Most towns on France’s official list of “Most Beautiful Villages” are meant to look pretty from the first moment you see them. (Some cynics would say that at least some of the plus beaux villages de France are actually "engineered" to give a good first impression.) My initial experience in Belvès was the exception to that rule.
A chaotic flea market
I came to Belvès (in the Dordogne region, east of Bordeaux, about halfway between Limoges and Toulouse) on a blazing hot summer afternoon…and found the town over-run with visitors. Clearly some kind of street market was underway, and I had to park just over a mile away from the center of town and walk back. The sun bore in on the back of my neck and I stopped to buy a bottle of water just for the chance to stand under the vendor’s awning for a minute.
It turned out the sale was some sort of flea market (marche aux puces) or an attic-clearing sale (a vide grenier) for village residents. But I can't say it did anything for the town’s aesthetic appeal; it was among the most chaotic event I’ve seen like this in France, with baskets of clothes dumped out on the cobblestones for everyone to inspect and unloved household objects just piled up with no particular effort at “presentation”.
(This short video, put together by Crédit Agricole, found the town looking much more welcoming on a quieter day!)
An ancient gathering place in the center of Belvès
Things got a little more interesting (and more organized) as I came to the central square. There, crowded with the more “professional” traveling vendors, was the town’s old market hall. Built in the 15th century, it retains its rustic look, the ancient wood slats of its roof supported by massive rough posts and unfinished beams.
And it’s easy to discern that, with all the clutter removed, this really would be a charming place to have a glass of wine and watch the world go by. The square is dominated by the Tower of Filhols, a great clock tower built as a defensive look-out in the 11th century. (Its belfry – one of 7 that Belvès is known for – was added in 1450.)
There’s also an entrance into the town’s underworld – the network of caves inhabited by residents over the centuries. As they did in other “troglodyte habitations” to be found all around the Dordogne, people here adapted the limestone caverns under the hill on which Belvès was built, and they took refuge here whenever the town was attacked.
(You can see a nice 3600 view of these cave dwellings done by Akim Benbrahim by clicking here. Do note, though, that access is strictly limited to 3 guided tours a day, Monday through Saturday only, and with a maximum of 18 visitors at a time, so reservations are strongly advised!)
A fortified town within a town
You can see how seriously the good people of Belvès took defense when you direct your attention to the heavily fortified gate opening of one corner of the town square. This is the entrance to the castrum, the old fortified town in the interior of the village. Like so many places in the Dordogne, Belvès was stuck in the swirling, regular violence of the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, so they built walls as tall as 15 meters (almost 50 feet) around the oldest part of town.
Archbishops lived and ruled in this quarter for almost 500 years. The thick walls of the fortified gate were given the added protection of a drawbridge and a deep moat, and other massive towers were built inside the walls to give defenders a view far across the valley below. This, too, was where the town’s richest aristocrats built their homes, and you can still see fine stonework and intricate doorways at the entrance to their dwellings.
A “most beautiful village”?
As it turned out, I think, my initial impressions of Belvès got the place entirely wrong. Aside from the troglodytic houses under the main square, there are not many interiors of the medieval buildings to be seen – but the exteriors are among the finest I’ve seen in the Dordogne. You might not spend more than a long afternoon in town, but on the whole I found it a worthy and interesting stop on my tour of the “most beautiful villages” in this corner of the deep heart of France!
Do you have a favorite “most beautiful village”? How does it compare to Belvès? Please let us know in the comments section below – and please take a second to share this post with someone else by clicking on the button(s) for your preferred social media platform(s), too!