Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Beautiful Villages of France

Hidden France

From ancient fortresses to sleepy riverside communities, France is packed with incredibly pretty villages. To narrow down which to visit a new book, The Most Beautiful Villages of France (Flammarion, 2020) offers a collection of the country’s most stunning spots. Each village is chosen based on its historical, architectural, urban and environmental attributes, as well as the village’s initiatives to promote itself. Here we've selected our favorites from the list.

Beuvron-en-Auge, Calvados, Normandy

Nestled between valleys dotted with apple trees and half-timbered farmhouses is the classic Norman village of Beuvron. Clustered around the restored covered market, the pretty pink brick or rendered plaster façades of the traditional wooden-frame houses recall Beuvron’s 14th-century heyday. At the edge of the village, farmland, manors and stud farms stretch out into the woods beyond, keeping the region's local traditions and specialities, including Beuvron cider and Calvados (an apple brandy) alive.

Barfleur, Manche, Normandy

Once the principal port on the Cotentin Peninsula during the Middle Ages, Barfleur is a village with a history tied to that of the dukes of Normandy and England. Today, Barfleur is dotted with humble fishermen’s cottages alongside opulent-looking 15th-century houses built from the grey granite that contributes to the village's austere charm. Aside from its lovely houses, many come to the village for its famous wild mussels, known as the Barfleur “Blonde” from natural beds near the port, best enjoyed between June and September.

Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, Orne, Normandy

In the heart of Mancelles Alps, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei sits at a bend in the Sarthe River. Founded in the 7th century by Italian-born monk Saint-Céneri, the village’s history is intertwined with legends. On one of its banks, a miraculous spring from 660 is believed to cure eye problems. Aside from its legends, the village was popular with painters including Camille Corot and Eugène Boudin. At its museum, you can still see the charcoal portraits of artists and villagers that were sketched there by candlelight. 

Veules-les-Roses, Seine-Maritime, Normandy

A picturesque beach resort overlooking France’s Côte d’Albâtre, Veules-les-Roses is bursting with charm. With its seaside location, the village takes its name from the Saxon word well, meaning “water source”. Its attractive beach made it a vacation hot spot for many famous writers and artists during the 19th century including Victor Hugo. From its seafront and bathing huts to the heart of Veules where fishermen’s houses rub shoulders with thatched cottages, it’s a must-see on the road to Fécampe and Dieppe. 

Lavardin, Loir-et-Cher, Centre-Val de Loire

From prehistoric cave complexes to medieval houses, Lavardin is a village steeped in history. Having survived an attack in 1118 by Richard the Lionheart, today the castle ruins overlook the lovely blend of Gothic and Renaissance houses below. While in town, visitors can also explore Lavardin’s grottoes and the incredible cave houses that give the village its charm. The village is also known for hosting the world championships of the card game known as chouine, which dates back to the 16th century.

Montsoreau, Maine-et-Loire, Pays de la Loire

Sitting between Anjour and the Touraine provinces, Montsoreau draws its rich heritage from the Loire river. Along its floral-lined paths that climb towards the local vineyards, visitors are drawn to Montsoreau’s white tufa-stone houses and immaculately tended gardens. With vineyards nearby, the village is known for its delicious Saumur-Champigny and Crémant de Loire wines, as well as its wine market inside a cave.

Châteauneuf, Côte d'Or, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

Built along the waters of the Burgundy Canal, Châteauneuf huddles at the foot of its imposing 12th-century fortress. The fortified village owes its stony bearing to its polygonal curtain wall flanked by huge towers and moats. Distinguished by their turrets, ornamental cartouches and mullioned windows, the houses stretch from the north gate to the mission cross viewpoint on the hilltop. From there, visitors can see the wooded hillsides of Auxios, with the magnificent Morvan and Autun mountains in the background. 

Lods, Doubs, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

Using the energy of the Loue river, the residents of this tiny riverside village built thriving iron forges and produced wine in a relatively mild climate. While Lods may no longer produce grapes, it still has its charming 16th- and 17th-century wine-growers’ houses with their spacious vaulted cellars. One of Lods’ most fascinating sights is The Musée de la Vigne et du Vin (vine and wine museum) housed in a beautiful 16th-century building.

Noyers, Yonne, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

Right on the doorstep of the Chablis vineyards and the Morvan Regional Nature Park lies this typical medieval town. Noyers' impressive protective barriers studded with towers and gateways have been well preserved alongside its Renaissance and half-timbered houses. In the heart of the village, its church of Notre-Dame is in the Flamboyant Gothic style. While Noyers has lots of medieval charm, it moves with the times, hosting an annual festival featuring music and freestyle painting.

Vézelay, Yonne, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

Sitting on a steep hill surmounted by the basilica of Sainte-Madeleine and facing the Montz du Morvan mountains, Vézelay dates back to the 12th century. Built in honor of Mary Magdalene, its abbey has survived alongside beautiful Romanesque and Renaissance houses. There’s a mixture of pretty stone façades and rooftops, all covered with the flat brown tiles typical of Burgundy. The crown jewel of Vézelay is its impressive basilica, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Renowned for its Romanesque art, it attracts visitors from around the world. 

Eguisheim, Haut-Rhin, Grand Est

Hailed for being the birthplace of wine-growing in Alsace, Eguisheim winds in circles around its castle near Colmar, one of the world’s most beautiful small towns. Whether it's admiring the fortress where Pope Leo IX (1002–1054) was born or strolling among the colorful half-timbered houses arrayed with flowers, visitors are encouraged to enjoy the village’s curved streets. Enguisheim’s wine-growers’ and coopers’ houses with their large courtyards are a reminder of its wine-growing roots, which are celebrated at festivals throughout the year. 

Ansouis, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

At the heart of the Pays d’Aigues framed by the Grand Luberon mountain range is the hilltop village of Ansouis. Spread out in a fan shape, open to the sun, the village is criss-crossed by a maze of streets and alleys that remain shady and cool. In Ansouis’ center, there’s a peaceful little square bordered by a 12th-century perimeter wall which serves as the Église Saint-Martin’s exterior. From here, there are sweeping views of a landscape of vines overlooked by the Grand Luberon. 

Les Baux-de-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Perched on a 3,000–foot (900m) rocky formation of the Alpilles hills in Provence, Les Baux-de-Provence towers above the Crau and the Camargue regions like a beacon. At the top of the rugged escarpment, the ruins of its namesake medieval citadel dominate the nearby olive groves, vineyards and the La Fountaine valley. Beneath its looming fortress, Renaissance houses decorate its center while hoteliers, restaurateurs, oil and wine producers and artists have given the lovely village a new lease of life. 

Lourmarin, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Standing at the mouth of a gorge in the Luberon mountain range is the tiny village of Lourmarin. Surrounded by a plain dotted with fortified Provençal farmhouses, streets lined with fountains wind around the Castellas (castle) and Romanesque church. The other castle was built in the 15th and 16th centuries and now hosts a collection of stunning furniture and objets d’art, welcoming writers, painters and sculptors every year. Lourmarin attracted the writers Albert Camus and Henri Bosco, both of whom are buried there.

Sainte-Agnès, Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Standing at nearly 2,600 feet (800m) in the air, Europe’s highest coastal village has sweeping views across the Mediterranean. Originally a fortified Roman camp, today, Sainte-Agnès is valued for its tranquil location away from the crowds of the coast. With its winding alleyways, old cobblestoned streets, and higgledy-piggledy houses, the village has lots of historic charm. From the castle’s highest point, a sweeping panorama provides a superb contrast between the blue Mediterranean waters and the snowy peaks of the Mercantour National Park.

Tourtour, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

With vineyards to the south and Lavender to the north, the lovely scents of thyme and olive trees waft through this tiny village in Var. On Tourtour’s streets, narrow alleyways feature classic buildings of old stone and curved tiles littered with fountains, while two statues by French artist Bernard Buffet can be seen by the town hall. The 11th-century restored church towers above the village provide an exceptional view of inland Provence, from the Sainte-Baume ridge as far as the Massif des Maures mountains and the Mediterranean.

Roussillon, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Sparkling with colorful houses in its veranda setting, Roussillon is a jewel in its ocher surroundings. Roussillon’s ocher industry boomed in the late 18th century thanks to a local who devised the idea of extracting the pigment from the sands of Mont Rouge. From the narrow streets to the ocher trail, the bright material can be seen everywhere. However, legend has it the wife of the lord of Roussillon threw herself from the clifftop after he discovered her affair and killed her lover – and it's said the cliffs have been blood red ever since. 

Piana, Corse-du-Sud, Corsica

At the entrance of the incredible UNESCO-listed Calanque de Piana (“Calanche'' in Corsican), Piana overlooks the pretty Gulf of Porto on the island of Corsica. With an array of incredible monuments, highlights include the grand Chapelle Sainte-Lucie, which features Byzantine-style frescoes and boasts gorgeous views across the Gulf. Another must-see is Arone beach, a long stretch of sparkling white sand and bright blue waters on the Corsican coastline.

Vogüé, Ardèche, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Set in an amphitheater at the foot of a cliff fringed by the waters of the Ardèche river, Vogüé radiates a Mediterranean air. Adorned with arches, the riverside roads lead to the medieval castle that overlooks the village. The former home of the Vogüés, one of the region’s most prominent families, today the castle hosts an exhibition exploring the region's history and architecture. In the old streets, medieval houses roofed with curved tiles are interspersed with arcades and their stepped terraces overflow with flowers.

Belvès, Dordogne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Overlooking the verdant valley of the Nauze river from its hilltop position, Belvès provides a picturesque panorama across the landscape of Périgord Noir. Surviving the Hundred Years' War during the 14th and 15th centuries, many of its historic features remain, including cave dwellings and houses where Gothic flamboyance blends with Renaissance artistry. Beyond the town gates, trails wind through the Bessède forest, making it popular with walkers, horse-riders and cyclists.

Collonges-la-Rouge, Corrèze, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Named after its vivid red sandstone buildings, Collonges-la-Rouge sits on the border between Limousin and Quercy. Collonges-la-Rouge owes its striking appearance to a geological phenomenon dating back millions of years that caused iron to oxidize, giving the stone its dark red color. 

Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Curled at the foot of a striking castle surveying the Dordogne, Beynat-et-Cazenac is a beautiful spot enhanced by both its sublime river and regional cuisine. The restored castle with a history of being captured, besieged and abandoned, towers over the village’s rooftops and golden façades. The port, once used to transport locally made wines to Bordeaux in the 19th century, is now a park used for scenic river trips, boats and canoes.

Sare, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

The legendary mountains of the Basque country loom over this traditional village, well-regarded for its hospitality and lively festivals. Crowned by mountains, Sare honors Basque Country traditions, like the typical Basque home, with its array of old houses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Just a stone's throw away from France’s western coast, Sare’s chapels and shrines hold votive offerings of thanks for survival in storms at sea – reminders that its residents were also seafarers.

La Roque-Gageac, Dordogne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Shielded from colder weather by a cliff backdrop, La Roque-Gageac’s golden buildings glisten in the sun along the banks of the Dordogne river. Once an important stronghold in the Middle Ages, the village gained some impressive Renaissance mansions. With its cliff protection, Mediterranean and tropical plants like banana trees and bamboo flourish in the incredible microclimate along the pretty streets and gardens. The village’s Jardin Exotique is a scenic spot to admire the tropical greenery.

Montclus, Gard, Occitanie

Sitting at a bend in the Cèze river, Montclus is bursting with all the charm of a Languedoc village. The village has earned its name from its hilltop location at the foot of a mountain. Although small, Montclus has plenty of historic sites to enjoy, such as the 13th-century abbey of Mons Serratus and its fortified castle. Walking through its narrow alleyways, steps, and covered passageways, visitors may catch a glimpse of the gorgeous gardens beyond the bright stone houses that tumble down towards the river. 

Conques, Aveyron, Occitanie

In the center of a dense forest at the confluence of two rivers, Conques was established on the slope of a valley shaped like a shell (concha in Latin, hence its name). A masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, its abbey church watches over a unique collection of relics covered in gold, silver, enamelwork and precious stones. Framing the narrow, cobbled streets, the fairy tale-like houses have exteriors combining half-timbering, yellow limestone and red sandstone, and are topped with splendid silver shale roofs.

La Roque-sur-Cèze, Gard, Occitanie

Perched on a rocky slope overlooking the Cèze river is this gorgeous village. Stroll through La Roque-sur-Cèze’s steep, winding and cobbled streets, and you’ll find a jumble of old buildings, rooftops and covered terraces, whose sun-weathered walls and Genoese tiles give them a Tuscan feel. Contrasting with the calmness of the village are the mighty waterfalls, rapids and crevices of the nearby Cascades du Sautadet. The waterfalls are a refreshing spot to relax in the wilderness. 

Sainte-Énimie, Lozère, Occitanie

The Merovingian princess Énimie gave her name to this picturesque village in southern France. Legend has it that she was cured of leprosy in nearby spring waters. Encircled by the limestone plateaus of Sauveterre and Méjean, Sainte-Énimie has retained its distinctive steep alleyways, huge limestone houses and charming half-timbered workshops. From the foot of Saint-Énimie, there’s a superb view of the incredible Tarn, Jonte, and Causses gorges, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Hérault, Occitanie

At the bottom of a wild gorge, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert surrounds its iconic abbey, regarded as one of the region’s finest examples of Romanesque architecture. Although little remains of the original abbey, you can still explore the impressive Romanesque church, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along the main streets, the sturdy houses with their weathered façades and traditional pink barrel-tiled roofs are lavishly decorated.

Castelnou, Pyrénées-Orientales, Occitanie

Nestled in the Aspres foothills Castelnou is a quiet ocher village that embodies Catalan rural architecture. The pentagon-shaped castle, fortified walls and steep rock secured Castelnou’s defense against attacks. Contrasting with its impressive fortress, the village is dotted with narrow flower-filled streets lined with warm-hued houses with round-tiled roofs. 

Estaing, Aveyron, Occitanie

Just a short distance from the Gorges of the Lot against a backdrop of greenery, Estaing is distinguished by its imposing castle. The grand Chȃteau des Comtes d’Estaing mixes Romanesque, Gothic, Flamboyant and Renaissance styles. Aside from its lovely buildings, Estaing’s crowning feature is its 16th-century Gothic bridge. An awe-inspiring entrance point to the Saint James’s Way, the UNESCO-listed bridge offers unique views of the castle.

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, Haute-Garonne, Occitanie

Located at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges owes its name to the bishop who built its cathedral. Considered to be King Herod’s place of exile, the hilltop village grew up around a 4th-century basilica before it was destroyed, but the ruins of an ancient Roman forum can still be seen there. The village’s fine houses from the 16th to 18th centuries huddle around the cathedral as it towers over the landscape.

Belcastel, Aveyron, Occitanie

Clinging to steep wooded slopes, the formidable fortress of Belcastel dominates the village. Dating back to the 11th century, the chȃteau ruins are like a window into the village’s history. In 1973, architect Fernand Pouillon revived Belcastel after it was abandoned, encouraging its residents to restore their homes and streets. The chȃteau-fortress now looks fondly down on the lovely renovated village with its cobbled streets, metalworking trades and old fountain. 

Hell-Bourg, La Réunion

On the southern edge of the UNESCO-listed Cirque de Salazie amphitheater on La Réunion island, located in the Indian Ocean, Hell-Bourg is a village rich in Creole heritage. The dramatic volcanic caldera is a stunning sight, with ravines plunging into the Rivière du Mât while waterfalls descend the rockface. After the discovery of thermal springs in the 19th century it became a bustling spa visited by the island’s wealthy families every summer. Although its springs dried up in 1948, Hell-Bourg has kept the beautiful architecture of the period. 

Rochefort-en-Terre, Morbihan, Brittany

Halfway between the Gulf of Morbihan and the Brocéliande Forest, Rochefort-en-Terre was once a stronghold which controlled trading routes between land and sea. Traces of its prosperous past can be seen in its old covered market, medieval castle ruins and its finely decorated granite and shale mansions. Alongside its rich history, Rochefort is renowned for its flower-filled streets thanks to American artist Alfred Klots, who created a floral window display competition to help revive the old houses in 1911. Its geranium-decked homes are a tradition that continues today. 

Find out more

All words have been taken with permission from The Most Beautiful Villages of France (Flammarion, 2020). The book features 159 of the most picturesque villages in the country, along with a dozen itineraries for walks along the surrounding pilgrimage trails.

 Gemma Prince, LE


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Item Reviewed: Beautiful Villages of France Rating: 5 Reviewed By: BUXONE