On both banks of its namesake river, Villeneuve-sur-Lot started life as a medieval bastide town.
It was built quickly and fortified in the 13th century under the orders of Alphonse de Poitiers.
And a lot of this heritage survives in small packages: You can ponder the gates, the old stone bridge and central Place de Lafayette with hallmark bastide arcades.
Pujols is an enchanting hilltop village that you can get to on foot from Villeneuve, and it’s just one of many superb excursions within a stone’s throw of the city.
On a different note, you’re also in prune country here, made from the exalted Ente plum, which is grown and dried on farms by the Lot.
Lets explore the best things to do in Villeneuve-sur-Lot:
1. Musée de Gajac
With a princely venue in an old watermill by the Lot, Musée de Gajac is devoted to French art from the 18th to the 20th century.
The mill has a story beginning in 1186 and was set up by the Benedictine abbey at Eysses to grind flour for its monks.
Much later it was given a Neoclassical makeover and even produced hydroelectricity for a time in the 20th century.
Some of the works to keep in mind are the prints by Piranesi, and paintings by Hippolyte Flandrin, the trailblazing impressionist Eva Gonzalès, modern artist Roland Bierge and the Baroque painter Antoine Coypel.
2. Pont des Cieutats
A facebook-friendly view of the city can be had from this bridge, which connects the two halves of the old bastide.
On both sides there are beautiful tall houses, some half-timbered, and some with stone walls that plunge directly to the water or the grassy banks.
The bridge itself is lovely, with cast iron railings and gaslights, but is far older than it looks: It was built in the 13th century when the city was under English yoke and following centuries of war and floods has gone through all sorts of changes.
If you’re wondering about the name it comes from the 16th-century mayor, Nicolas Ceutats and his son Arnaud, who defended the city against Marguerite de France’s forces in 1585.
The story goes that in the 13th century a flotilla was making its way under the Pont des Cieutats but was mysteriously halted in the water and couldn’t get any further.
Somebody reached into the river and fished out a statuette of the Virgin Mary, and they were able to carry on their way.
The event marked by this pretty Gothic chapel, founded in 1289 and with a story as eventful as the bridge next door because of a litany of storms and floods down the centuries.
The 19th-century stained glass window captures the event and shows the Pont des Cieutats as it once appeared with defensive towers.
4. Porte de Pujols
Controlling the southern entrance to the old city on the left bank of the Lot is this gate that went up towards the end of the 14th century.
Along with the Porte de Paris it is all that is left of Villeneuve-sur-Lot’s medieval defences.
The lower levels above the portal are built with stone, which gives way to red-brick watchtower with quoins on the corners.
This upper section is heavily fortified, and has crenellations crowned by a triangular roof.
Just beneath the machicolations there’s a clock that was installed in the 1800s.
5. Porte de Paris
Like the Porte de Pujols, the northern Porte de Paris is a historic monument and doubled as a gateway and watchtower.
The layout is very similar to its southern neighbour, except the Porte to Paris is crowned with a narrow cupola and campanile with a bell that was added in 1828. The lowest level was a guard room, leading up to a prison, which was set just below the battlements.
During the Fronde Civil War in 1653 the Porte de Paris was the scene of fierce fighting during a siege led by the troops of Cardinal Mazarin.
6. Place Lafayette
The centre of daily life in Villeneuve today as it was in Bastide times, Place Lafayette is an endearing arcaded square with a fountain in the middle.
Depending on when you’re here there will be a contrasting ambience.
On Tuesday and Saturday mornings there’s the bustle of fruit and vegetable market, and on languid summer evenings young people meet at the bar and cafe terraces in the arcades.
If you’re nursing a coffee or aperitif in the afternoon cast your eye around the buildings, which run from rustic timber-framed houses to a Belle Époque mansion on the north side with dainty iron balconies.
One of France’s “most beautiful villages” is practically a suburb of Villeneuve: Pujols crests a tall spur a whisker south of the town, and you can walk it in around half an hour.
It’s a stiff hike but the destination and awesome views of Villeneuve and the Lot Valley more than make up for it.
The village is tiny, but brims with delightful medieval features, like the archway beneath the fortified Church of Saint-Nicolas, the frescos in the Church of Sainte-Foy, the covered marketplace and remnants of a 13th-century castle.
8. Église Sainte-Catherine
When the city’s largest church began to collapse in the 1800s, a radical new design was proposed by the Villeneuve native, Gaston Rapin.
He came up with a Neo-Romanesque and Byzantine plan using red brick reinforced with cement and metal.
Work began in 1889 and was disrupted by the First World War but finished in the 1920s.
See the sculpted capitals and luminous paintings in the choir from the 1930s.
But most exciting of all is the way space was made for the former church’s most precious furnishings.
The stained glass windows depicting the Passion and martyrdom of St Catherine are from the 15th and 16th centuries.
9. Pont de la Libération
To understand the importance of the city’s main bridge you need to put yourself in the shoes of Villeneuve’s inhabitants in the 1910s.
The bridge was finished in 1919 and was the brainchild of Eugène Freyssinet, one of the first architects to realise the wonders of reinforced concrete.
And this one broke records too, because when it was finished it was the largest single-span concrete bridge in the world, with a span of just over 100 metres.
In the last few years the bridge has earned the French “20th-century Heritage” label.
10. Site Antique d’Eysses
You can walk to the Eysses district, about a kilometre north of the centre of Villeneuve where there’s an archaeological site beside a Gallo-Roman tower.
The tower is the most eye-catching part of the site, rising to ten metres designated a French Historic Monument.
The remainder is mostly foundations, but there are boards to give you a glimpse of what was here.
Up to the 3rd century this was a sizeable settlement of 50 hectares, with a military camp, temples and massive sanctuary.
Call in at the Church of Saint-Sernin next door, where many of the artefacts recovered from the site are on show.
The pick is of these is an amphora with snake motif.
11. Musée et Ferme du Pruneau
You won’t need more than 20 minutes to get to this gastronomic attraction that will shed a lot of light about regional food culture.
Prunes are a big deal in this region, to the extent that the city of Agen puts on a massive festival dedicated to this humble dried fruit.
The museum is on a plum farm by the Lot and conserves all the old tools and techniques for cultivating and drying prunes in a recreated 19th-century workshop with authentic ovens.
There’s also a 20-minute film showing the orchards in different seasons, from bloom to harvest, and then how prunes are prepared with age-old artisanal techniques.
At the end there’s a shop with delicious things like prunes in chocolate, prune brandy and plum blossom honey.
For the perfect Bastide town you only have a 15-minute drive north to Monflanquin.
Where Villeneuve’s centre is attractive but redeveloped in places, Monflanquin’s is almost totally preserved.
You can see the telltale Bastide grid system lined with house after house from the middle ages; it’s all a dream to investigate on foot, and you can walk up to the top of the town for achingly beautiful views of the Lède Valley.
On Places des Arcades is the Maison de la Prince Noir, with gorgeous lancet windows, is named for Edward Woodstock (The Black Prince) who would have stayed here in the 1350s during the Hundred Years’ War.
13. Mercredis de la Cale
Now in its second decade is a program of live concerts on Wednesday nights in July and August on the Cale de la Marine next to the Pont Basterou.
The gigs are absolutely free and are big with locals, with seating terraces extending all the way up the riverbank.
Don’t come expecting superstars, as a lot of the artists won’t be known far beyond southwestern France.
But the city books performers of all descriptons so there’s something for everyone, whether you’re into jazz, blues, rock, soul, country or world music.
14. Lot River Cruises
Around the end of June to the start of September there are two cruise boats operating on the Lot from the Cale de la Marine in Villeneuve.
The smaller of these is an open-air vessel taking you on hour-long jaunts down the river, which is fringed by woodland and bucolic plum orchards.
There’s also a free local beverage of your choice as you cruise.
Then twice week, a 115-seater boat embarks on 90-minute trips with informative commentary.
You can also book a longer lunch cruise and visits to the Prune Museum and a fantastic fresh produce market in Fongrave.
15. Château de Gavaudun
Not a refined palace, but a tough medieval fortress, Château de Gavaudun towers to more than 70 metres from its rocky perch.
It dates to the 1100s and was built to marshal the road from Périgord to l’Agenais, later being a big strategic prize for the English and French who were fighting a war of attrition in the region the 100 Years’ War.
The castle is in a state of semi-ruin, but still has a lot going for it, like the entranceway through a natural cave, rooms clad with tapestries and wooden panelling, a treasure hunt for youngsters and dominant views from that daunting tower.