A Visit to Provence and Les Plus Beaux Villages de France
There’s a new obsession running around in my head: “visit as many of France’s ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages‘ as I possibly can.” So far, I’ve seen only 10 out of some 156 “authentic” Les Plus Beaux Villages. I have a lot of travelling to do.
Les Plus Beaux Villages
There are 156 communities in France with the distinction of being a beaux village. Many are in the Dordogne and Aveyron departments. However, towns with this designation are found from Alsace, Normandy and Brittany to Corsica and Reunion Island.
Charles Ceyrac, the mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge (photo above) in the Dordogne, drew inspiration from a 1981 Reader’s Digest article on – Les Plus Beaux Villages of France. An association formed the following year to promote tourism in rural towns. For a village to qualify as one of these beautiful villages, it must meet (and maintain) three (3) criteria: a rural location, a permanent population of fewer than 2000 inhabitants, and a minimum of two nationally registered heritage sites. The town’s elected officials must agree to maintain the quality, architecture and historical nature of the village.
Within the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the list of towns that meet the Beaux Villages de France criteria is below. It is not surprising that there are several perched villages in the Vaucluse that meet the requirements. Although the Bouches-du-Rhône and the Var have plenty of charming towns they exceed the population threshold.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Beaux Villages
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is a popular stop for tourists visiting the Gorges du Verdon. Located at the base of soaring cliffs there is a gold star above the town. There are several reasons to visit Moustiers including its artisans who produce glazed pottery – faïence. Many people climb steep stairs to the hillside chapel, for a view that is worth the effort.
Sainte-Agnès, is a perched medieval village, 10 kilometres inland from Menton, in the southeastern corner of the Cote d’Azur. This rocky outcrop gracefully dangles at an altitude of 800 meters above the sea. Since 1997, this medieval village has been classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. What’s more, this quaint village also boasts the title of “highest coastal village in Europe.”
Les Baux-de-Provence impossibly perched a rocky peak in les Alpilles deserves its title as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. From the remains of the castle, enjoy sweeping views of the limestone peaks, a valley of olive orchards and grapevines. Today, the once-fortified village with its permanent population of roughly 400 people has some 22 monuments classified as historic including the impressive ruins of the château.
“Balcium Castrum” was a settlement identified in 10th-century texts, descendants of a local lord used Les Baux as their surname. Baou in Provencal means rocky cliff and Bauxite was also discovered nearby. Les Baux’s strategic position once offered both protection and an observation post for its inhabitants, as early as prehistoric times. The natural limestone outcrops provided abundant construction material for shelters and the wartime garrison. The 13th-century was one of enlargement of the old fortress with lodging for over 3000 nobles and peasants.
The middle ages were a time of both expansion and turmoil. The Baux family wealth had grown over the centuries their lands or “Terres Baussenques” encompassed some seventy-nine towns in Provence, reaching as far as Italy. Battles ended with the “Terres Baussenques” were converted to Crown lands by King Louis XI, and the bastion destroyed.
The Renaissance allowed for some reconstruction of the fortress. However, in 1631 fighting related to the royal decree to disband the legislative power of Provence ended in the destruction of the citadel. In 1642, King Louis XIII thanked the Grimaldi family for supporting the Crown and conveyed the title of Marquis des Baux. The current titleholder (administration is by the French state) is Prince Albert of Monaco.
The old castle was abandoned and left to deteriorate. Rebuilding work under the direction of the Ministry of Culture and the Environment began in the late 1960s. Today, the village is a significant tourist attraction with busloads arriving daily to wander the narrow streets, dine on sunny terraces and climb what remains of the old walls of the fortress.
Paid parking is available at the edge of the village.
Visiting the medieval village is free however to enter Château des Baux you must buy a ticket. It is possible to purchase a combination ticket for access to the Château and Carrières de Lumières. There is also a smartphone application available for download.
The Les Baux de Provence tourist office is located just inside the main gate.
Tourtour with a pedestrian-friendly central square shaded by Plane Trees and the charming side streets it is easy to appreciate why this village fits the Beaux Villages label. Known as “village in the sky of Provence” TourTour sits at 635 metres above sea level situated the Beau Soliel hillside. The town’s residents and visitors alike enjoy sweeping views of rolling hills of the Var with the Sainte Baume Massif and Mont Saint Victoire in the distance.
There are plenty of historical highlights to observe in TourTour, a place where portions of fortified 14th and 17th-century rampart walls still stand. The village name translates into TowerTower of which there are a few including the Grimaud Tower (11th century) located outside the town. There are two castles in TourTour: 12th-C Chateau Vieux and 16th-century Château de Raphélis (now called Chateau Municipal). TourTour’s clock tower with its wrought-iron campanile dates from 1665. Walk through the maze of old streets to see eight (8) fountains and an equal number of chapels. The 11th-century Saint-Domnin church underwent alterations in the 14th and 17th centuries. Also worth seeing is the old lavoir (public wash house) located on the rue de le Lavoir outside the rampart walls.
Provencal artist Bernard Buffet (1928-1999) spent the last years of his life living and working outside of Tourtour. His widow donated a few of Buffet’s bronze sculptures to the municipality, and these are on display in the village.
TourTour Tourism Office
2 Place de la Trinité
Ansouis is Perched on a hillside mostly protected from the Mistral wind. This gem of a village in the Luberon definitely earns its status as one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. With its tiny laneways, houses built into ancient ramparts, and stone facades with brightly painted shutters, this town oozes charm while retaining elements from its medieval past. Once a small fortified village, above the route joining the centres of Aix-en-Provence and Apt, the town and its fortress, leveraged that strategic position and solid, stone defensive walls for protection purposes during the Middle Ages. Today, inhabitants of Ansouis enjoy expansive, elevated views of the Grand Luberon mountain range and the Durance River Valley.
Gordes is a hilltop town remarkable for its dry-stone walls. The village core sits proudly at the top of a rise making it one of the most photographed places in the Luberon. This town is practically a required pilgrimage stop for anyone who wants to say they have “been to Provence.” The name Gordes originates from the Celtic word Vordense, pronounced as Gordenses and eventually altered through the ages to the current iteration. The Abbey de Senaque with its beautiful lavender field and the Bories Village are two favourite spots to visit just outside of Gordes.
Unlike the other villages on this list, in the Vaucluse, Lourmarin is not perched. Strolling through the laneways of Lourmarin feels like walking through a Provencal postcard. The town oozes with Provencal charm. It’s a photographer’s dream, with alleyways dappled with flowers clinging to old stone buildings. Visit the town’s dynamic Friday morning market with merchant stalls crowding the tiny streets. Any day of the week, there are plenty of tempting boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. One local’s favourite is Café Gaby. Do take the time to visit the privately-owned Château Lourmarin located just outside the village.
Once you have visited the hilltop village of Ménerbes, it is easy to understand why the Luberon and this town have enchanted so many. The charming main street compels you to pause and wander through an art gallery, or have a drink at one of the restaurants, particularly so if you have biked up the hill. Author Peter Mayle may have put Ménerbes and the Luberon on the radar for many of his readers, but that is more recent history. Long before his books were published, the town had already been discovered by those with creative talents including Pablo Picasso, Nicolas de Stael and Dora Maar (Picasso’s muse) among others.
Roussillon is a picturesque hillside town located in the heart of the Luberon Valley. Visitors flock to this village to see the ochre cliffs and walk the Sentier des ochres trail. These natural elements make a beautiful backdrop for photos. However, artists like Tessa Barker are more interested in the presence of ochre for its use as a pigment for paints, and fabric dyes.
The village centre has several charming stores and artist galleries. Located within the protected Parc naturel régional du Luberon surrounded by forest Roussillon is an excellent starting point for hiking in the Colorado de Provence.
Séguret deserves the “Beaux Village” title. Ségur in old Provençal means place of security, likely given to the village due to its strategic position. Located in the northern Vaucluse with the Dentelles de Montmirail as a backdrop, Séguret’s dominant hillside location allowed the villagers to observe the Rhône Valley. The fortified walls of the Medival village date back to the 10th century. Although, remnants of human settlement in the area have been traced to Neolithic times.
Motor traffic is not permitted in the heart of the village adding to the old world charm. Park outside the ancient walls in one of two public parking areas (Place Jean Moulin or Place des Arceaux). Stroll through the Portail Renier, at the north end of town, and along the old cobblestone street Rue des Poternes which runs the length of the village.
The old town may have few permanent residents, but there are two gastronomic restaurants. For more casual dining, Côté Terrace has a lovely terrace. There are a handful of boutiques and galleries. Visit the lavoirs (public washbasins) one is inside the walls on Rue des Poternes and the other just outside of Portail Neuf.
Don’t miss! The Plane trees on Place des Arceaux, where the branches create a beautiful, natural sunshade. The trees even have their own classification Arbres remarquables de France (remarkable trees of France).
L’église St Denis with its 10th-century foundations.
Make sure to do a little wine tasting. Séguret has enjoyed Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation status since 1967. The wines from this tiny village may not enjoy the stature of its Rhône Valley neighbours. However, these wine blends get kudos from experts. There are three terroirs associated with the appellation. Grapevines grow from the fertile valley floor to the steep, arid slopes around the village.
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