France is full of beautiful villages, and being France, has an association they can belong to. Les Plus Beaux Villages de France was started in 1981 at Collonges-la-Rouge in the Corrèze in south west France by the then mayor Charles Ceyrac. In the 1980s rural France was suffering from an exodus to the towns particularly of the young and the mayor saw this as a way to promote tourism and help stop the rot. There was also the permanent threat of over enthusiastic local authorities spoiling some of France’s greatest attractions. So Les Plus Beaux Villages de France was officially born in March 1982.
Today there are 157 designated villages spread over 21 regions and 69 departments. Villages can apply if they have certain qualifications. Two of the main stipulations are that there is a maximum population of 2,000 inhabitants (not hard; most villages never reach that number), and has at least 2 protected sites or monuments, a ruling that is more difficult for many small villages.
Locating the Villages
It’s easy to find the villages; the official website has them listed by department. So if you’re going to a part of France which you don’t know, it’s worth checking on the website for a list in your area.
There’s also a useful map showing the location of all the villages.
Some Villages by Region
Vouvant in the Vendée, is just north of the marshy Marais Poitevin and near to the fabulous, and to many, the top themes park in the world, Le Puy du Fou. Voted the 8th most popular village in a French annual poll, this pretty village on the river Mère has whitewashed houses and 11th century Romanesque church.
Arlempdes in the Haute-Loire department, is a spectacular village high up on a volcanic peak circled by the mighty Loire River. It’s south of Le Puy-en-Velay and north of Pradelles, another of the most beautiful villages of France.
Conques in Aveyron is more than a most beautiful village; it’s also classified as a Grand Site de France. Once one of the major stopping places for pilgrims from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela, today this small peaceful village in the Lot valley attracts visitors with its half-timbered houses, the 11th and 12th century St Foy church and the remarkable treasure of the golden statue of Sainte Foy.
Locronan in Finistère is named after Saint Ronan, the hermit who founded the town in the 10th century. The granite village with its Renaissance houses and a 15th-century church was at its most prosperous during the 16th century through its sail makers.
Vézelay stands proudly above the surrounding countryside, beckoning the pilgrims flocking to Spain who made the Romanesque basilica one of the great centers of Christendom.
There are 2 classified villages in Corsica.
Sant’Antonino near Calvi is nearly 500 meters high on a granite peak. One of the oldest villages on the craggy island, it’s full of old passageways and has a superb view from the old castle remains.
Piana in south Corsica overlooks the Golfe de Porto. It’s just above the entrance to the rocky inlet or calanche, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Château-Chalon in Franche-Comté stands high up on a cliff. On the Routes des Vins du Jura, it was the village that first produced the special Jura vin jaune made from late harvest grapes.
Visit Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert in eastern Languedoc in the Herault for the magnificent Romanesque 10th to 12th century Abbaye de Gelone (though its cloister was sold to New York in the 19th century and forms part of the Cloisters Museum). The Abbaye stands on the delightful place de la Liberté surrounded by old houses with Renaissance mullioned windows.
Sainte-Agnès is perched high up in the Alpes Maritimes above the Mediterranean. It’s a strategic site, once protecting the Franco-Italian border on the Maginot line.
Barfleur in Manche is one of the prettiest fishing villages on the north coast. On the Cotentin Peninsula, it was the leading port in Normandy in the middle ages. Its proximity to the Normandy D-Day Landing beaches makes it popular with British and American visitors.
The Plus Beaux Villages association began in Collonges-la-Rouge where red houses and historic buildings line the winding streets.
La Roque Gageac runs along the Dordogne river front, its pretty houses reflected in the waters. Take a trip on a gabare (flat-bottomed traditional boat) and hear about the glory of this rich region.
Moustiers-Saintes-Marie in the Alpes de Haute Provence is an extraordinary looking village, built into the crack of a huge rock. It’s overrun in the summer as visitors flock here for its famous pottery, much produced by local artisans. It’s also near Lac de Sainte-Croix and Gorges du Verdon.
Seillans in the Var is a fortified hilltop village, its narrow streets winding up the hillside from a square where terrace restaurants keep the influx of summer visitors well fed and watered.
Gordes in the Vaucluse looks out over the Cavaillon plain. It attracts a chic crowd with its warm stone buildings, castle and narrow streets.
The ancient and strongly Basque La Bastide Clairence in the Pyrénées Atlantiques was founded by Louis of Navarre (later King of France).
Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye, near Romans-sur-Isère, is dominated by its remae Gothic abbey, begun in the 12th and finished in the 15th century. The abbey buildings surround the abbey of this once important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Today it’s tourists who come to see the half-timbered houses, covered market and small winding streets.
The organisation promotes events; the next one is La Route des Villages, Paris to Cannes. It’s organised by 4 roues sous une parapluie (4 wheels under an umbrella which is a rough description of a 2cv). It runs from May 10th to 17th 2015, and will consist of 30 to 80 people travelling in those wonderful old cars. It sounds a little barmy and immense fun.