High above the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, strung between two rock ledges, a gold star dangles in the sky. It’s not very big and you have to look carefully to see it. There are probably some visitors to the town who never even realize it’s there. And why is it there? No one really knows for sure. There are several legends about the star that hangs over this village, one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” There are stories about love affairs and the three kings, about knights returning from Crusades and the Virgin Mary. The most enduring account is that of Baron Blacas who became a prisoner of the Saracens during the Crusades. He promised to hang a star on a chain above the village if he was able to return home alive. None of these various tales have ever been authenticated and the true story of the star remains a mystery. The star that hangs above the village today was made in 1957 and it is at least the eleventh one to do so.
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Located in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department of France, the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is nestled at the foot of huge rocky cliffs with a river running through it’s center. The village has a long, fascinating and rich history. Because of the high cliffs that surround it (and the star of course) many people compare the village to a nativity scene. Blessed with over 300 days of sunshine each year, just around the corner from the Gorges-du-Verdon and surrounded by stunning lavender fields, this village is one of my absolute favorites in France. I’ve been there three times now, walking and exploring every part of the town and I’m eager to go back again. It’s a small village with only about 700 inhabitants, but its very special and quite unique.
A Little History
The first record of people in the village is from the 5th century when monks from the nearby Lérins abbey settled in local caves and founded a monastery. During the 10th and 11th centuries the village weathered continued attacks from the Moors, Muslim invaders from the north of Africa. This led to fortifications being built in the 12th and 13th century along with more houses and mills. During the 16th century the town became a center for the tanning and paper industries due to its river and the hydraulic power it provided, something necessary for both industries. During the 18th and 19th centuries a large ceramics industry thrived that still exists today.
A Walk Through the Village
There are a number of interesting landmarks to see in the village. The main streets of the town run parallel to the small river that runs straight through the middle of the town, the Ravin de Notre-Dame. Most of the village is pedestrian only with very limited access by car. Several small bridges cross over the river and provide access to both “sides” of the town. Every street is lined with shops, boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Well preserved, immaculately restored and meticulously maintained, the village is a real delight to wander through.
Unlike many mountain villages where space is scarce and the streets are dark and narrow, here the streets are wide and full of light, sunshine and greenery. Several squares connect the various portions of the town and there are flowers, plants and trees everywhere. The river running through the center of town provides a unique aspect to the village and at one point a huge waterfall descends down to a large pool of water below. You can stand on one of the bridges and watch the tumbling water splash over the stones and rocks. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is a very popular destination for tourists, so it can get quite overrun, especially during the summer. On my most recent visit, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was much less crowded and I was very pleased to find it relatively empty compared to previous visits.
The Parish Church was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and is a mix of both Romanesque and Gothic styles. Its Lombard bell tower is known as one of the finest in all of Provence. One of the most interesting aspects of this church is the altar which is a 4th century sarcophagus made of white marble, depicting the Red Sea crossing. The Sainte-Anne Chapel, dating from the 1500s, sits just on the edge of town, and while it is usually not open to visitors you can get a very good look inside of it from the entrance.
If you venture out to the southwest edges of the village you’ll find the remnants of the old ramparts and fortified walls which date back to the 14th century. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is surrounded on several sides by high cliffs which provided a natural barrier and protection, but in the middle ages, as with most medieval villages, walls were built around the other, more vulnerable sides. An old aqueduct from the 12th century still remains near the bottom of the village and provides a fascinating look into the ancient irrigation system that was used to send spring water downhill to the mills.
The Musée de la Faïence is a ceramics museum that traces the history of this art back to the middle ages. There is a large collection to explore, from very old earthenware pots to some of the newest creations from the craftsmen and women now living in the village. Moustiers ceramics became quite famous in the 1600s when a visiting Italian monk taught Pierre Clérissy the secrets of “white enamel.” Because much of the gold and silver tableware of the time was being melted down to restore the royal French treasury, these pieces of ceramics became sought after and treasured. When English ceramics and china became popular a few centuries later the art died out but it was reestablished in 1927 when a new oven was built in the village and the reputation was rebuilt. Today there are over twenty workshops, ateliers and businesses in the village devoted entirely to the art of ceramics.
By far the most popular landmark in the village is the Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir Chapel, located high up on one of the cliffs that tower above the houses and shops. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries it too shows signs of both Romanesque and Gothic influences. It takes about fifteen minutes to make the walk up the 262 steps of the stone path from the village but it is absolutely worth it. The fourteen “Stations of the Cross” mark the turns in the path on your way up with small monuments. You’ll get some great views of the town and the valley from the path and from the chapel.
In the 17th century this chapel became famous as a destination for the grieving parents of stillborn babies. It was said that if the dead child was brought to the chapel and baptized it would return to life for the duration of the baptism and that their souls could then enter heaven.
Apart from the main pathway up to the chapel there is another located around the side. This one is not a wide, well-maintained stone walkway, but rather a sometimes steep climb up a small path on the side of the mountain. When I visited the chapel on this most recent visit I took this path back down. There is another small chapel located in a cave along the way, Grotte Sainte-Madeleine. At the bottom of this trail, if you turn right and walk a short distance, just outside the ramparts, and past one of the old gates, Porte du Riou, you will find a beautiful little bridge and a small waterfall.
If you like to walk or hike note that there is a nice nature walk, the Sentier de Tréguier, which runs for four kilometers through olive groves and woods, leading to a lookout point above the Angouire canyon. You’ll find lots of stations along the way with information about the natural and human history of the area. You can find the trail next to the Sainte-Anne chapel.
I would schedule at least three or four hours to spend in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. An overnight stay in one of the local hotels or via Airbnb will be even better. I find I always wish I had more time to explore the village when I am there. It really does live up to its reputation for being one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France.”
More to See and Do
This is one of my favorite areas of France. There is so much to do and see here it is astounding. The Sainte-Croixe lake is a beautiful area for boating, swimming, kayaking, etc. On the side of the lake are Bauduen and Aiguines, two marvelous little villages that I really enjoy spending time in. And then, of course, there is also the Gorges du Verdon. A truly spectacular gorge cut through the area by the Verdon river. If you are in the area during the months of June and July you will certainly not want to miss the fantastic lavender fields of Valensole.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie also sits in the middle of a large natural park, The Verdon Natural Regional Park. The park includes 46 towns and villages and straddles the Var and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments. It includes the Gorges-du-Verdon, the Valensole Plateau, Sainte-Croix Lake and more. Many, many outdoor activities are available throughout the park.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is located on the D952 right near the southern edge of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. You can get there easily from Cannes, Antibes or Nice by taking some combination of the A8, D54 and the D957. From Vence I like to take the back roads, even though they are a tad bit longer. It’s a much nicer drive than being on the expressway. I head northwest through Gréolières to Castellane, down through the Gorges du Verdon and up to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. There are several parking lots located around the town, but be careful, some of them are paid. The Office de Tourisme (located on a large square near the church) is open from 10AM to 12:30PM and 2PM to 5PM every day of the week during January, February and December. In March and November the hours are extended until 5:30PM. In April, May and October the hours are extended until 6PM. In June and September they open at 9:30AM. In July and August they are open until 7:00PM on weekdays and 7:30PM on weekends. You can find lots of information about the village in the Office de Toursime and on their website listed below.