© Jeremy Ferguson
Eight villages that may be the most beautiful in France
I happily confess to being a French village junkie, although I’ll never get to see them all because they number 32,000. Worlds apart, they remove me from the unrelieved buzz of the Internet age, our desecration of the blue planet and the barely suppressed hysteria that forms the day-to-day connection among us.
These villages, where time moves like a speeding escargot, proffer the rich and gentle pleasures of discovery and nuance. There is history and civilization to be felt here, and cuisine that pleasures us so mightily, and the French culture which is like no other.
My wife, who knows how to hit a nail square on the head faster than anyone I know, says: “In a village, you can do better than visit, you can live there. You sit on your balcony listening to the sounds of the neighbourhood. You get to know your neighbours and you learn about the village from their perspective. This brings a certain intimacy to travel, something beyond what you get when you’re confined to hotels and restaurants.”
You won’t find the Vaucluse village of Ansouis on the hipster’s map of France. It doesn’t have many tourists. It’s a working village whose inhabitants crawl out of bed and go to their day jobs at the local vineyards and olive groves or offices in Aix or Marseilles. We rented a house and made it our base in Provence.
Ansouis has a thousand inhabitants and a thousand years. Its character springs from ancient walls, cobblestone streets, twisting lanes, vine-covered stone houses and the patina of time. All of the French countryside seems to have one foot in the Middle Ages: step into a public square and you wouldn’t be astonished to find a beheading or dwarf-tossing in progress.
And cuisine? The village has a couple of cafés and a Michelin-starred restaurant calling for reservations two months in advance. A van arrives weekly to purvey perfectly fresh fish, so we could eat fat Atlantic scallops and glowingly pink swordfish dressed with black olive tapenade. From markets in neighbouring villages, we found orange lactelle mushrooms, a delicacy from the fungi universe, and duck confit wrapped in crinolines of its own fat, and Rhône wines at six bucks a bottle.
Our walks transported us steeply up towards the Château d’Ansouis and the 12th-century church of Saint-Martin (which showed up in the film classics Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources). We paused at L’Atelier d’Art de France, a gallery showcasing the outstanding oeuvre of bronze sculptor Maria Catuogno and her jewellery-designer husband, Juan.
Our reward for the climb was a sweeping panorama of the green-gold Luberon countryside. And the château: one of its owners had been Elzéar de Sabran, whose family had acquired it in the 13th century. He was so bent on virtue that both he and his bride swore a lifetime vow of chastity on their wedding night. The Vatican made saints of both of them.
Ansouis is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the association of 161 villages promoting the French countryside to the more than 80 million tourists who make France one of the most popular destinations in the world. The designation — the Canadian counterpart is Les Plus Beaux Villages du Québec — is signposted at each village. Maps and a guidebook are available.
To be a Plus Beaux Villages, you must have population of fewer than 2000. You must have two protected areas: picturesque or legendary sites, or sites of artistic, historic or scientific interest.
Our journey took us from Lyon to the town of Nyons in northern Provence and then further south to Ansouis. We visited and photographed 18 villages. Welcome to eight of the best.
Lyon and environs
Out of Lyon, our first stop was the 12th-to-14th-century village of Pérouges. A postcard from the Middle Ages, its cobblestones, vaulted passageways and narrow streets make it a prêt-à-porter movie set, as it was for the 1961 French version of The Three Musketeers.
Pérouges recalls medieval Carcassonne, but with fewer tourist restaurants and souvenir shops. Its bakeries are famed for the local galette, a cake resembling a pizza crust topped with butter and sugar. Negotiate the narrow staircases to the top of the village’s museum watch tower and you’ll be able to peek into hidden courtyards and tiny gardens planted with centuries of secrets.
Also from Lyon, we motored north to the southern Beaujolais village of Oingt, amusing pronounced “wah.” Its scrubbed yellow-ochre buildings, and refined shops and restaurants render this a luxe stop, but even more impressive is its exquisite setting among the rolling hills, where it sits like an amber bauble on a swatch of emerald silk. Find yourself a restaurant with a terrace and celebrate the view with a glass of Beaujolais or a headier Côtes du Rhône from the south.
Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne isn’t a Plus Beaux, but has much to boast about in its old quarter, half-timbered walls, flower-festooned bridges and a 15th-century covered market. The local tourist office publishes a smart little walking-tour brochure (as all tourist offices should), the stroll culminating at the ramparts of a long-destroyed, 1000-year-old castle.
A slip of a village, Brantes is an artists’ retreat perched 600 metres up on a mountain outcrop overlooking the lush Toulourenc Valley. With a population of just 80 and a huddle of renovated medieval buildings separated by steep, ungainly steps, it’s a natural for any aspiring recluse with a set of paints. The switchback road up provides yet another scenic high for the camera.
Finally, we travelled south to Ansouis and a still greater concentration of splendid villages. Hopping Lourmarin is where Albert Camus lived and is buried, and where bestselling author Peter Mayle has his house. Remarkable chef Édouard Loubet got his start many years ago (he still owns the lovely hotel Moulin de Lourmarin) and Reine Sammut, one of France’s top female chefs, currently presides on the village outskirts.
The once-charming village has pedigree and also a Renaissance castle, but nowadays seems more dedicated to its gauntlet of overpriced restaurants and boutiques much favoured by conspicuously affluent American tourists. Farmers from neighbouring villages joke that the price doubles when they sell their vegetables in Lourmarin.
Oppède-le-Vieux is a comely, contrary village. Pilgrims like us rush through the charming lower village to make the steep climb up the Luberon heights to the upper village and what’s left of its château. But when we arrive, huffing and puffing, we found not much at all: the 12th century ruin is privately owned and off-limits.
The village of Lacoste isn’t Plus Beaux, but it has better qualifications than many that are: this is one of the most picturesque of perched villages. Its old château was the home of the Marquis de Sade. It was here that he lived, wrote and conducted fastidiously orchestrated orgies involving himself, his wife and a troupe of nuns and servant girls.
The château, which was destroyed during the French Revolution, is the now the second home of celebrity couturier Pierre Cardin (imagine ghosts in leisure suits). Cardin slyly bought up as many as 46 buildings and turned them into swank hotels, restaurants and galleries. The villagers were unamused. He later planned a golf course, but the peasants revolted at this excess — just as they had at De Sade’s licentious behavior in the 1770s — with a battalion of tractors and a successful threat to shut down Cardin’s splashy annual Festival de Lacoste.
Today the tourist can access De Sades’s old haunt by a steep climb through the village or by road. The restored section of the ruin is Cardin’s private residence. A striking-looking, caged bust of the young Marquis de Sade sits in the outer courtyard, welcoming guests to the rogue’s quarters, which are open in summer.
Set among vineyards and olive groves, Cucuron is the perfect pause for a walk through the old town and a bounteous lunch at one of the restaurants on the Place de L’Étang. The place, with its ochre-hued buildings and 14th-century reservoir shaded by plane trees, is a delight to behold.
Terrace lunches from the Bar d’Étang might floor Goliath: a carafe of house red and a colossal platter of beef carpaccio with green salad and a load of fat frites makes for a deeply contented tourist.
The pretty house at the end of the square, La Petite Maison, is a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by portly, food-loving chef Eric Sapet. Will that be the veal grenadin in a parmesan pastry crust or ris de veau (yes, the way you can find sweetbreads only in France) with morels? Book a table, take a snooze between restaurants and bon appétit.
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