There are thousands of small beautiful villages in France. In 1981, an organization was formed, called Plus Beaux Villages de France. It began listing beautiful villages based on several criteria. The aim was to protect and promote the outstanding heritage of these exceptional villages. Today, the association has 156 member villages spread over 14 regions and 69 departments. However, the aim is not to make these villages tourist attractions but to reconcile villages with the future while preserving their essential village character.
However, beyond the official list, there are many more very beautiful villages in France that rarely get mentioned in the brochures. These villages are known only by local tourist offices with local knowledge; and are waiting to be discovered.
In France, villages are places with up to about 1500 inhabitants. Another term often used for compact historic villages is “bourg”. One can also consider bourg as small towns. Life in a village is simple and healthy. There is much more social interaction among the villagers and inhabitants know each other. There is no pollution and people are friendly. One can enjoy nature’s bounty and marvel at the beauty spread around.
Although it is extremely difficult to select just a few villages out of hundreds, he is a list of 12 most beautiful villages in France.
12. Salers (Auvergne, France)
Salers is listed among the most beautiful villages of France. It is 42 kilometres north of Aurillac in the Massif Central and is at the western edge of the Cantal volcanic region. Although its history is about a thousand years old, but it flourished in the 15th century. The buildings are made of dark grey volcanic stones and the village is described as a black diamond on a green carpet. For a small village, Salers has a number of monuments of interest, and the houses and buildings are lovely and beautiful.
There is a central square called the Place Tyssandier-d’Escous. Around this there are magnificent renaissance style houses from the 16th century. The central square remains unspoiled by the ravages of time. Salers is an established destination on tours of the region. The most important buildings here are the Town Hall and the Maison Baillage, built in the local dark lava stone and having decorative towers. Other important buildings are the Maison de la Ronade, and the Maison des Templiers which is now a small museum of local arts and traditions.
The village was originally surrounded by 15th century ramparts, and two of the original gateways are still visible. On one side of the village there is also a large open area of grass and trees which provide a view of the surrounding countryside and is a lovely place for picnic. The village is also known for a breed of cows called Salers and a variety of famous Cantal cheese. The region around the village is surrounded by mountains and very beautiful. It is ideal for a wide range of outdoor activities. It attracts around 400,000 visitors each year.
11. Chateau-Chalon (Franche-Comte, France)
Chateau-Chalon is a village in the Jura department of Franche-Comte. The village is one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’ and is situated in a very picturesque location in the heart of the Jura wine-growing region. The village has several expensive houses built on the income from the wine trade. The Chateau-Chalon vineyards date back to Roman times and the local, golden-yellow wine is held in very high regard. You can sample and buy the local wine in and around the village.
Situated at a higher altitude, the village has lovely views looking down across the surrounding vineyards. The remnants of a 13th century castleand the ancient fortified gateway in to the town are the two main sights in the village. There is also an old church in Chateau-Chalon which dates back to the 11th century, and has an unusual statue of Christ carved in oak. The beautiful hills of the Jura have vineyards covering the lower parts and forests on the higher areas, and provide endless opportunities to appreciate the scenery.
10. Eus (Languedoc-Roussillon, France)
The village of Eus lies in the in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It is situated about 40 kilometres west of Perpignan and 10 kilometres north-east of Villefranche-de-Conflent. While approaching the village from the main road between Prades and Perpignan, one can enjoy the view. Eus is classified as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’ and is said to be the village in France that gets more sun than any other.
At the top of the hill there is a !8th century Church of Saint Vincent, which incorporates part of the castle walls, and houses some primitive statues. There are lots of ruins of the medieval chateau and the view from the top of the hill in all directions is breathtaking.
There are narrow cobbled streets which are very picturesque, and joined by ancient vaulted passageways. There are masses of agaves, cacti and other Mediterranean plants and the mimosa trees. Lower down in the village there is another church which is much more ancient and dates from the 10th century. It is also dedicated to Saint-Vincent, and also to Saint-Jean. The paths around passes through the fruit trees and provides very attractive views.
9. Collonges-la-Rouge (Limousin, France)
Collonges-la-Rouge is included in the list of one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’. It is 23 kilometres southeast of Brive in the Limousin region. It is a very beautiful village and very popular with visitors. The village dates back to the 8th century when it was founded by monks from Charroux. The village got a boost in the 13th century when the inhabitants were granted exemption from taxes. In the following centuries many noblemen and businessmen built houses and castles in and around the village. The village prospered with income from vineyards until the end of the 19th century, when it was destroyed by phylloxera bug.
The houses have been constructed from the local sandstone which is very red in color. Collonges la Rouge is a lovely village to explore. It is full of red turreted houses and gardens. The only white stone structure is the 12th century roman style Church of Saint Peter. It has a tower and great detailed carpentry work.
There is a small Chapel of the Black Penitents with red stone arches. The 16th century houses in the villages are very grand, such as Ramade de la Serre with a square tower; the House of the Mermaid, the lovely renaissance building called the Court of the Chatellenie and many more. There are lots of very picturesque villages set in the scenic countryside around Collonges-la-Rouge.
8. Saint-Benoit-du-Sault (Loire Valley, France)
Saint-Benoit du Sault is a picturesque village situated on high hill overlooking the Creuse river. It is in the Indre department and 20 km south-west of Argenton-sur-Creuse, near the borders with both Limousin and Poitou-Charentes regions. The village dates back to the 10th century when the benedictine monks established themselves in the area. Most of the village with its pretty narrow streets and medieval houses, was mostly built from the 15th-16th century. This village has been selected as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’.
The Church St Jean Baptiste, dating back to 1020, is one of the earliest examples of roman style architecture in France. Inside the church there is 10th century granite baptism font, numerous arches and windows. The priory at the end of the same rocky outcrop as the church dates back to the 15th century. The streets around the priory and the fort are the oldest part of the village. Besides the medieval houses, there are fortified gates and the belfry in a round tapered design. One can stroll around the narrow cobbled street and explore the village. There are ancient stone archways, ancient houses with doors made the old fashioned way, with large nails, ornate stone lintels and unusual roof designs. There is also a house called the Logis du Gouverneur, which was built for the governor in the 15th century.
7. Capdenac-le-Haut (Midi-Pyrenees, France)
The village of Capdenac, a few kilometres south of Figeac, falls in two parts – Capdenac Gare and Capdenac-le-Haut. The latter is on a hill overlooking the Lot Valley and the town of Figeac. Capdenac-le-Haut is very popular among visitors and is now listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’. Strolling up the hills one passes through the remains of ancient village ramparts towards the large square tower. This donjon was built in the 14th century and has a small museum. Behind the tower is a small medieval garden that overlooks the village centre and church.
The main village of Capdenac has a small church, and beyond that a belvedere with lovely views overlooking a wide meander in the Lot Valley. There is an attractive town hall and behind that there are picturesque medieval streets. Behind the streets, over a cliff there is a fountain called the ‘Fontaine des Anglais’. The water source is divided between two basins of water. Its origin dates back 2000 years to the ancient roman era.
Capdenac-le-Haut is a small village and can be quickly explored. Yet for such a small village there is a surprising amount to see and appreciate. It offers breathtaking views. There are numerous highlights in the region around including picturesque villages and towns, castles and the scenery of the Lot Valley.
6. Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges (Midi-Pyrenees, France)
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’. It is situated on a small hill, 50 kilometres south-east of Tarbes in the Pyrenees. The village is surrounded by the lush green valleys of the region and overlooks the Pyrennean foothills. Built on the site of a Roman city, it was once a large town called Lugdunum Convenarum, with over 10,000 inhabitants. Now there are only about 250 inhabitants.
The entry to the village is through one of the three medieval entrances through the ramparts. Inside the walls, the streets of the village have a number of medieval and half-timbered houses. The cathedral dominates the village. In the centre of the village there are traditional colombage houses and barns of the region, with their impressive carpentry work. The post office is in a 15th century town house known as Maison Bridaut with a colombage facade and a hexagonal stone tower.
The village provides some beautiful views across the countryside. The Cathedral of Saint-Mary overlooks the quiet centre of the village. Overlooking the valley of the Garonne, the cathedral at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is often referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Pyrenees’. It looks more like a fortress. The cathedral was built from the 12th century onwards and combines Roman and gothic styles. The highlights in the cathedral include the bell tower, the entrance gate and renaissance period stained glass windows, and the tomb of Saint Bertrand with numerous medieval paintings. There are several sights and attractions nearby.
5. Saint-Ceneri-le-Gerei (Normandy, France)
St-Ceneri-le-Gerei is a very pretty village in a lovely wooded setting. It is located on a bend in the River Sarthe in southern Normandy. It is also officially classified as a ‘most beautiful village of France’. The village dates back to 7th century when an Italian priest called Ceneri settled here and constructed a monastery. There is a small stone bridge that across the River Sarthe. There are pretty houses along the river banks. The village on both sides of the river has small picturesque cottages running up the hills from the bridge.
Saint-Ceneri is in the Parc naturel regional de Normandie-Marne and offers plenty of natural scenery. The Maison du Park is an attractive building on the edge of the river. The main town square has a 11th century church which has beautiful arches in the clock tower, and contains some frescoes painted in the 12th and 14th century. There is small 15th century chapel where Saint-Ceneri originally settled and also has a statue of Saint-Ceneri, which is attributed to have miraculous powers. An old water source on the river banks which is also attributed to have miraculous power.
The unspoiled character of the village attracts many artists who have established galleries and workshops. There is a large parking spot for motor homes and several picnic spots nearby. Canoeing along the Sarthe River is a popular local activity. Trekking to the summit of the Mont de Avaloirs, only 400 metres high, provides great views.
4. Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Poitou-Charentes, France)
Angles-sur-l’Anglin is on the eastern border of the Poitou-Charentes region. The village is officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The pretty medieval village of Angles sur l’Anglin is on rocky hills. It is surrounded by pretty woodland and small fields, the ruins of the Chateau Guichard. The narrow unspoiled streets of the village are lined with attractive medieval houses. The roads lead to the chateau, and also to a roman style church and bell tower.
The circuit no 2 of the Ville Haute leads to the upper town and circuit no 1 in Ville Basse ads to the lower town. There are plenty of good views of some lovely houses on the opposite side of the river. There is a roman style church and also a small 12th century chapel with a well preserved roman style entrance. There is also a traditional mill on the side of the river.
Although it is a small village, there are several famous restaurants and cafes. The 11th century castle in Angles-sur-l’Anglin stands on a rocky promontory above the village and river. The castle was repaired and modified in the 12th and 15th centuries. It is in ruins now. There is also the Roc Aux Sorciers or ‘witches rock’. This is the site of fabulous prehistoric carvings which were made about 14 000 years ago. They are the most important carvings of their type in Europe.
3. Baux-de-Provence (Provence, France)
Baux-de-Provence is the most visited village in France with about two million visitors in a year. It is listed as a ‘most beautiful villages of France’, a title which it rightly deserves. It is a beautiful village 20 kilometres south of Avignon in Provence. It is within the Regional Natural Park of the Alpilles. The village has a long and colourful history. It is believed that the occupation of th village dates back to 8000 years. Its prehistoric history is unknown, but it was an important place in the Middle Ages. The Cardinal Richelieu has ordered demolition of the castle for harbouring protestant insurgents.
Baux-de-Provence is nestled in the Alpilles Mountains. It provides great views across the plains that stretch to the the Mediterranean. The rocky landscape of the Alpilles is very attractive and drive up to the village is very scenic. The village can be explored on foot. The entry is through the Porte Mage gate. The steep cobbled streets passes through medieval stone houses with ancient staircases and small shady squares till the entrance to the castle.
Among the historic monuments, there are parts of the ramparts that are still in place, small chapels and the Porte d’Eyguieres which is one of the original entrances into the town. Other interesting monuments include the 12th century Church of Saint-Vincent, the Hotel de Porcelet on Place Francois de Herain and the Hotel de Manville, which are both 16th century townhouses. The ruined castle – the Chateau of Baux-de-Provence – sits on top of a rocky outcrop above the village. Les Baux-de-Provence also has a couple of small museums. The village was earlier home to several thousand inhabitants, but now has only about 20 residents. Yet it is very crowded due to it being a great tourist attraction.
2. Saint-Lizier (Midi-Pyrenees, France)
Saint-Lizier is situated on a hill above the River Salat, and is two kilometres north of Saint-Girons in the Ariege department. It is listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’. Saint-Lizier is a very ancient village. It has been known to exist for at least 2000 years. There are evidence from the Roman period. Saint-Lizier has two separate parts; the lower part contains the old village around the Cathedral of Saint Lizier. The upper part is surrounded by ancient fortifications and is dominated by the 17th century Bishop’s Palace.
The village is named after the Cathedral of Saint-Lizier, which is a small cathedral featuring an octagonal tower and attractive cloisters with a balcony and carved stone decorations at the top of the columns. There are a large number of 11th century frescoes inside the cathedral. There is also a bust of Saint-Lizier.
There are a lot of interesting buildings around; such as 18th century pharmacy and hospital, the clock tower etc. The Bishop’s Palace is now a museum, with archaeological artefacts and also many items and paintings from the region. There is also a small, Chapel Notre-Dame du Marsan, with a statue of the Virgin Mary looking out across miles of scenic countryside. There are lovely views across to the snow topped mountains of the Pyrenees. Saint-Lizier falls within the Natural Regional Park of the Ariege Pyrenees. It has many lakes and mountains, cirques and forests. It is a beautiful place for hikers to explore.
1. Piana (Corsica, France)
Piana is situated 400 metres above the Gulf of Porto on the coast of western Corsica. It is 12 kilometres south-west of Porto. This small village was founded in 1725, and is listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France. It has traditional stone houses and a church that dominates the village. There is a small historic centre of narrow streets to explore, and has shops, bars and restaurants. At the centre of the village there is a late 18th century baroque style church, called the church of Sainte Marie or the church of the Assumption. There is a 17th century painting of Saint Hugo and a wooden statue.
The village offers lovely views along the coast, and draws visitors for the scenery and beaches around the village. From the village a road descends towards the small natural harbour called the Marina de Ficajola. The small beach and red rock cliffs surrounding the beach look lovely. There is a larger beach, called the Plage d’Arone, about 12 kilometres from the village with lovely views along the coast.
On the way to Piana, the Calanche of Piana, called “Calanques de Piana” is a series of extraordinary rock formations, bright red cliffs and rocks that plunge towards the deep-blue sea. This is now listed as a protected site by UNESCO. The region around Piana is one of the most attractive in Corsica with lots of other attractions nearby.
France is full of small beautiful villages. These villages are now promoting tourism in a big way. Every village has something unique to offer. Apart from the scenic beauty, the historical monuments like churches, chapels and forts are worth a visit. These villages have a rich history and colourful cultural heritage. The people are very friendly and villages can be explored on foot. There are cafes for refreshment. These villages are very accessible from nearby cities. Visiting these fascinating villages is one experience which leaves memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Compiled and written by: Raj Kumar Hansdah