STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

The Most Beautiful Villages Of France

September 19, 2019

Village Update / September 29, 2022: I’ve now visited 85 of the 164 current villages. I’ve made a goal to completely finish by my birthday in 2026, just over four years from now. It will take some work, but I think I can do it.

One of my very favorite things to do in France is to visit and explore small villages. I think I first became fascinated with them in 1995 when Carole and I were driving across the country on our honeymoon. I had read about Peille and Peillon in a guide book we had where they were described as “perched villages.” I was determined to find them and see what they were all about. This was back in the days before GPS and we had only paper maps to rely on as we navigated the wild French country backroads. Somehow we got completely lost and ended up in La Turbie as it was getting dark. We spent the night in La Turbie and spent a little time exploring it the next morning. It’s a wonderful village itself (though not one of the “official” most beautiful ones) which I often pass through on bicycle rides these days. The next day we headed off for Peillon and after spending the afternoon there I was completely hooked! What a wonderful, fascinating little village. True to the description the tiny village was perched incredibly high up on the edge of a cliff. The steep, winding, stone medieval streets captured my imagination immediately. It is a wonderful little town that everyone should see. Though again, it is not one of the “official” most beautiful villages of France.

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The Village and Book That Started It All

Not too long after that I was driving from Nice to Paris and stopping at interesting places along the way. I had seen the movie Chocolat and loved it. Shortly after it was released I read an article in the New York Times about the village where it was filmed in northwest France, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. It wasn’t too far out of the way on my route from Nice to Paris so I decided to stop there and explore the village. In the Office de Toursime I came across a book entitled Les Plux Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages Of France). I bought it immediately, even though it was all in French and I couldn’t really read most of it.

The pictures and the maps were enough to tell me everything I needed to know. And, of course, I could translate anything that I really wanted to read. Inside the book were 156 French villages organized into four sections: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast. I poured over all of them and made myself the goal of visiting them all someday. As of 2022 there are now 164 official villages. Over the last ten years there have been 8 villages which have been dropped from the list and a few new ones that have been added. So I’m working with a total of 172. Every year it seems one or two villages get added and one or two get dropped.

Over the years I’ve made good progress. I’ve visited 85 of the villages as of September 2022. And I don’t mean I just drove through or stopped for a few minutes. I usually spend at least two to four hours in each village, taking my time to explore every aspect of what makes that particular village unique. I usually take a lot of photos as well. Carole says that after awhile they all start to look the same to her, but to me they are all special. To be fair, Carole has been mostly to the villages in the southeast, and yes, there are lots of similarities between these villages. They are, of course, located in the same part of the country and share a lot of the same history and culture. Villages in different parts of the country start to look and feel much different. Much of the southeast, as you might imagine, is influenced by Italy. The northeast has very strong German vibe as you might expect. Villages in the mountains are often quite different than those near the coast.

At this point I’ve visited almost all of the villages in the southeast section of the country, just a couple left to hit in the northern part of the area. The southwest section contains, by far, the most villages of any area and I’ve made a very good dent there. There are fewer villages in the Northwest area and even fewer in the Northeast. Because I spend most of my time in Vence these northern villages are a bit out of my everyday reach. But, now that we are living here in France I hope to be able to take some regular trips up north to check out some of these more distant villages.

I’ve written in more detail about some of the villages I’ve visited, so be sure to check out these articles: Les Baux-de-Provence, Bargème, Coaraze, Gourdon, Montclus, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Montclus, Villefranche-de Conflent.

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The Official Organization

There is an official organization, named, of course, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, formed in 1982 with the intention of promoting the tourist appeal of these small French villages and their rich cultural heritage. I’m sure there must be a fair amount of politics involved in the selection of these villages, because, to me at least, there is a wide range in their “beauty.” Most of the villages are gorgeous and it’s very easy to see why they are included. However, I’ve been to a few where I left scratching my head as to why that particular village is on the list. And I’ve been to many villages that are not on the list that I think absolutely should be.

The organization was started in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac, the then mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge in the Corrèze department. Apparently he had come upon a book published by Reader’s Digest entitled Les Plus Beaux Villages de France and it gave him the idea of starting an organization to promote and protect the history and heritage of these small villages. Many of them had seen a large drop in population over the last 100 years as people increasingly moved to more metropolitan areas of the country. He convinced 66 other mayors of small villages to join him and the organization became official in 1982.

A new version of the book seems to be published every couple of years and occasionally a new village is added and an old one is removed. I know a little about the official organization that makes these choices and what criteria they use, but some of their selections and omissions just seem a bit odd to me. According to their book, they look at three main aspects: 1. the rural nature of the village, they must have a population of less than 2000; 2. there must be at least two national heritage sites/historical landmarks/protected monuments; 3. the local council must vote to support the village’s inclusion.

All of this seems pretty reasonable to me except for the two national heritage sites. There are some really beautiful, fantastic villages in France that simply don’t have this and it seems a shame to exclude them. Sometimes I find that a village seems to be included ONLY because of these national heritage sites, which are great, but the rest of the village is nowhere up to par. But, hey, what do I know, I’m American!

They say that about 10 new villages apply for membership each year and only 2 or 3 of them are accepted. Once an application is submitted the village receives a site visit which includes an interview with the local council and a photographic report. A list of 27 criteria is then used to evaluate the village’s features, including historical and architectural aspects. The organization’s Quality Commission then makes a final decision about accepting each village. It requires a 2/3 vote from the members of the commission. Each of the villages are reviewed periodically to make sure that they live up to the expectations.

A couple of years ago an English version of The Most Beautiful Villages Of France was published and if you are at all interested in this subject I would highly recommend the book. Almost every one of these villages has a “Office de Tourisme” and they usually sell the books there, though the English version is a bit harder to come by. You can also find the book on Amazon, both in the US and France.

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A Few More Thoughts

After having now visited over half of the villages on the official list I have some thoughts (naturally) about how the experience for visitors can be enhanced.

1. Every village should be required to have an Office de Tourisme. This might seem like a no-brainer and to be honest, most of the villages do have an Office de Tourisme. But, I’ve been to several that do not. This is unacceptable. If you want to be listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France you should have a place where tourists and visitors can obtain information about your village (and other nearby sites of interest.)

2. Every village should be required to publish a map with a detailed tour of the highlights in the village with each site numbered. Again, a lot of the villages do this, but a lot do not. When I visit one of these villages I want to have the informationI need to walk around and see the historical and cultural sites that make it so special. Bonus points if the map is available in English. More bonus points if it is available in other languages such as Spanish, Italian, German, etc.

3. These maps should be available to download online via the village’s website. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited a village only to find the Office de Toursime closed (or non-existant). Some villages do have these maps available online and when they do I always download them before visiting.

4. These maps should also be available in a small, weather-proof box outside the Office de Tourisme or Hotel de Ville. That way, when the office is closed visitors can still grab a map to show them around the village. This is easy to do but I’ve only encountered a few villages that have realized how nice this is for people who want to learn more about their village.

5. Each of the “stops” to see on these village tours should have an “information panel” on the wall or on a lectern in the street. The same information on the tour map should appear on the panel and the corresponding number should be displayed as well. See a great example of one of these in the photos above. This makes it easy for visitors to know that they have indeed reached the correct point. Without these panels it is not always easy to know if what you are looking at is really the point described on the map.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Most Beautiful Villages Of France
Where: All over France
When: All year round
Website: les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org
Facebook: lesplusbeauxvillagesdefrance

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Steve and Carole in Vence