From Perpignan it’s a 50-minute train journey to Villefranche-de-Conflent. The town of Villefranche is then a further 10-minute walk away from the station up the valley. The wonderful Train Jaune leaves from Villefranche and heads into the Pyrenees eventually linking up with the Barcelona – Toulouse line at Latour-de-Carol.
I left the station and walked along the road heading to Andorra. Up ahead I saw a massive bastion guarding the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers. This is where Villefranche-de-Conflent begins. Two main streets Rue St Jacques and Rue St Jean make walking around easy to do. There are no cars inside the walls.
I believe a better way to arrive at the town would be to go straight ahead from the station, keeping the railway line on your right and cross over the footbridge and then walk along the path keeping the railway on your left this time until you arrive at the entrance to Fort Liberia.
Fort Liberia was built by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), one of the greatest military engineers of all. He was responsible for the fortification of over 160 places in France, although his major contribution to warfare was his methods of attack, which revolutionised siege warfare.
Vauban quickly realised as Villefranche is overlooked by a mountain, Mont Belloc, any enemy occupying this site would be easily able to bombard the town. His solution was to build Fort Liberia on the mountain and include a cistern and powder magazines allowing the fort to be self-sufficient in armaments. The fort is connected to Villefranche by 734 steps made from local pink marble.
The ramparts of Villefranche comprise two storeys of galleries, the lower dating from the 11th Century and the upper from the 17th. The lower rampart was where the lookouts would have done their tours of inspection and it really is possible to be transported to that time. As I walked along these ramparts with their sturdy wooden roofs supported by strong walls there was a tremendous air of permanence about the whole structure and it was as though nothing had changed in 900 years. A steam hammer, for shaping metals can be found close to the beginning of the tour entrance and brought me back to a more modern era.
The train journey from Perpignan to Villefranche goes through a number of interesting towns including Prades, where the cellist Pablo Casals lived in exile from Spain for the second part of his life. Casals founded the annual music festival in Prades in 1950.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker