I've talked elsewhere about towns that are designated as one of the "Most Beautiful Villages in France" (les plus beaux villages de France). It's not easy to get the honor -- a city really has to work at meeting all the criteria.
This month's destination -- Salers -- is one of the 154 French villages on the list. Like many of them, it's not somewhere you end up by accident -- it's remote, located in the Cantal region of the Auvergne, southwest of Clermont-Ferrand. But for me it symbolizes what the designation of “most beautiful village” means.
The first time we went there was on a market day in summer. The town was packed – local farmers selling the incredible variety of fresh fruits and vegetables we found everywhere in France, butchers wrapping up whole roast chickens and saucissons, traveling vendors selling belts and tablecloths and inexpensive clothes, and visitors winding their way through the stalls.
But even with all that activity in the street, the most striking thing about Salers is the architecture. Like a few other towns in France, Salers has managed to maintain much of the same look and feel it had in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander
We loved all these villages wherever we found them, from Sarlat-le-Caneda in the Dordogne to the medieval gem of Perouges near Lyon. But Salers has special charms of its own – particularly in the center of town around the Place Tyssandier-d’Escous, where you’ll find the Town Hall, the Renaissance-era Bailiff’s Court and the tea room in the Maison de Ronade. The black lava stone from local quarries gives all these buildings a somber cast, but for me that adds to the medieval feel of the place.
It’s a very compact little town, easy to walk in an hour or two. A block away from the main Place is the Church of Saint Matthieu, worth a visit itself for its great Romanseque entryway and the Aubusson tapestries inside.
photo from Wikimedia Commons
This is agricultural country, like the rest of the Cantal region, so it’s not too surprising that there’s an entire breed of cattle named for Salers (and it’s a breed you can find in state fairs around the U.S., too) – big and shaggy, with dark coats. The central town square, Place Tyssandier-d’Escous, is named for the breeder who developed the race in the 1800s.
There are some great local cheeses (this is the Cantal, after all!), and a liqueur called Salers Gentiane that you can try at your own peril. It’s very bitter, distilled in Salers from the root of a wild plant that grows in the area; it’s well-known as a “digestive”, but we thought it tasted like fermented grass, and like the kind of thing you might only try on a dare.
But one of the great pleasures in visiting Salers is the trip in and out of town. You’re in the great Parc des Volcans of the Auvergne, at an altitude of 3,100 feet, so it’s definitely worth the walk out to the Barrouze esplanade to look out across the volcanic peaks and the deep green valleys of the Cantal.
The designation of “most beautiful village” might seem a heavy burden to carry, and it’s true that it implies standards of quality and consistency in the way a town presents itself to the world. Salers, for us, was one of the best examples of a place that makes that happen year in and year out. The fact that it’s in my favorite region of France – that’s a real bonus!
Have you had a chance to see any of the French villages on the "Most Beautiful" list? What did you think? Are there other villages you think SHOULD be on the list? Please tell us about your experience in the Comments space below!