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 beautiful little town that everyone should see.
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Not too long after that 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 about 170 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.
Over the years I’ve made good progress. I’ve visited almost 60 of the villages. And I don’t mean I just drove through or stopped for a few minutes. I usually spend at least two or three 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 Northwest has very strong German vibe. Villages in the mountains are often quite different than those near the coast.
At this point I’ve visted 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 started to make a good dent there. There are fewer villages in the Northwest area and even fewere 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.
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. 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 Wikipedia, 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; 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!
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.