With a history that spans centuries, architecture to drool over and food that makes your mouth water, France is a veritable feast of beautiful towns and villages. An Instagrammer's dream, you're spoilt for choice, with each French town giving you a portal into the past. You can understand why it's top of many film directors' lists. Just take the movie Chocolat, set in the beautiful village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in the much sought-after Burgundy region.
France is so proud of what's on offer that they maintain a list of the 150 most beautiful villages in France, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Using this list, I've chosen ten to share with you, each with their own story to tell. Our journey takes us through the Nouvelle Aquitaine, where the sunflowers meet the Atlantic ocean, and here we'll take a virtual tour through smaller and lesser-known towns and villages you might not have heard of.
Discover the prehistoric village of Angles-sur-l'Anglin
First, on the list, northeast of Poitiers, is Angles-sur-l'Anglin, a village dating back to prehistoric times with carvings from around 14,000 years ago. A discovery from 1950 called Roc Aux Sorciers (witches' rock) is said to be one of the most important from that period.
It was also one of the last strongholds of the English in the hundred years' war. Many of the street names give a glimpse into stories of the past. Names such as "Tranchée des Anglais," the "Huche Corne," and the "Maison du Cardinal La Ballue."
The village is split into two, the upper and lower, and sits on the banks of the Anglin river. Rising majestically above everything and sitting on the clifftop is the Château d'Angles-sur-l'Anglin. Initially built in the 12th century with substantial alterations made in the 15th century, it looks down on the Anglin valley below with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
The pretty medieval streets allow you to drift away into times gone by and imagine life hundreds of years ago. It is like stepping into a picture in a history book.
Survey the pearl of the Charente Maritime, Ars-en-Ré
Located on the island of Ile-de-Ré, not far from La Rochelle, Ars-en-Ré is a small port town known for its hollyhock-lined streets. Beautiful whitewashed houses with the traditional green shutters of the region show off their natural beauty. They're especially lovely when the hollyhock is in bloom.
The church of Saint-Etienne, which sits in the square, can be seen for miles around thanks to the black and white bell tower rising 40 meters high. Painted to help sailors enter the port, it doubled up as a navigation tower.
For a real trip in time back to the Renaissance period, look out for the 16th-century Maison du Sénéchal townhouse. Built in the 16th century for the governor of the Ile de Ré, it's the only one on the island recognizable by its corner turrets.
The 18th-century harbor gives you a glimpse into the town's maritime past, where the first salt marshes were developed. Sixty or more salt workers still live on The Fier d'Ars marshes.
Admire the architecture of Beynac-et-Cazenac
Perched on a hill overlooking the Dordogne River is Beynac-et-Cazenac, surrounded by lush forests and verdant countryside. Originally named Beynac, it wasn't till 1827 that the small town of nearby Cazenac was added, and it was renamed Beynac-et-Cazenac.
Its pretty stone houses, cobbled streets, and stunning views make it one of the most picturesque villages in France.
Many of the buildings in the village date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and feature intricate stone carvings, wooden shutters, and steeply pitched roofs. The history dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was a strategic military stronghold built around the castle of Beynac. The castle played an essential role in the Hundred Years' War and was the site of several battles between the French and English. It changed hands many times between the English and the French. Conquered by Richard the Lionheart at the end of the 12th century, it was recaptured by Simon de Montfort in 1214.
Situated in a picturesque valley surrounded by limestone cliffs, forests, and fields of sunflowers, it's easy to see why Beynac is on the list.
Explore the medieval fortress at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
Sat on the confluent of the Dordogne and the Ceou river, the village is set high up and is a steep climb to the top. The jewel in its crown is Chateau de Castelnaud, built in competition with the castle in Beynac-et-Cazenac, a long-term adversary. Dominating the Dordogne valley, it sits directly across the river from its rival.
In 1968 it was classified as a historical monument and houses an impressive war museum of the middle ages featuring many battle weapons. The full-scale replicas give you an insight into life and war during this time.
The village houses are built perigordine style with stone walls, large deeply-sloping roofs of terracotta tile, and wooden shutters on the windows. Arched gateways, half-timber houses, and a pretty display of roses, vines, and other plants add to the charm.
There are plenty of cafes to enjoy a glass of something as you soak up the history of this beautiful village.
Wander through the waterside village of Coulon
Sat on the River Sèvre-Niortaise Coulon is a quintessential French waterfront village in the heart of the Marais Poitevin natural park. Lined with shops and restaurants, there is no shortage of artists setting up their easels on the riverbank, looking to capture the village's character.
But Coulon isn't just a pretty little village. It has a rich history dating back to approximately 869 when it was known as Colounus, a Roman stronghold. Many Gallo-Roman discoveries have been made over the years, including some small bronzes of Emperor Constantine. In the 12th century, Coulon was granted a charter by Eleanor of Aquitaine, which allowed the villagers to hold a market and trade freely with other towns and villages in the region.
Its strategic location on the Sèvre Niortaise river became a hub for barges and flat-bottomed boats carrying goods like salt, wine, and wheat to and from other towns along the river.
The best way to experience Coulon is to take a boat ride along the Sèvre Niortaise and through the Marais Poitevin. You'll be able to explore the marshlands and see the local flora and fauna in their natural habitat.
Retreat to picturesque Périgord and the village of Limeuil
Situated at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers with two stone-arched bridges, Limeuil is the perfect place for a picnic. Its picture-postcard setting is like a retreat into the French countryside. With its narrow cobbled winding streets, medieval buildings, and mix of Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture, it draws you into its rich history dating back thousands of years.
Pillaged by the Vikings and attacked throughout the Hundred Years' War, this fortified town takes you on a historical journey from the stone age to the modern day. You can still see the ruins of the original castle sitting up on the hill overlooking the village. And it's up here that you'll find Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil, the Panoramic Gardens giving you a stunning view over the rivers and rooftops. There is so much to see, including the Medieval Garden, Insect Garden, Mediterranean Garden, and, more recently, the addition of the Escape Game Garden.
Step back in time to Medieval Monpazier
Founded in 1284 by Edward I, King of England, Monpazier was designed as a bastide, a fortified town with a central square and grid-like street layout. It wasn't until the reign of King Charles V of France in the 14th century that it became French. One of the reasons it's so popular is that it has remained relatively untouched since it was built 700 years ago. And apart from a few shops and restaurants on the main square, not much has changed.
The heart of the town is its central square, "Place des Cornières," with a covered 16th-century market complete with timber roof and some antique grain measures. Every Thursday, the local market is held here where you can get fresh fruit and veg and other local specialties.
Its medieval setting caught the eye of a few film directors, and a few movies have been shot here, including Fanfan la Tulipe starring Penélope Cruz.
Meander through the harbor village of Mornac-sur-Seudre
A former fishing and trading port in the estuary of the river Seudre, Mornac-sur-Seudre has a beautiful nautical flair combined with a vast history. Not far from Royan and Ile d'Oléron in the Charente Maritime, it's the home of oyster farming and salt harvesting. As you walk along the canal's banks, you'll notice the colorful oyster huts that can be seen throughout the region.
In and around the port are the old fisherman houses made with the ballast stones left by the sailors, giving you a peek into a bygone era. Walking into the village, through the windy lanes, are the lovely whitewashed houses with hollyhock, similar to those in Ars-en-Ré.
A focal point of the village is the Gothic Church of Saint-Pierre de Mornac, built around the 10th or 11th century, with its soaring nave and intricate stained-glass windows. Not far from the church is Chateau de Mornac, an 11th-century castle built by local lords whose ruins are still visible.
Mornac-sur-Seudre also subscribes to the French love of festivals. Fête des Lavoirs, held each summer, celebrates the historic communal washing places that were once a vital part of village life.
Stories of Witchcraft in Saint-Jean-de-Côle
A medieval village dating back to the 11th century, this little place has many myths, stories, and legends associated with it. Everything revolves around the village square, the Place de Saint Jean. On one side of the square is Château de la Marthonie, and on the other is the Romanesque Byzantine church of St Jean Baptist.
According to legend, the Knights Templars, a religious order, built a secret underground tunnel that connected the château to the church. They used this tunnel to smuggle treasure out of the castle and into the church, where it was hidden from the authorities. And during the 17th century, a woman named Marie Durand was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in the town square.
For such a small village boasting a castle, church, and priory, it's earned its title of one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Take a stroll through Talmont-sur-Gironde
Just like Monpazier, Talmont-sur-Gironde was also built in 1284 By Edward 1. Sitting as it does on the banks of one of the largest estuaries in Europe, it's a beautifully tranquil spot. Even to this day, you can see the fisherman sitting on the wooden pontoons patiently waiting to make a catch.
Like many French villages, Talmont-sur-Gironde is steeped in history dating back over 1000 years. The Romanesque Church of Sainte-Radegonde was built by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint-Jean-d'Angély and sits on the edge of the village. It was named after Radegund, a 6th-century Frankish queen who became a nun and was canonized after her death. Due to its location, it was often a stopover for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela.
In the 12th century, the village became part of the English Duchy of Aquitaine after Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. During this time, it was fortified with walls and a castle to protect it from attacks.
Author: Kylie Lang, blogger at Life in Rural France
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