the more sophisticated uses of guns and cannons, the low walled town of Villefranche was no longer defensible, so in 1681 Vauban built Fort Liberia as well as stregthening the Villefranche city walls. During this time Vauban worked on the construction of a barracks, a hospital, watch towers, gunpowder stores and the demolition of the Franciscan convent in the town. Under Louis XVI (1783), the gates were enlarged in pink marble and a drawbridge added. During the latter part of the 18th century, the dungeons at Fort Liberia, were the prison cells of the unfortunate women who worked for the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who poisoned her poisoned her father, two brothers, and a sister, as well as attempting to murder a sister and sister in law, as well as a tutor who she was involved with, for the family inheritance. These poisonings threatened the King of France who was afraid of a conspiracy, as there were other mysterious deaths in the noble families at the time. Witchcraft was also considered a source. The Marquise was later executed in Paris. In the 19th Century, Napoleon III continued to strengthen the village as well as the fort - notably the constructing an underground passage "of a thousand steps" which linked Villefranche de Conflent to Fort Liberia via 775 steps, starting by the Pont St Pierre, a Roman bridge, which also crosses the railway line of the famous Little Yellow Train (see below).
THE YELLOW TRAIN
The Yellow Train line (Train Jaune, Tren Groc) runs from Villefranche-de-Conflent through to Mont-Louis. It was originally constructed in 1903 and the section to Mont-Louis was completed in 1910, followed by an extension to Latour-de-Carol in 1927. It is 63 km long and climbs to 1593 m at Bolquère-Eyne, which is the highest railway station in France. There are 19 tunnels and two bridges, one of them a suspension bridge which is very unusual for a railway. The electric trains get their power comes from hydro-electric sources on the River Têt. For travellers there is an option for open and closed cars - views are are dramatic and stunning as the train climbs along the twisting track sometimes at the maximum speed of 55 kilometres per hour. The yellow colors of the train were chosen as they are dominant colors of the Catalan flag.