It’s impossible to travel in France without passing through its quaint rural villages. Their lively central squares are dotted with tabacs and cafes where you’ll see locals enjoying a morning coffee (or often something stronger).
You’ll stumble across at least one striking and beautifully persevered historic monument and wonder down narrow cobbled streets lined with medieval houses that momentarily take you back in time.
Perhaps best of all, you’re guaranteed to find a busy little boulangerie boasting a selection of freshly baked snacks (with locals stocking up on baguettes and tourists salivating over the cakes and croissants).
With so many pictureques places (which likely is what makes France the world’s most visited country) it’s hard to know where exactly to focus your precious days off.
An independent association started in 1982 has so far selected 158 of the most beautiful villages (called ‘Plus Beaux Villages’) based on their historical significance and unique character as well as their looks (and probably the Boulangerie too).
This list narrows your itinerary down a little, but if you don’t think you’ll manage 158 in one holiday, we’ve whittled these down even further. We’ve selected 5 stop-offs that are close enough together for a pretty perfect ‘beaux’ week away:
The hilltop commune of Gordes was a very active part of the Resistance during the Second World War, which brought it so much trouble in terms of reprisal attacks that it ended the war as one of three “stricken cities” in the county. But it’s definitely spruced itself back up to glory since then, and is fully deserving of its classification as one of France’s beauties.
Beautiful Moustiers-Sainte-Marie sits carved into a rocky outcrop, and has origins dating back to the 5th century when monks dwelled in the cliffside caves. A giant star hangs above this pastel-shaded village, on a wire stretched between two rocky peaks: legend has it that a knight captured during the Crusades vowed that if he ever made it back home to Moustiers he would place a star above the village. The current star dates to 1827 so either that guy had superhuman levels of ageing and patience, or the star is there in his honour.
Either way, the dramatic backdrop of the mountains and the colourful prettiness of the village itself make it a perfect place to visit.
Often cited as the best-preserved and most beautiful of all the Bastides in France, it is known as 'La Perle de l'Angleterre', as it was founded by the English king, Edward 1 in 1284. In 1991 it was awarded National Treasure status and if that’s not enough to tickle your interest, it’s also had a fair view famous visitors. Among them are Lawrence of Arabia (he’s not fictional) and Igor Stravinsky (musician, not tennis player).
Collonges la Rouge is a cute little village completely built out of red (as the name suggests) sandstone. It’s actually the village that initiated the ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages De France’, idea and you can definitely see why.
Nestled on a plateau within the Alpilles (little Alps) lies this stunningly restored little village. It offers incredible views overlooking the Camarague region as well as of nearby Arles (itself worth a visit, especially if you’re a Van Gogh fan). And a stone’s throw from Les Baux are ‘Les Carrieres Des Lumieres’ (lighted caves) which offer an immersive art experience where animated expressions of the celebrated artists work are projected onto the cave walls and set to music. It’s a pretty memorable experience, even if you’re not into the arts.
The 5 mentioned villages are ‘officially’ one of the 156 because they adhere to the society’s criteria (rural setting, at least two monuments of historic significance or national heritage sites, and must have no more that 2,000 inhabitants).
However, if you were to set this criteria aside, we believe there are some serious contenders to battle it out with. The following are our personal favorite ‘Beaux villages’, that are certainly worth adding to the list (and extending your holidays for):
Sarlat la Caneda: the first city in France to be given a protection order. Thanks to resistance hero André Malraux, who campaigned to sustain outstanding areas of architecture from post-war renovation. Chapeau André!
Rocamadour: a stunning little village built into the side of a cliff within the Lot department of South Central France. Beware the tourist crowds though.
Saint-Émilion: idyllic views, vines, wines and medieval history all come together in the heart of Bordeaux’s wine-making region.
Brantôme: a delightful town positioned along the Dordogne River, known as the Venice of the Dordogne (despite very little resemblance to Venice). Stunning, striking and sublime.
Vitré: a truly delightful town in Brittany, made up of cobbled streets, a castle, cafes and even some craft beers (if you’re feeling a little wined-out).