Thursday, 4 August 2011

History seeping through the walls

When we'd been putting together our itinerary, the part of our trip that had imposed itself least on my mind was the final overnight stop in Villefrance de Conflent.

Paying rather less attention than to our other stopovers, I had a hazy picture in my mind of a Vauban fort on a hill, with a tiny village enclosed within it.

Thus, when we arrived, my thoughts were entirely on how we could visit the fort. That there was a village at ground level and that there would be anything interesting about it had not occurred to me.

In fact, what I'd mentally done was to conflate two things: Fort Liberia, which is indeed high up the mountain side, and was built as part of a strategy to defend the Têt Valley, and the tiny Cité of Villefranche de Conflent, which lies below.

After that welcoming and refreshing beer at the B&B, we headed toward the village, taking the scenic route described by our hostess. At first, it wasn't very scenic at all, being through a large car park that ran alongside the railway station.

But after climbing rough steps to a small bridge and then following a path around the side of the mountain, we caught sight of a bridge leading directly into the village. I say 'directly', but you had to walk through a gatehouse first, which stood opposite a door in the rock.

That was locked at such an hour, but we knew it contained the 1,000 steps that offered one route up to the fort itself - an 'improvement' added by Napoleon III and one that, even given the time, I would have foresworn for the rather older hairpin path that wound its way up the mountain side - and, Vauban being Vauban, would have allowed plenty of opportunities to take out unwanted visitors.

We passed through the gatehouse and then, via gates, over the narrow gauge railway we'd arrived on just a short while earlier; then over the bridge, with its high walls and firing holes on each side.

Now we were within the fortified walls of the Cité itself, and a narrow, ancient street took us to one of the two main streets in this tiny village.

It was, quite simply, astonishing. If Carcassonne is a miracle, then this is even more so - not least because it doesn't attract the numbers of travellers each day, so you don't feel overwhelmed by a crush of humanity waving plastic swords, but have the chance to take it all in.

That night, we ate at a local grill that our hostess had recommended. I had a truly delightful salad, of a local goat's cheese from the nearby commune of Conat, which was wrapped delicately, together with a small piece of ham, in a filo parcel that had been crisped beautifully, just warming the contents, and was dressed with Balsamico.

It came on slices of apple, which in turn sat on a pile of crisp, tasty lettuce.

To follow, I opted for pintade - or guinea fowl - with a thick, marmalady sauce of figs and Banyuls. Lovely stuff.

Ice cream was, as so often, the perfect conclusion.

We ambled back by the shorter route, along an unlit road, over the river Têt, and slept easily in a charming room that, in daylight, offered an excellent view of the fort.

The next day, with plenty of time until our 2.26pm train, we headed straight back to the village, again taking the scenic route. With nobody else around, it was a delight of a photographic expedition.

Those who say that time travel is impossible have never been to Villefranche de Conflent. And yet it is also a living, breathing place, not simply a museum or an amusement park for history buffs.

Not that there isn't plenty of history.

Vauban was the military architect to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and is even celebrated with a statue in Versailles. His influence was not confined to France or even Europe - or even his own century.

I first became aware of him when we started visiting Collioure, as he was involved in a number of the forts that dot the town and the wider area, from a period when there was still plenty of scrapping going on in the region, including incursions from nearby Spain.

We paid the small fee necessary to walk around inside the ramparts - again, unhindered by crowds. It was a fascinating experience, with The Other Half's greater military history knowledge proving an additional guide.

Not that Vauban built the place: its origins go back far further. Indeed, the church is evidence of that, with its simple, Roman lines that pre-date the Gothic. No, Vauban merely reinforced the town, with lines of fire that covered every angle, and the little sentry posts that we recognised from various buildings in Collioure.

We lunched very simply at a local bar cafè that seemed to double as the headquarters of the local firemen. In my case, feeling like little, I opted for a portion of chips, while The Other Half ordered ham and chips. It came with a slice of baguette, toasted lightly and spread with a creamy, almost gel-like substance on, which the cheese-hating Other Half instantly identified as that and handed to me.

Fool that I was, I reported instantly that it was not cheese, but garlic. He grabbed it back. In fact, as I realised a day or so later, it was the most traditional form of aïoli, made from garlic, salt and oil, but no egg yolk.

We popped into a cavernous and quite wonderful local pottery, where I picked up two tiny bowls and little wooden spoons for all the salt I'd bought in Carcassonne, and from which I nearly had to be physically removed before buying loads more pots and bowls and vinegar dispensers.

Our little kitchen in Hackney looks ever more like it's been transposed directly from France.

We enjoyed a drink in the tiny square next to the church and bought the usual pieces of tourist kitsch that I cannot resist (the fridge door at home is a tale of our travels), and then we had to head back to pick up our bags and journey on.

In many ways, unexpected as it was to me, Villefranche de Conflent was all I'd hoped for in Carcassonne and somehow felt was just missing. It was an unexpected treat.

I'd loved to have had a longer stay: there were two nearby grottos with stalactites and stalagmites to be seen, plus the fort itself and even 4x4 trips to nearby Canigou, the Catalans' sacred mountain.

It had been a stunning, all-too-short break. But somehow, I don't think it's the last time I'll visit.

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