South West France Tourism

Medieval Tourism for the Modern Age

France's Medieval Towns

Tourism in and around the Bastides

Tourism in and around the bastides has not developed to the same degree as other visitor experiences in France such as wine and gastronomy.  There is surely an explanation for this which gives added purpose to our journey.

Impact of Tourism Development on Local Culture

A short distance from Bordeaux, for example, the success of the Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion, is a model for how to develop niche tourism, rewarded in 1999 with the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.  But, it is also a lesson in the price paid by local people: a visitor invasion and demands on infrastructure.  Some would say the château owners are the new nobility and the vineyards the new battlegrounds, commercially speaking, where human struggles are won and lost.  In spite of the new technologies, much of the success is achieved because of the physical toil of the vineyard workers.  Wine tours do try to make this heritage story real and relevant for visitors.

However, the foreign visitor needs no persuasion to visit a place such as Saint-Emilion, oenophile or not.  The setting is breathtaking, notably the manicured vineyards, which are unique in their genre.  The visitor infrastructure is both original and innovative.  No expense has been spared to make this the place for the perfectly manufactured visitor experience.  But when you look closer at the local life, you discover that to live there is to live in a museum-like environment where most, if not all, the attention is geared towards the visitor, not the resident.  The residential population is in fact falling and the labour force required to service this tourist development tends to live elsewhere, maybe in a bastide. What happens to the soul of a place when local people invest in it solely as a source of economic activity?

A travel destination which is dependent on a monocultural form of tourism is certainly not without its challenges.  It needs to keep diversifying and indeed Saint-Emilion does, by marketing itself as a medieval town or a pilgrimage site, and by attracting inward investment, both at home and abroad.


A Different Kind of Travel Destination

In contrast to medieval towns such as Saint-Emilion, bastides are off the main tourist routes.  The majority are not even accessible by rail, only by road.  Some only take a few minutes to visit, there is so little remaining for the visitor to see.  All you need is plenty of time and a small amount of ingenuity to organise your trip along the backroads of the Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitanie regions.  Try mapping a route through a multiple number to get a perspective on different types of development.  Head for the biggest cluster by following the border between these two regions, namely the Lot-et-Garonne and Tarn departments.  It’s unlikely you’ll be parking next to tour buses anytime soon.  Expect to discover a high number of abandoned buildings.

Visiting France’s Lesser-Known Heritage

Lack of infrastructure and smaller populations quickly confirm the low key aspect of this type of multi-bastide tourism.  The reality is that you need to be a determined seeker of France’s forgotten heritage.  Gone is the manufactured visitor experience, which is both exciting and daunting at the same time.  In some bastides, you may stumble across the occasional museum, perhaps even The Musée des Bastides if you visit Monflanquin.  However, everywhere else you go, you will be relying on the odd noticeboard, your own commentary and imagination inspired by your surroundings.  This is what will plant the enduring charm of the bastide in your visitor memory.

The constructions may not correspond to a single architectural design but are the result of a long evolution over several centuries.  For this reason, they deserve more attention from the Travel and Tourism sectors.  When you sit in the central square and watch local people going about their daily lives in these historical settings, it is easier to tap into the soul of the place.  Enjoy your authentic visitor experience and perhaps a taste of the local wine!

Bastide Visitor Challenge

Time to explore the backwaters of South West France?

Tourism in and around the bastides