If you spend much time bouncing around the French countryside, at some point you may come across a village with a distinctive sign at the city limits: “L’un des plus beaux villages de France” – one of the most beautiful villages in France.
When you see the sign, 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?
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 154 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 have to be willing to “manage” traffic (which usually has the pleasant effect of turning the village into a “pedestrian zone” with all the visitors required to park somewhere outside the city limits). 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.
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.
Over the next few months, I’ll introduce you to at least one of these “most beautiful villages” every month. 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.”
We’ll start our tour next week in Salers, a gorgeous medieval village that really is in the “deep heart of France”, far off the normal tourist tracks in the Cantal.
Have you visited any 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!