Once you get to Lyon, the gravitational pull of that great city can make you want to settle in for a while – but let me encourage you to save a day for the 40-minute drive out of town to Pérouges. This medieval gem may already be familiar to you from movies you’ve seen, but it’s worth exploring on its own as one of France’s official “most beautiful villages.”
Sleeping in the Duke’s Bedroom
I’ll admit that the timing for our first trip to Pérouges 18 years ago was not the most sensible: we went in February. The temperature had dropped to around -100 C (14 F), and our breath hung in clouds of ice crystals as we wrestled our suitcases into the hotel room. Our tour of the little town was perfunctory – after 20 minutes we were so cold we had to take refuge inside for hot tea and cocoa.
The trip was still memorable, though, because we had booked our stay through the Hostellerie de Pérouges – a collection of fine hotel rooms scattered through four of the town’s medieval building. Our 9-year-old son was with us at the time, so we booked the Duke’s Bedroom, a warm and inviting chambre with rustic wood beams and a great canopied bed for the grown-ups. It made a great base for dashes out to the car, across the square to the Hostellerie’s restaurant, or an occasional foray back into the streets for 10 minutes more of sight-seeing.
The Hostellerie still the best way to enjoy a weekend in Pérouges. The hotel’s main building is a house constructed for a rich 15th-century merchant; since 1912, it’s passed through four generations of the same family and welcomed guests as famous as Pierre Cardin and U.S. President Bill Clinton. And it’s a great place to enjoy examples of the best cuisine of this part of France – on the coldest night of our visit, we had the Bresse chicken accompanied by gratin dauphinois and counted ourselves warm and well-fed next to a crackling fire.
Return to Pérouges
Earlier this year, though, Karen and I went back to Pérouges, this time on a hot summer’s day, and although heat radiated everywhere from the cobblestoned streets we had a chance to discover all the sights that make this a “Most Beautiful Village of France.” Here are the main things to check out during your visit:
The Upper Gate
People have lived in this area for thousands of years, but the first documented mentions of Pérouges come from the 12th century C.E. It was a fortress town from the very beginning, perched on a hill and providing refuge from marauding troops in the region. (It didn’t become part of the kingdom of France until 1601.) That function became even more important in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the whole city was surrounded by walls, of which the Upper Gate is the last remaining vestige.
The Fortress Church
Built around 1440 C.E. (the era of Joan of Arc), it has all the obvious necessities for a church, but you’ll start to notice some surprising “enhancements”: thick walls and narrow slitted windows, structures obviously built for defense. The people of Pérouges took refuge here when the town was under attack.
The Street of Princes (Rue des Princes)
The House of Princes (Masion des Princes)
The Tower of Guet (Tour de Guet)
The Rue des Princes is the town’s medieval highlight. Here you can imagine how people lived and worked in the 1400s. Family apartments are built on the floors above shop fronts with counters that fold out into the street. The Maison des Princes itself was home to the town’s feudal lords (the Dukes of Savoie); today, it’s an interesting brocanterie of a museum dedicated to the history of Pérouges. (While we were there they had a fine temporary exposition of Chagall paintings.) And through the Maison, you can climb up into the Tower of Guet for a fine view of the surrounding countryside in every direction; on a clear day, they say, you can see Mont Blanc in the Alps off to the east of Lyon.
The Place des Tilleuls (Lime Tree Square)
This is the historic center of town – the market square and gathering place for more than six centuries. It’s here you’ll find the main office of the Hostellerie de Pérouges and its restaurant, as well as a bar/snack place and several fine medieval houses. But the highlight – the feature that gives the square its name – is a fine lime tree planted (according to local lore) just before the French Revolution in the late 1700s.
A remarkable restoration story
Pérouges is not the only medieval town in France preserved in such a perfect state – think of other "most beautiful villages" like Sarlat in the Dordogne, Charroux in the Auvergne, or Collonges-la-Rouge in the département of Corrèze. But those other places mostly got the impulse to save and restore their ancient architecture through the loi Malraux, a law promulgated in 1962 at the urging of Culture Ministre Andre Malraux. That project created “sectors to be saved” in areas that were losing ground to urban blight in the 1950s and 1960s, and the law provided money and tax incentives to support the work.
For Pérouges, though, the urgency – and the vision of a restored city – came much earlier. When railroads came to this corner of France in the 19th-century, they were routed around Pérouges; cut off from transportation, its textile industry fell apart and the town’s population dropped from 1,500 to around 90 in 1911. (The town’s own website says that by the end of the 19th century “only one family was living in the medieval city.”)
A core group of “old families of Pérouges” banded together in 1912 and created the Comité de Défense et de Conservation du Vieux Pérouges, dedicated to preserving the town’s history and architecture. They got help from the mayor of Lyon for their project; they took over the old Maison des Princes and turned it into an eclectic museum full of furniture, tools, textiles, documents, and other curiosities salvaged from family collections to show how life used to be in the village. They established the Hostellerie to provide accommodations for tourists, and they laid the groundwork for a different kind of future.
Pérouges – star of the silver screen
The efforts of the Comité de Défense paid off, early and often. Long before the loi Malraux, Pérouges became known as a place in the deep heart of France where you could see an authentic medieval town, with the whole ensemble of the village’s buildings preserved as they might have looked in the 1500s. It was, in fact, a perfect place to set a movie, and directors and their crews started coming here as early as 1921, when Henri Diamant-Berger filmed his version of The Three Musketeers in the streets of Pérouges.
Other filmmakers came, too – two more versions of The Three Musketeers incorporated scenes from Pérouges over the decades that followed, and other historical adventures found appropriate settings in the town’s ancient cobblestoned streets. With an explosion in tourism and the distinction of being named one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages” in France, the town’s population came back, too, growing to 1,206 in the most recent census.
It is in fact a beautiful, interesting village and a great base for a holiday stay. From here, it’s an easy drive into Lyon, but you could also go north and find yourself within minutes in the Beaujolais wine region. Those who prefer something less frenetic can enjoy the rustic ambiance of the Hostellerie’s rooms and its fine restaurant. But whichever option you enjoy, you can take a moment to step back into another time and place in the medieval streets of Pérouges.
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!