It’s easy enough, when you’re bouncing around the deep heart of France, to experience this remarkable country in fragments, to imagine each castle and medieval abbey and little village existing in deep isolation, each tucked in its own private corner and invisible to the rest of the world. It’s easy to experience the country as Graham Robb describes it in The Discovery of France (one of my all-time favorite history books):
After the Revolution, almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight. […] Many recruits from the Dordogne in 1830 were unable to give their recruiting sergeant their surnames because they never had to use them. Until the invention of cheap bicycles, the known universe, for many people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles and a population that could easily fit into a small barn.
It’s easy to imagine this world of isolation and disconnection – but in some ways, I think, that would be wrong! One of the most amazing things I’ve discovered in my travels through central France is just how connected the medieval world could be. Today, we visit a place that owes much of its existence to its connection to a sprawling network that spread across the country in the Middle Ages: Saint-Robert, in the département of Corrèze.
Saint-Robert is a "Most Beautiful Village of France"
First things first, though. Today, Saint-Robert is officially one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”. There are several others in this immediate area:
- Collonges-la-Rouge – the medieval “red city” (and the very first village to be named to the “Most Beautiful” list)
- Turenne – once the seat of one of the most powerful “private” kingdoms in France
- Curemonte, with its three castles clustered together in one tiny village of 211 inhabitants
- Saint-Amand-le-Coly, site of another massive abbey
- Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, once a thriving port town moving salt, grains, plaster, earthenware, and exotic foodstuffs back and forth from Bordeaux deeper into the interior of this part of France
Each of these towns has its own attractions. There are some strict criteria to be met and a long process to follow to be included in this prestigious list of the plus beaux villages de France, and Saint-Robert checks off all the required boxes.
I came into town on a blistering hot summer day, so my first impression was of the brilliant white stone facades of the town’s central square shimmering in the sunlight. It’s a tiny town – you can walk the whole village in a few minutes, but you’ll find it is mostly residential, very quiet, with only the “essential” local businesses – a butcher, a bakery, an épicerie, and a bistro with plastic lawn chairs grouped around its tables out front.
As you’d expect in a “most beautiful village”, Saint-Robert is visually charming. Several of the houses have brilliant floral displays, many of them are like “mini-chateaux” in design, and the whole town looks out across a broad green valley. It doesn’t take long before I discover the first of the two “required” historical monuments that make this a “plus beau village” – the Château de Verneuil. It’s a big block of a building, for me, more a “big house” than a “chateau”, built in 1472 for the Verneuil family. The house is privately owned, so you can’t tour inside, but it makes an impressive introduction to this little town.
Part of a grand medieval "network"
More interesting to me, though, is the fine little Romanesque church – the second of the “required” historical monuments, and a gateway into a story of how “connected” the medieval world could be. Saint-Robert was already mentioned in history as “connected”, even back in the time of Charlemagne, since it was a way station on the network of pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago-de-Compostela.
But it’s the Benedictine abbey founded here in 1122 C.E. that gives Saint-Robert its name and its connection to one of the great medieval reseaux you encounter so frequently in travels around France. It’s named for the massive “mother ship” at La Chaise Dieu, where an abbey the size of an aircraft hangar is named for its founder: Robert de Turland. It’s hard to estimate the impact La Chaise Dieu had on medieval France – I’ve encountered other “satellite” houses in places as diverse as Lavaudieu (also a “most beautiful village”) and Brantome (where a classical facade hides a surprising secret behind its walls). We know for sure that Saint Robert de Turland had a profound influence on the monk who started his career at La Chaise Dieu and eventually became Pope Clement VI, one of the Avignon Popes who ruled as the Black Death swept across Europe.
In any event, it’s remarkable that a religious order in La Chaise Dieu – which is itself in an especially isolated, windswept corner of the Auvergne – had such a broad reach in the Middle Ages. Google Maps estimates that walking from La Chaise Dieu to Saint-Robert would take 51 hours (not including overnight stops to rest) – and more than 140 miles over the rugged mountains and volcanic peaks that slash across central France! But that’s what happened, and the beautiful little Romanesque church reflects those “glory days” of the village.
It’s a classic design, supposedly inspired by the larger church at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. All the things I love about Romanesque architecture – the carvings at the top of each column, the simplicity of the design, the regular rounded arches – are present here, as well as a 13th-century Spanish statue of Christ. I sat by myself (no other tourists in sight) for 20 minutes drinking in the light filtering through the thick walls and the simple stained-glass windows and tried to imagine congregants coming here every Sunday for almost a thousand years no matter what turbulence disturbed the life of this quiet little village.
And there was plenty of turbulence. After Saint-Robert’s 12th-century “glory days”, the Correze, the Dordogne – this whole part of France – were the sites of many bloody battles during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453 C.E.) and the Wars of Religion that ravaged the country in the last third of the 16th century. Surprisingly, there aren’t any particular monuments in Saint-Robert to either conflict – in fact, the almost 200 years of these 2 wars are not even mentioned on the town’s “welcome” sign – but you can imagine the effect the battles would have had on a little village like this. It’s not close enough to a real fortress-style castle to afford people here much protection from marauding armies, and the only real clue to those violent years is in the massive square tower at the chapel end of the church – it has cross-shaped slits in its thick walls to accommodate archers defending the town.
Signs inside the church do mention that the abbey here started to decline beginning in the 14th century (when only 6 monks remained onsite), and since then the village of Saint-Robert has had few brushes with the mainstreams of French history. One famous citizen – Pierre-Simeon Bourzat – is celebrated for being a “lawyer [avocat] for the poor” and for being exiled to Belgium with his friend Victor Hugo after he opposed the rise of Napoleon III in 1851. (He and Hugo apparently had the idea 100 years before the European Union to create a “United States of Europe”; clearly, their plan went nowhere.)
The town was also used in the 1980s as the setting for a 6-episode French miniseries, Des Grives Aux Loups, based on a book by Claude Michelet. It’s one of those sprawling multi-generational sagas about life in a small French village between 1899 and 1998, and the TV version of the town was called “Saint Liberal sur Diamond.”
Back on the road again to Brive, I had time to reflect on why I’ve come to love (and write about) so many of these “plus beaux villages” in the deep heart of France. They all have very distinct “personalities” and looks; they all offer a look at different slices of French history, many of them even before there was such a thing as modern “France”. And they all have put time, effort, and considerable investments into making their little corners of the country welcoming to tourists. I don’t often see Americans or British people during these visits – my impression is that most of the tourists are French. (I know from talking to a couple of them that they use the “Most Beautiful Villages” directory to plan their vacation trips, like some Americans who set out to visit every National Park in the U.S. system.)
In the end, I conclude that there are plenty of worse ways to spend a vacation than passing a sunny day walking through a friendly, aesthetically charming village and understanding where it fits in the quilt of French history – so look for more posts on other places in the months ahead!
Do you have a favorite among the “most beautiful villages of France”? Or a place you think should be added to the list? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France. Thanks for reading!