S.O.S. French Towns

Villefrance - Collegiale de Notre Dame
Collégiale de Notre-Dame in Villefranche-de-Rouergue.

A few days ago, I had coffee with two friends in the centre of Villefranche-de-Rouergue. This Aveyron town, some 25 km from us, is one of my favourite towns in the region. It’s an attractive place, steeped in history and occupying a magnificent site on a hill stretching down to the River Aveyron. The 13th-14th– century collégiale (cathedral) towers over the town centre. But something is very wrong there.

My friends and I sat in Les Colonnes, a café/restaurant on the edge of the main market square. Villefranche is a typical bastide town, established in the 13th century, with a large, arcaded square surrounded by streets in a grid pattern. The streets should be thronging with people, but it was deathly quiet on Thursday afternoon.

Villefranche new fountain
Arcaded market square. Opinions are divided on the fountains…

Admittedly, Thursday morning is market day in Villefranche. The market is one of the largest in the area and attracts stallholders and customers from miles around. Then, you can’t find a place to park and the hubbub resonates around the tall Renaissance buildings and the collégiale. By lunchtime, everyone has gone home and there’s little to show that the market has taken place at all.

Villefranche-de-Rouergue market
Villefranche-de-Rouergue market

Even allowing for the Thursday afternoon effect, the town centre is dying. In its heyday, Villefranche was on a major trade route as well as on one of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, and held several weekly markets as well as bigger fairs.

Today, it’s like a ghost town. Every other shop is empty and some have had “à louer” (to let) signs in the windows for years. The Italian delicatessen, the cheese shop, the fishmonger, the antique shop, two bookshops and a long-established clothes emporium, to name just a few, have all gone. A few national chains and dress shops hang on.

Rue de la République
Rue de la République. Once a bustling thoroughfare. A number of shops have gone since I took this photo in 2011.

The town council has tried to attract more shoppers by extending the free half-hour parking to one hour, but free parking is useless if there is nothing to shop for.

The causes? Multi-factorial, no doubt, including rising rents and charges and the rise of internet shopping for certain items. One of the major ones, though, is the proliferation of out-of-town stores that have sprung up like mushrooms. They offer easy parking on-site and, generally, everything you need under one roof. The fields that bordered the main routes into Villefranche when we arrived 20 years ago have been swallowed up by ribbon development.

I am just as guilty as anyone of hastening the decline. I rarely venture into the town centre anymore, except for a specific reason. For people with busy lives, a trip to the supermarket is quicker and easier than going from shop to shop.

Villefranche is not alone in this. Our préfecture, Montauban, has gone the same way. Only the high street chains are able to survive. The approach roads are crammed with gaudy warehouse-type shops and gigantic billboards. It looks more like America than rural France. And no doubt the same is happening in towns throughout the country.

Montauban - rue de la Résistance
Rue de la Résistance, Montauban. Partial pedestrianisation hasn’t halted the decline.

The solutions? Offering free parking is just shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Maybe in years to come, the pendulum will swing back. It’s hard to see a way out of this decline, though.

You might also like:

Villefranche-de-Rouergue: Past Glories
Villefranche-de-Rouergue Market
Shopping in France #4: Local shops vs supermarkets

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  1. It’s the same story in my part of France (aude/ariege border). Lavelanet struggles and just manages to keep going. There are 5 supermarkets within about 5 kilometres of the town and no independent grocers. In Chalabre, my nearest small town there is a bit of a fight back. No supermarkets, a couple of 8-8’s, butchers and bakery. For most things other than food people shop in Limoux or Carcassonne.
    I don’t think there’s any simple answer; the old ways of daily shopping for food have all but gone and the new paradigm of out of town shopping seems irresistible.
    One bright spot for my village is the proposal to create a few low rent shops in the hope of attracting a baker, greengrocer etc as well as extending the current village store. Strangely tho’, from being a desert as far as a place to go for a quiet drink and a chat we now have three bars all opened up in the space of a year. Why? No obvious reason, it just happened. But what a difference it has made to village life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Strangely, I think some of the smaller towns and villages are fighting back rather more effectively than the bigger ones. It’s true, though, that people don’t have as much time one to shop in the old way as they did previously. One can only hope that new ways of using town and village centers will arise.


  2. Once again you bring reality to the french dream so many have. Each time we visit figeac (sous prefecture and home of our ‘orange’ shop) I am saddened by the number of empty shops in and around the historic centre. But sometimes potential decline is in the hands of others. For example, in bretenoux, the tresor public is due to move to st cere, eleven kilometres away. Only fifteen minutes by car but as protesters say, not everyone has a car. You can go online is another argument put forward but older people don’t or can’t use the internet the protesters respond. Shops close when the owners retire and younger propieters can’t be found is an event we often see but moving certain official offices chip away at the essential purpose and life of a town. I don’t have an answer, I wish I did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope I don’t sound too Eeyore-ish! But it’s true that when certain services move away, it’s difficult to keep things going. Our village doctor’s surgery moved to a brand-new medical centre about 1.5 km out of town, up a steep hill. The pharmacy and the nurses joined it shortly afterwards. Taking the pharmacy out of the centre of the village, in particular, makes it hard for elderly people, and its former premises are still un-let after several years. There are no easy solutions, but we do try to shop in our village when we can, and we patronise its two weekly markets.


  3. I live in Sydney Australia and I also lament the demise of local main streets. We need more walkable cities and towns. The nexus between the car and the supermarket needs to be talked about more.
    Thanks very much for your observations.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I grew up in Paris in the 50’s. My mother rued the arrival of American inspired supermarkets, and said it was the beginning of the end of an era: the French way of daily market shopping. When I moved back to France almost thirty years ago now, I made a point of shopping in the markets, but in spite of all my time in France, as a blue-eyed blond, I was often assumed to be a tourist by unscrupulous vendors who tried and sometimes succeeded in overcharging me, especially in places like Provence. Never had that problem with small shops, but still, one ends up going to Lidl and LeClerc just because it’s easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve also suffered from attempts by unscrupulous vendors to cheat me, but I suppose they are to be found the world over. It is more convenient to shop in the supermarkets and I rarely have the luxury of enough time to go to smaller, more specialised shops, although I wish I did.


  5. I so agree with you Vanessa but after struggling for several years going from shop to shop fruitlessly searching for a specific item and getting the Gallic shrug when I ask if what I want can be ordered, found in another store, anything ! I have now retreated to ordering over the internet. It is no wonder that town centres are dying when even the little shops can’t be bothered to offer customer service.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I share your frustration about French customer service, which leaves a lot to be desired. I have written about it on a number of occasions on this blog. However, there are a few twinkling diamonds in the mud: the employee in the ironmonger’s in our village who chased us 100 metres down the road to tell us that in fact he did have what we were looking for, having thought he didn’t; the lady in the dress shop in Montauban who went to the Toulouse branch on her day off to collect the trousers they had there in my size, but not in her branch. Alas, these are exceptions rather than the rule. But out-of-town superstores are not exactly the answer – try getting good customer service in one of those. I also buy on the internet, but with a heavy heart.


  6. Oh Nessa … you speak of what breaks my heart in this country. Cotecampagne wrote of what she perceives as green shoots in her area (Aude) and I hope she is right but in Cantal, all over the Auvergne stretching south to Aveyron and beyond to you I see nothing but decay. I drive every few weeks from Grenoble to Marcolès taking the non Motorway route through Drôme, Ardèche, Haute Loire and into Cantal via Massiac and down through the places I know you adore to the south where our house is. It is heart breaking and I refuse to shop in Supermarkets and big stores as a result – it makes me feel too sad. Of course I’m spoiled in Grenoble but I won’t be here forever and I fear that there will be nothing left when we settle in a couple of years in our half-baked paradise disappeared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you, I feel sad that rural life here is declining, although it has been happening for over a century. But, as I said in the post, maybe the pendulum will swing back. We can’t be reliant on the petrol engine for ever, and local services may well have to take account of that, although the adjustment will be very tough. From where we live, we have to drive at least 3 km to the nearest shops; our main village is 6.5 km distant; and Villefranche, the town in my post, is 25 km away. I don’t know for how long this can be sustainable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Given the way communications have transformed in ways we could not have imagined and an alarming rate even in the last 5-10 years I would not be confident to speculate on what comes next ….

        Liked by 1 person

          • It is, as an elderly lady in my village in England said frequently ‘a worry’ because of course the way things are isn’t sustainable. And your remark about the internal combustion engine is well made …. things will have to change and more than perhaps people have realized.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. This is our town. We live and work here, have invested all our savings here, and have a passionate love for the town.
    Plans are in place to help our town, it has so much architectural value, and historic importance. We feel a little ashamed of it now, but have decided to weather the storm, hoping that our notaire is right when he says that this is our point bas.
    For tourists we offer so much, a perfect place to stay to discover la France Profonde, the ancient hunting grounds of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a France that has ceased to exist in many regions, a France with roots and traditions.

    I love your writing, Vanessa, you really ‘get it ‘, so many people come here with unrealistic expectations, but you always put the true picture.
    I hope that in a year or so we will be looking at a different picture here in Villefranche de Rouergue.

    Liked by 2 people

    • WE all need to take the rose tints off and work together, Lyn … you clearly have a heart and a mind to and I am happy to join with you in that endeavour. Otherwise la France Profonde is in danger of being a sanitized and ghostly memory of it’s past delight.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello, and thank you for liking my comments. I like yours too. The only eY we can improve our poor little towns is by working together , Villefranche de Rouergue has made a good start on this, let’s hope it continues. We must be positive and talk up our town, it has so many positive points.

        Liked by 2 people

        • It’s a question of solidarity and togetherness … if we agree that we can’t necessarily get precisely what we want but that we want to live in this beautiful but teeny bit less developed environment then we can accept that we might have to strive a bit harder (as they did before us) to make things work but that in the end we have what we want which is not a facsimile of Paris or Toulouse or Lyon nor yet London or Oxford or Manchester … its a question, surely of swallowing the lifestyle wholeheartedly and working with it and being willing to input to the bits that are dying to try and preserve them. Once it’s gone its gone so don’t bemoan what you cant have but rather celebrate what you have and do your damndest to sustain it!

          Liked by 1 person

    • I am very attached to Villefranche – its history, architecture, and its place in our lives. We have lived here for 20 years and I am so sad to see the town in decline, but what you say gives me heart. Perhaps things will change there and I hope they do.

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing. Having lived here for so long, I no longer see France through the rose-tinted spectacles that I suspect many of us wear when we arrive in France – myself included. I try to show it as it is. But I wouldn’t live anywhere else, now. And you are quite right, we should be talking up the wonderful history and attractions of these places. I could do more…


  8. Villefranche, I know quite well. I was once there a day of cold and heavy rain … retreating in a coffee nearby to have a hot chocolate ! I agree that the social links through local shopping is declining. I see in my small town that food shops stand little chance in front of chain shops, banks, pharmacies, blind vitrines … I am immensely grateful to my greengrocer, Mouss’ to hold. There is no one ironmongery in town. If I need a screw, I have to drive 16 km two ways ! I hate these inhuman superstores !

    Liked by 1 person

    • It can be cold and rainy in Villefranche, but I love it nonetheless! I think the quincaillerie there is still open, and we are very fortunate in our own village, 6.5 km away from us, to have a very well stocked quincaillerie, where you can get almost anything you need. And if you can’t, they will order if for you. But the social links, as you say, are declining fast.

      Liked by 1 person

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