The Most Beautiful Villages of France is one of the most attractive organisations that the French are so good at creating and enjoying. Les Plus Beaux Villages de France was first thought of in 1981 at Collonges-la-Rouge in Corrèze in south west France. The mayor Charles Ceyrac saw how rural France was emptying as the young made their way to the towns and the local small villages were dying.
Zut alors! Promote tourism, stop the rot and start an organization (something the French are very good at). March 1982 saw the birth of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France and it’s never looked back.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the organization. Now there are 168 designated villages scattered throughout the country.
How Villages Join
The rules are strict. First of all there must be a maximum population of 2,000 inhabitants, and the village must have at least 2 protected sites or monuments. The first rule is fairly easy as France is full of small beautiful villages. The second? More difficult for many small villages.
Then the criteria get complicated. Among the 30 regulations the villages have to meet: harmony and homogeneity of the village architecture; siting of electricity and telephone wires; vegetation, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. You look at the list of what is needed and marvel at those villages which have achieved the status of one of the most beautiful villages of France.
Locating the Villages
The official website lists every village alphabetically. To locate a village near you type in the French department you are in and all the most beautiful villages in the department come up. So if you’re going to a part of France which you don’t know, check the website first and see which ones you can visit.
There’s also a useful map on their website showing the location of all the villages.
Such a Variety of Villages
The villages are very different. Some, as in Provence, are perched high up on a hillside; others snuggle down beside one of France’s great rivers or, surrounded by high walls, provided the main defence of a local lord against his neighbour.
Here are some villages you might like to visit that I have picked out. They are scattered throughout France.
10 Villages to visit
Normandy has 6 most beautiful villages.
Veules-les-Roses in Seine-Maritime between Fécamp and Dieppe, is a lovely seaside village. Wander through the narrow streets lined with those typical Normandy half-timbered houses and discover the old mills along the tiny Veules river.
Brittany has 4 most beautiful villages.
Hilltop Moncontour in the Côtes-d’Armor looks down on two valleys. Its defensive position sealed its early fate as the centre of war, frequently changing hands between the various armies. Some ramparts remain today but the main attraction is the church of Saint-Mathurin. Built in the 16th century, it gained a spectacular Baroque façade in the 18th century, and 200 hundred years later a strange bell tower. Don’t miss the stained glass windows inside telling the story of the Bible – and the revered medieval Breton saint, Yves.
I have taken the Loire Valley as the route following the whole river. If you want to know more about the route, check the complete Loire Valley drive.
Montrésor sits on the riverbank of the Indrois river, around 65kms/40miles south east of Tours. The medieval village has a glorious château that experienced its fair share of warfare in the past. Today it’s a serene beautiful building full of stately furniture and art. Wander the streets and look at the Halle des Cardeux, the wool carder hall which was so important in this former textile centre.
Of the 9 most beautiful villages of France, I’ve visited just two: Château-Chalon in the Jura, perched high up on a rocky hillside and known for its vin jaune, and Vézelay in Yonne.
Vézelay is extraordinary. I visited on a cold autumn day when the leaves were rustling on the ground and the wind was sweeping up the hill. It was easy to imagine the awe and wonderment of the pilgrims on the route to Spain as they made their way up the hill to the basilica. I’d love to go on Midsummer day when the light makes an extraordinary pattern. It’s one of the great sacred sites of France.
It has UNESCO World Heritage status.
There are 6 most beautiful villages in Corrèze, the department where the association first started.
Collonges-la-Rouge was the first village. It’s a delight with its red sandstone 15th– and 16th-century houses, many topped with odd towers. There’s a 12th-century church and a covered market hall with an ancient bakers’ oven the villagers used to bake their daily bread.
But beware; like the better known villages it gets very crowded in peak holiday times.
The Dordogne has 10 villages.
The only one I have visited is La Roque-Gageac in Perigord. Standing beside the Dordogne with its pretty houses reflected in the still waters, it’s the place to take a gabare (flat-bottomed traditional boat) and drift along the river.
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes has 24 plus beaux villages in the 12 departments that make up the large region. My house is in the Auvergne; it’s a wonderful, rural and remote region known as ‘deep France’.
Conques in Aveyron is more than a most beautiful village; it’s also classified as a Grand Site de France. In the middle ages it was one of the major stopping places for pilgrims walking from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela. Today this small peaceful village in the Lot valley attracts visitors with its half-timbered houses, the 11th– and 12t- century Abbey and the remarkable treasure of the golden statue of Sainte Foy.
I’ve also chosen Arlempdes in the department of the Haute-Loire, near my house. Okay so I am biased, but do go there; it’s a spectacular village built high up on a volcanic peak circled by the Loire River. It’s south of Le Puy-en-Velay and north of Pradelles, another of the most beautiful villages of France.
Not surprisingly this picturesque, popular part of France has 18 most beautiful villages. It’s difficult to pick one out.
Tourtour in the Var, named the ‘village in the Provençal sky’, is one of my favourites. It’s peaceful and far less crowded than Moustiers-Saintes-Marie or others near the coast. Refreshed by the fountains in the place des Ormeaux and vaulted passageways, Tourtour is an oasis on a hot summer’s day.
Alsace-Lorraine is not an official region, nor is Alsace a department in its own right. But it’s still known as a region to the French. It’s now part of Grand-Est.
Riquewihr in Bas Rhin on the Alsatian wine route and just 65kms/40miles from Strasbourg is a real gem. 16th-century half-timbered houses line the streets, their flower-filled balconies hanging over the cobbled walkways. It’s given a fairy tale quality by the shop signs, created by the Alsation illustrator Jean-Jacques ‘Hansi’ Waltz (1873-1951). There are museums of the artist, the Thieves Tower Museum and the Maison de Vigneron with old winemaking equipment.
New Most Beautiful Villages of France
Each year more Most Beautiful Villages are added. Sometimes they are villages that have re-joined the organization; at other times they are new. In 2022 it was the time for these five.
This bastide overlooks the countryside from a rocky promontory. It’s a lovely medieval village dating from the 13th century with ramparts, a bell tower with a moon clock, the old house of the Agen bishops and a great food market.
Cordes-sur-Ciel is a real must-see village, perched high up on a conical hill. Founded in 1222, it became a Cathar stronghold challenging the power of the catholic church. 13th– and 14th-century houses line the steep cobbled streets where tunnels and storage rooms are hidden underneath. They were built to escape the soldiers intent on wiping out the Cathar heresy. And there are of course, fabulous views.
Le Malzieu-Ville, Lozère
This small delightful village with its old medieval ramparts, towers and gateways still largely intact has a place in local history. It was part of the story of the Bête du Gévaudan which gobbled up people and animals indiscriminately from 1764 to 1767.
You can see Polignac, located next to Le Puy-en-Velay, for miles. Like its neighbour there’s an impressive building on the top of a rock. In the case of Polignac it’s a ruined castle.
In the Vercors Regional Nature park, the village of Châtillon-en-Diois seems remote, cut off from the rest of the world by its surrounding vineyards and high cliffs. Walk through the viols, narrow cobbled and steep streets past fountains and vaulted passageways. It’s a certified botanical village so is full of flowers, scents and colours.
More about France and its Villages
Read about the villages the French are voting for in the category Favourite Villages of France. Some of them are in the most beautiful villages of France organisation. Started by French TV, the result of the public vote comes out in September.
For the difference between a bastide and a mas, a manoir and a château, read my Idiot’s Guide to French Architecture.