Saint-Robert France Correze Romanesque

Saint-Robert is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

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):

Saint-Robert France Correze

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 France Correze

 

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:

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.

Saint-Robert France Correze

 

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.

 

Saint-Robert France Correze
Chateau Verneuil (by Mossot - own work, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

 

Saint-Robert France Correze
Saint-Robert's town crest

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.

Saint-Robert France Correze Romanesque

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.

RELATED:  What exactly is “ROMANESQUE” architecture?

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.

 

Saint-Robert France Correze

Saint-Robert France Correze

 

Saint-Robert France Correze

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.

 

Saint-Robert France Correze

Saint-Robert France Correze
Pierre-Simeon Bourzat

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.”

Saint-Robert France Correze

Leaving Saint-Robert

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!

Saint-Robert France Correze

Saint-Robert France Correze

9 thoughts on “Saint-Robert is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

  1. I always enjoy your articles, and have visited St. Robert. Last year my husband and I bought a 350 year old stone cottage in Montignac-sur- Vézère. We love southwest France and revel in exploring the very many lovely medieval villages and gardens throughout the region. I am always surprised that more Americans haven’t discovered this wonderful area. Maybe that’s a good thing, but puzzling, nevertheless. There is such a wealth of riches to appreciate.

    1. Thanks very much, Cynthia. I’ve actually driven through Montignac on a previous visit — what a great place it must be to live in! You’re right, too, that more people should discover these “unsung” parts of France. I’ve even met many French people who don’t have any idea how beautiful and interesting the center and southwest can be!

      1. I want to let you know that the articles you have written about showcasing places that I was not familiar with in central France have inspired me to explore them in the near future. So thanks for that! And yes, Montignac is perfect for us, we love it there. The visible and accessible span of history in the Vézère valley from the prehistoric, Roman, medieval to modern is fascinating.
        I look forward to more of your writings and photos. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for presenting another tantalizing destination. I have loved your posts and photos since discovering your site after I moved here in 2017. I have even made it to a few of the places you’ve mentioned and hope to visit many more. You definitely get the dream and peace machines whirring.

    Greetings from Puissalicon!

    1. Thanks, Mark – that’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever had! I’m glad you’ve been able to see some of these places already.

  3. This reminds me of Provins, in the Seine-et-Marne. Thank you for taking the time to display and explain these beautiful places. I miss France so much, and am very thankful to return at least once a year! Great photos, descriptions, and stories, per usual. Really appreciate your blog and posts!!! Keep it up!

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