What are the "Most Beautiful Villages" in France?
Since I started this blog, I've profiled 13 of the towns claiming officially to be “L’un des plus beaux villages de France” – one of the most beautiful villages in France. (Another profile, of Pradelles, is coming later this week, and there are 25 more on my calendar to show you in the months ahead.)
When you see that distinctive road sign at the city limits as you drive into town, you know you’re in for a treat. Among other things, you’re likely to find ancient buildings, quaint medieval streets, elaborate floral displays, and pleasant gathering places where people meet for drinks and meals. But have you wondered what makes a town “one of the most beautiful”? Who decides? Where are the other “plus beaux villages” in the country?
The criteria for getting on the official list of "Most Beautiful Villages"
There’s actually an association in charge of this. The driving force behind its creation in 1981 was Charles Ceyrac, the Mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge at the time, and he persuaded 66 other mayors to join in the effort. It’s grown to include 155 villages in 68 of the 96 départements on the country’s mainland – but when you look at the map there’s a remarkable concentration of them in what I’m calling “the deep heart of France.”
What actually gets a town into the club? It’s an exclusive group; only about 1 applicant in 5 is approved, and to get in, a town must meet all of these basic criteria:
Have a maximum of 2,000 inhabitants – they’re looking for places that retain a “rural character”.
Have minimum of 2 historically important ‘monuments’. In most places, this is the church plus a chateau or some combination of important historic houses.
Give proof of the villagers’ support for the idea (because ultimately they will have to pay a few hundred or a few thousand Euros for the privilege of being called a “most beautiful village”).
You have to build an extremely detailed application document, showing how the town meets 30 different criteria, starting with the “harmony and homogeneity of the village’s buildings” (including their general style, the materials used to build them, and even the colors used on the facades and roofs).
You are supposed to be willing to “manage” traffic (which usually has the pleasant effect of turning many of these villages into “pedestrian zones” with all the visitors required to park somewhere outside the city limits); it's only lately that I've found a couple of towns that are not so attentive to this requirement. And you have to pay attention to lighting, flowers, the density of business establishments, and several other details of the way the town presents itself to the world.
The association is explicitly NOT looking for villages that are “pretty” without having evidence of a "soul", and they don’t want to see villages turned into historical theme parks. They have 3 main goals for the program:
To preserve the historically important aspects that make a town unique
To publicize the existence of these very special places (and to give them access to media-relations resources they might not otherwise afford)
To promote their economic development, especially by promoting “durable” tourism.
Many of these towns are VERY far off the beaten path, accessible only by narrow country roads and not anywhere close to the major tourist centers. You don’t arrive in a place like Apremont-sur-Allier by accident! So it’s good to hear that their promotional efforts actually have some impact: one estimate says a village can expect 30-40% more visitors because of the label.
(As an aside: the association of “plus beaux villages” has a very nice website where you can plan your visit to one of these sites and make your reservations in a hotel, B&B or chambre d’hôtes. It’s in French, but they also have a page where you can find the villages on the map and buy an English guide to all the towns.)
To be sure, not every very beautiful town in France carries this designation. Many don’t want to invest the effort required to meet all the very strict criteria, and the association is OK with that; word is they’d prefer to keep the total number below 200 for the whole country.
My Top 10 "Most Beautiful Villages" (so far)
But be sure, too, that the label does mean you can expect something out of the ordinary. I’ve seen many of these plus beaux villages de France, and even the ones that are a little less spectacular are always worth the visit.
They’re not just visually pleasing – almost every one that I’ve personally visited really does fulfill the association’s stated goal of “reconciling towns with their future and reviving the community’s life around the fountain or the shady square.” My personal criteria in making up this list focus on villages that have the broadest possible appeal, including:
- a rich history -- something with real national impact in the history of France
- strong aesthetics -- that is, beautiful buildings and public spaces
- (usually) an unusually beautiful natural setting
Here, then, is my personal ranking of the ten “most beautiful villages” I've profiled on this blog to date (with many more to come!) Just click on the name of each village to see a complete profile and learn more about why it made the list.
#10 - Arlempdes
With only 129 inhabitants, I think this is the smallest town on my list. It looks more "historically important" than it really is -- the great castle ruin here turns out to be a relatively minor outpost -- but its dominating view of the valleys where the mighty Loire River begins gave it an appeal I couldn't overlook.
#9 - La Roque Gageac
The best views of this little town are actually from a distance -- especially from the outlooks at the spectacular Gardens of Marqueyssac. La Roque Gageac is just a few miles from Sarlat (one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Dordogne), so it's easy to find and easy to walk. Try renting a canoe for a river-side view of this special village.
This is a "2-for-1" destination. The town of Tournemire itself reminded me of Apremont-sur-Allier -- an easy walk through a lovely little town. At the end of the walk, though, is a fine old medieval castle, where I had one of the most interesting guided tours I've ever experienced in this part of France.
#7 - Lavaudieu
Another very small town, Lavaudieu packs a lot of history in its medieval streets. It's home to the only surviving Romanesque cloister in the Auvergne, the legacy of its place in the great network of abbeys connected to La Chaise Dieu.
#6 - La Garde Guerin
I know in an instant that I would love La Garde Guérin. The Knights of La Garde Guérin had a particular job: protection of travelers along a stretch of the Régordane road from Villefort to La Bastide – the “most difficult, the most desolate, the most dangerous” part of the route, according to locals. With lots of well-preserved medieval architecture, perched on a sun-washed plateau south of Le Puy en Velay, and overlooking the spectacular Gorges of Chassezac, this quickly became one of my favorite places in the deep heart of France.
#5 - Usson
Usson would probably make the list of Most Beautiful Villages on its aesthetic qualities alone, coupled with an amazing view of the Puy de Dome and massive volcano chain surrounding it to the west. But it's also the scene of one of the most interesting historical stories I've encountered anywhere in France -- the 20-year exile of Queen Margot (daughter of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry IV, sister to 2 other French kings) from the court in Paris. It's frankly hard to imagine her life in such an isolated corner of France, but Usson still carries the marks of her time here. For me, this is the complete package!
#4 - Apremont-sur-Allier
Of all the towns in my personal "Top 10", I think Apremont-sur-Allier clearly qualifies as "most photogenic". It's an easy 20-minute walk from one of town to the other, and there's not much in the way of deep history or touristy commerce to discover here. It's just...beautiful! Definitely worth a trip if you're in the Allier.
#3 - Charroux
We've visited Charroux several times over the years. It's famous for some of its artisanal products, especially its variety of tasty mustards and jams and its candles. Other artists make their homes and sell their works here, too. Add that to a church with a mysteriously lopped-off steeple and some history as a ville franche, and I think you'll find this a fine destination.
#2 - Salers
It's no secret that the Cantal region (in the southern Auvergne) is one of my favorite places on earth. 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. And 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.
... and my #1 favorite of the "Most Beautiful Villages" is:
If you were going to "design" a place to be counted among the "Most Beautiful Villages" in France, Castelnaud-la-Chappelle would be a great starting point. The castle is the main reason to come. This is not one of those small family keeps that are sprinkled on almost every hill in the deep heart of France – this is a massive fortress, one of the great military outposts that figures in so much of French history. In the beginning (in the 1100s C.E.), it was a Cathar stronghold, stolen away in 1214 by Simon de Montfort, the brutal warrior, veteran of the Fourth Crusade and newly-appointed leader of the crusading army that swept through the Cathar territories of southwestern France. Home to a fine museum covering everything related to medieval armor and warfare (including some full-size siege engines out in the courtyard!), Castelnaud also looks out over a spectacular view of the Dordogne valley. (You can even see another "Most Beautiful Village", Beynac, across the valley). For me, this is the complete package -- everything I would hope to see in one of France's plus beaux villages!
Watch this space in the months ahead as we continue to check out these destinations in the Deep Heart of France.
What do you think? Do you agree with my ranking? Have you visited any others of these special towns? What did you think – did the place live up to the label? Please tell us about your experience in the comments below -- and click the button for your preferred social-media platform(s) to share this post with someone else who might have an opinion about the "most beautiful villages" in France!