Pradelles: One of the Top 10?
Having just ranked my personal “Top 10 of the Most Beautiful Villages in Central France,” I have to ask myself: would I include Pradelles in that list?
The honest answer is “probably not” – but this is still a town worthy of your consideration if you’re heading south toward the Mediterranean or to a week in Provence. I’d put Pradelles in the middle rank among the “plus beaux villages” I’ve visited in France – not the richest in history, not the most spectacular landscape, but still well worth a stop for lunch and a 3-hour tour if you happen to be in this part of the country.
The town’s official website puts it more strongly. “This,” they say, “is a medieval city abundantly endowed with the vestiges of an epoch when it reigned as the master against all the neighboring lands.” But by the time John Murray wrote the 1867 version of his Handbook for Travelers, the village hardly even merited a mention, and then only for its accommodations (“Inn: the Hotel Trois Pigeons, by no means good”).
A Monument to the Soldiers of Pradelles
On an intensely bright, hot August morning, I’ve driven about 25 minutes south of the great medieval center of Le Puy en Velay to get to Pradelles. We’re in the Haute-Loire, near that mighty river’s headwaters and almost into Provence, although we’re still in the Auvergne.
The first thing I notice when I park in the town’s central square is its World War I memorial. Now, almost every village in France of more than ten people has a memorial like this, and Karen and I have always found it moving and emotional to stop in front of one and reflect on the damage that conflict had on every remote corner of the country. It’s hard to imagine the grief and disruption that came to a small town like this when you see 7 or 8 or even 10 names all from the same family…alongside other blocks of names from other families.
We’ve seen simple stone tablets, elaborate crosses, and even more complex and moving sculptures of fallen soldiers. Never, though, have I seen a World War I memorial like Pradelle’s. I don’t at all mean to make light of it, given the horrible significance behind the monument, but this one is somewhat…garish? It’s a figure of a French poilu, a soldier in the trenches, but painted in a way that gives it an air of the Keystone Cops. Still, there’s a long list of names engraved on the marble base, and when you remember that the population here was 1,791 in 1911, but only 1,593 ten years later…the moment becomes somber again.
Some moments from history
A walking tour confirms the impression that Pradelles was never a center of power like La Garde Guerin (another “most beautiful village” just down the road from here) or even a minor fortress like Arlempdes. Still, it’s clear that the place is very old (its name first appears in historical records from 965 A.D.), and the village has stepped out onto the stage of French history more than once in the last 500 years.
Pradelles first played a role as the site of a medieval hospital for pilgrims travelling along the Path of Saint Gilles. As the sign on the site says today, “Even if charity required us to shelter pilgrims as they passed, prudence about bandits and plagues advised us to keep them just outside our walls.”
In 1512, though, a little statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered buried in a meadow next to this hospital. No one knows anything else about its origins, but it certainly has held a central place in the village’s memory since then. Given the name of “Notre Dame de Pradelles,” it was placed in a little chapel attached to the hospital. When a fire ravaged this whole quarter of town in 1586, the chapel was miraculously spared – and thus the legend began.
It was confirmed on March 10, 1588, during the Wars of Religion that ravaged most of France in that century. On that day, a Hugenot (Protestant) army mounted a furious attack on Pradelles, but they were turned away, and villagers attributed the win to the protection of the little statue. It happened again in 1793, when partisans of the French Revolution tossed the wooden Virgin into a fire, but it was only partially consumed.
The statue was restored in 1802 and placed back in the chapel, where you can visit it today (though only for a few hours each day); if you come on August 15th, you can see it carried through the town’s streets in a grand processional.
The statue made Pradelles a bona fide destination for religious pilgrims. Many other miracles have been attributed to Notre Dame de Pradelles.
The town also takes pride in being a stop on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, a popular tourist map that tracks the author’s trek across this part of France in the 1870s. Although he did write a couple of sentences about Pradelles and its famous Virgin statue in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, in fact Stevenson only spent an hour or so here before moving on down the road.
And I have to mention one other historical tie to one of my favorite stories about this part of France – the murderous rampage of the Beast of Gévaudan. From 1764 to 1767, something – a wolf? a hyena? some kind of “devil beast”? – killed 112 people and mutilated 53 others. You can click here to read the whole terrible story, but the subject came up again in Pradelles when I noticed a small, otherwise nondescript cave in the lower level of one of the town’s old houses.
The sign next to it says, “in this barracks […] in October 1764, the Captain of the volunteers of the Clermont-Prince regiment chose among the best German mercenaries those who would bear the heavy weight of tracking the Beast of Gévaudan.” (Evidently, though, they were not successful, since the attacks attributed to the Beast continued for 3 more years after this date.)
Pradelles: a vacation escape
Today, though, Pradelles earns its place among the official “most beautiful villages of France” by preserving many of its fine medieval houses and public fountains. It benefits from a beautiful natural placement overlooking the plains of the southern Auvergne. And although it’s home to only 558 permanent inhabitants, its population swells in July in August thanks to the presence of one of the “vacation villages” that French people love so much.
With lots of opportunities for hiking, fishing, canoeing, and other outdoor sports in the Haute-Loire region, people come to Pradelles to rent cabins and explore this remote corner of France. And who could blame them? If you’re looking for a Provencal atmosphere in the deep heart of the country, Pradelle makes a good stop whether for a day or for a longer sejour.
Do you have a favorite “most beautiful village” in France? Do you have someplace you recommend for a daytrip in the center of the country? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below. Take a moment, too, to share this post with someone else who cares about France and French travel – just click on the button for your preferred social-media platform!