France holds the distinction of being the world’s most visited country, attracting 83 million tourists in 2012. It’s not surprising that it’s captured the hearts of so many. From countryside hamlets to historical villages, France is home to many charming towns that provide the opportunity to get lost in medieval streets, sample fabulous local wines and virtually toss your cares away.
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The medieval village of Conques lies in the heart of the Dourdou Valley, with its main attraction the Abbey of Saint Foy, named after a 4th century martyr whose remains were held here until they were stolen by a monk some 500 years later. It’s made up of an attractive gathering of rustic stone-built and timber framed houses roofed with limestone slates, with the remains of its fortifications, including a great medieval gateway still standing. Don’t miss visiting its internationally renowned Treasure of Goldsmith Art, featuring the extraordinary statue-reliquary “Majesty of St-Foy” as well as numerous other reliquaries that date from Caroligian times to the 19th century.
Eguisheim is a colorful town surrounded by vineyards and tucked into the lush, green hills of the Alsatian Wine Route, noted for its unusual concentric-circle layout of its streets. In addition to numerous cellars and wine bars that draw many visitors, Eguisheim offers a fairytale-like experience causing some to exclaim that the only thing missing is Cinderella. Stroll through the narrow medieval streets lined with half-timbered houses decorated with flowers, historic fountains, tithe manors and a yellow sandstone church with a 13th century “Opening Virgin” statue.
Wissant is a lovely, scenic port town with one of the most beautiful beaches in the north of France, known as a mecca for French surfing due to frequent high winds and big waves. While the sand and the sea are the main attraction, its church of St. Nicholas dates back to the 15th century, and you’ll also find two 17th-century fortified manor houses along with a number of fabulous eateries like le Green Bistro and La Chaloupe.
Turenne is officially listed as one of the “most beautiful villages of France,” set upon a limestone cliff with beautiful views from its highest point at over 1300-feet of the Limousin countryside, forests and the mountains beyond. The 13th century village has many picturesque stone houses, dating mostly from the 15th and 16th century, along with two watchtowers standing at either end of the hill behind the village. Its circular 12th century Cesar Tower is the older of the two, while the square donjon tower was constructed some 100 years later. The towers, separated by a beautifully maintained garden, and the majority of the fortified wall, are all that remains of the fortress that once stood atop the cliff.
Etretat itself is an incredibly charming town, filled with quaint B&Bs and markets, though its best known for its dramatic cliffs and massive natural stone archesthat inspired impressionist painters Boudin, Monet and Manet. This stretch of Alabaster Coast has been classified as a site of “national importance,” and features a beautiful pebbled beach that sparkles with quartz geodes. Two of the arches, Porte d’Aval and Porte Amont can be seen from town, while the third, Manneport, is only revealed by taking a walk at low tide. For the best views, take a hike just before dawn to the scenic church of Notre de la Garde and watch a spectacular sunrise over the cliffs.
Maincy, set in the Almont Valley, is the home of the 17th century masterpiece, Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which hosted reality television show, “Australia’s Next Top Model,” in 2011. It was built for Nicholas Fouquet, who brought together the finest artists of his time, including architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun and gardener Andre Le Notre, arousing even the envy of King Louis XIV. Its magnificent gardens are said to exemplify perfection in the art of French-style gardens. Flower beds and box trees are laid out in arabesques, while fountains are set within symmetrical ornamental pools.
Gordes is one of the most magical villages in Provence, as well as one of the oldest, having been inhabited since Roman times.The stone buildings, built right against the base of the cliffs and perched on the rocks above, include a 12th-century castle and are made of a beige stone that glows orange in the morning sun. Watch the sun set over the fields of lavender in the valley is especially breathtaking.
Lourmarin is another one of the most beautiful towns in Provence, offering an elegant charm that draws travelers as well as many famous artists and writers. Discover a village with ivy-covered streets, quaint galleries, terraces and the scent of lavender along with a 15 century castle and Romanesque church that’s surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and forests.
Riquewihr is often referred to as the most beautiful village on the Alsatian Wine Route with its cobblestone streets and colorful wooden houses essentially unchanged since the 16th century. Many still have wells and fountains, along with courtyards overlooked by galleries above. Parking is outside the town walls, with its entrance through a series of old town gates in the clock and watch towers. Of course, its main attraction is Alsatian wine which can be sampled in one of its many wine cellars or wineries in the surrounding countryside.
Perched on a hilltop, this charming village in Burgundy may now best be known as the setting for Johnny Depp’s 2000 film, “Chocolat.” Not only is it one of the most picturesque towns in France, it’s one of the best smelling, with a scent of anise wafting throughout its streets. Discover its gates and fortifications as well as attractive architecture of small businesses like glassmakers, weavers, tin potters, millers and wine makers, bay windows of ancient shops, streets and narrow alleyways lined with bourgeois residences featuring staircase turrets.
Veules-les-Roses, situated in the Normandy region in the north of France, has long been a magnet for artists and writers, attracting the likes of Victor Hugo with its seaside air. This small village featuring thatched cottages and 19th century sea-bathing villas along with brilliant roses blooming on every corner during the summer months, is home to only about 600, but offers a number of attractions with its rich history that dates back to the 3rd century. A picturesque seafront includes a promenade and pier offering fishing and a number of other activities.
The well-preserved 13th century village of Colmar is often referred to as “Little Venice,” with its waterways winding through medieval streets. It’s also considered the capital of wine in the district, well-known for its exquisite aromas. With French and German influences, visitors can enjoy a variety of cuisine. Bakeries here often serve kugelhopf along with croissants, while restaurants might specialize in sauerkraut and foie gras. Its diversity can also be seen in its architecture, with everything from French Neo-Baroque to German Gothic styles.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a medieval village set on the side of a hill, guarded by the ruins of an ancient chateau that towers above. From the chateau hill, spectacular views in all directions await, though mostly of vineyards. The Rhone River winds across the fields to the south and east, turning silver in the afternoon sun. Its narrow streets curve around the hillside, revealing the houses of wealthy Burgundy merchants from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, all leading to the incredible viewpoint.
Annecy is known as one of the most romantic villages in all of France, if not the world. Set within the Upper Savoy region of eastern France, this beautiful town is divided by small canals and streams that run from the luminous blue Lac Annecy. Terraces lining the canals give it a Venice-like appearance, while the main draw may be its famous 12th century castle built right in the middle of one of the canals, Palais de l’Isle. The whimsically turreted castle has been a lordly residence, courthouse, mint and prison over the centuries. Today it hosts local-history displays.
This exquisite village gets its name from Saint Ronan, the hermit who founded the town in the 10th century. It was once a major center for woven linens, required for sails by the French, Spanish and English Navies. As a result, you’ll find that the village is filled with many outstanding examples of Breton architecture, including many grand houses with dormer windows, dating largely from the 18th century, built with the help of wealthy sail merchants. When sails died out and trade dried up, Locronan stayed trapped in its past. The village museum covers the weavers, and the area, in paintings. By studying the quality of the opulent architecture, it’s easy to see just how prosperous it once was.
Minerve is another lovely village classified as one of France’s most beautiful. Surrounded by deep gorges cut where the rivers Brian and Cesse meet, this stony village in the heart of the Languedoc hinterland was an old Cathar bastion, brutally destroyed in 1210 by Simon de Monfort. There are just 100 residents here today, with narrow streets winding through its old stone houses. All vehicles are required to park outside of the village, with visitors walking through the entrance near the remains of a 13th century that once stood here. Today, just a tall octagonal column remains. An 11th century Roman-style Church of Saint Etienne, located near the castle, stands at the top of the village with its altar believed to date back to the year 456.
Located about 13 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand, between the Gorges de la Monne and Veyre Valley, this authentic medieval village nestled along the base of a cliff is home to five major Romanesque-style churches typical of Auvergne as well as an impressive castle which once welcomed Catherine de Medici and Charles IX. You’ll also find a number of wash houses, picturesque country houses and a Renaissance fountain.
Najac is a 13th century village, perched upon a steep hill surrounded by lush forests, with just one main street that runs along the top of a ridge. A royal chateau towers above at its highest point, offering spectacular views of the Aveyron countryside as well as the village. Though unoccupied for many years, the chateau is very well preserved, complete with narrow, secret passageways leading from the new to the old, circular dungeon. The village itself is also well worth exploring with its quaint medieval houses typical of the region along with several cafes, a few of which offer terraces overlooking the peaceful Aveyron countryside.
Vouvant, located in western France in the Pays de la Loire region, is set atop a small hill in a picturesque setting that overlooks a bend in the Mere River. In part still surrounded by ramparts, the village can still be entered by one of the original gates in the fortified walls, known as the poterne. Step inside and you’ll find narrow streets lined with well-preserved medieval houses leading to the central square and the Notre-Dame Church. The Roman-style church dates from the 12th century and has a semi-circle of ornate carvings featuring animals, characters and various biblical events around the entrance.
You’ll immediately be taken with Tournemire, located in the Auvergne region of central France. The village sits on a tree-covered hill that overlooks the valley of the River Doire, set within the Cantal Mountains at the southern edge of the Natural Park of the Auvergne volcanoes. Take a leisurely stroll to discover its huddle of cottages and the large-turretted Chateau d’Anjony, a sturdy castle with fortified walls and round towers in each corner, built during the time of Jeanne d’Arc. Some of the homes are said to have been built on earlier Roman foundations, and almost all are made from the local volcanic rock with slate roofs.
This fortified village hidden high on the confines of the Larzac plateau, was formerly owned by the Knights of Templar, and is a veritable “miniature” of the medieval city, with few such sites in France as well preserved. The village has strongly built houses typical of the region, many with external stairways leading to the main floor that date from the 17th century. Today, it is a popular setting for weavers and other artisans, particularly those who work in enamel and pottery. The towers and walk along the ramparts offer a wonderful view of this living and working village.
Les Baux De Provence
Les Baux De Provence is an internationally renowned destination, steeped in regional memories, combining an outstanding medieval and Renaissance heritage with a wealth of culture and hospitality. The extremely picturesque village has an extraordinary royal history and features a fascinating chateau-fortress complex, including castle ruins, a covered battering ram, catapult and trebuchet. The Romanesque and Renaissance Saint Vincent’s Church has beautiful stained glass, while a number of private 16th and 17th century mansions have been transformed into museums and art galleries.