France is much more than Paris, monuments, art and cheese. Venture deep into its regions, and you come across wonderful travel gems. If you want to have a taste of local culture with a dash of history, then Southern France is just the place for you. It has a distinct make-up with a rugged geography, and unique provincial culture, in contrast with the usual chic elsewhere in France. Referred to as the ‘le midi’, this French Mediterranean region is made up of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur and Languedoc Roussillon. What’s so unique about these regions is the historic character and picturesque beauty. The sleepy medieval villages and un-crowded beaches are a great attraction for tourists who want an R&R holiday in beautiful sites.
There’s more to these French villages. Listed as Plus Beaux Villages de France – Most Beautiful Villages of France, they belong to a privileged class of medieval villages that boast protected heritage sites. Perched on rocky crags, these quaint hilltop villages are usually built around castles with fortified walls and narrow gateways. They are ideal for laidback holidays, walking, swimming and driving around the coastline exploring local crafts. These village communities play host to great luxury hotels and restaurants, art galleries and curio shops. Some are venues for music festivals, great audio-visual shows and art exhibitions.
So take a detour in France. Drive to these southern fortified villages that ooze history. Wander through the narrow and steep, cobbled streets flanked by pretty colourful stone houses. Walk up to the castle, or the church. Loiter around in the pavement cafes and terraced restaurants flanking the village fountain and square. Capture the most panoramic views that you cannot expect elsewhere in France. The villages are a photographer’s paradise.
1. Les Baux-de-Provence
Les Baux is the best known hilltop villages of southern France, set atop a rocky outcrop that is crowned by the ruins of a castle. The name is derived from its site, the bauc, for a rocky spur in local dialect. Did you know that the aluminium ore “bauxite” owes its name to this village, Baux, as it was discovered by a geologist in this very site? Les Baux has a magical atmosphere with small squares, shaded terraces, narrow cobbled streets and tiny shops. The entire commune is based on tourism, the cultivation of vines, production of the Baux-de-Provence wines and local craft workshops.
Must-sees are the Les Baux Castle, Saint Vincent’s Church, Santons Museums, and the monumental Carrieres de Lumieres for extraordinary multimedia shows.
Stroll along the many small streams, enjoy spectacular panoramic views over the surrounding countryside and biodynamical farmed vineyards, have an immersive art encounter at the Yves Brayer Museum, and check out local handmade clay santons at the Louis Jou Foundation!
Website – http://www.lesbauxdeprovence.com/en
Gordes is a beautiful village perched on the southern edge of the high Plateau de Vaucluse. It is known for its white stone buildings packed on the cliffs, and panoramic views across the fields and forested countryside
The village is steeped in history having endured wars, invasions and even earthquakes. The most prominent historical sites are the 16th century Château de Gordens, a castle built on the earlier fortress site, which now houses the Pol Mara Museum.
Chief tourist attractions are the Village des Bories housing the historic dry-stone buildings called bories, and the stunning 12-century Abbaye de Sénanque.
Summer is the best time to visit Gordes, when evenings are packed with events. Artists and media people from Paris are also known to make Gordes their summer residence. So you may need to make early hotel reservations.
Website – https://www.gordes-village.com/
Roussillon is a popular tourist destination just 6 miles east of Gordes. It is surrounded by beautiful countryside and a must-see for its unique kaleidoscope of colours. Red and brown shades of the earth form a vivid backdrop to lush green pine trees under vivid blue skies, to make this a truly magical place.
The Roussillon village is situated in the midst of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. This is evident as you walk through the village. Red stone buildings sporting red tile roofs, dot the magnificent red cliffs. Stroll through the picturesque maze of streets and squares for a fairytale experience. The vivid ochre hues of the 300 yr old houses set off by brightly painted windows and doors are a unique Technicolour experience. Views are best when the first rays of the sun strike the village and just before sunset, when the village is painted in a soft ochre glow.
So it is not surprising that the Roussillon village is a favourite haunt of painters, potters, sculptors and photographers. Check out the Conservatoire des Ochres et de la couleur for an insight into ochre production, and walk along the Giants’ Causeway, the Sentiers des Ochres trail past oddly shaped rocks in different hues. Other attractions are the 17th century church of Saint-Michel and the historical village clock tower.
The Lagrasse is another fortified village in southern France, but more vibrant than its medieval counterparts. This beautiful fortified village is best known for its 7th century Abbey of Saint Mary to which it is linked by two graceful stone bridges spanning the River Orbieu.
The medieval village is full of charm – narrow cobblestone streets packed with historical old houses with vividly coloured shutters. An old covered market in the centre, the 14th-century Eglise St-Michel church and the Maison du Patrimoine Heritage House, are other attractions.
The village is home to pottery workers and artists, with plenty of events lined up – wine tasting, honey tasting, French painting and cookery courses. Visit the many artisan shops, and check out the flea markets for an immersive experience. Summers are the best time to visit Lagresse, when the village plays host to three international music festivals ranging from rock-pop to the classical.
The stunning riverside accommodation are a hit with tourists, as they offer plenty of opportunities for swims in the river, leisurely walks in the hills, and strolls through the village.
Website – http://www.lagrasse.com/en/
Menerbes is a beautiful fortified stone village on a hilltop in the Luberon Mountains. Although very small, Menerbes dates back to a pre-historic Roman civilisation. It was also the site of a major battle between Huguenots and Catholics, called the Siege de Menerbes in the 16th century. Its rich historic past is well-preserved in its narrow cobblestone streets packed with renaissance houses and heritage sites. The 14th century Saint-Hilaire Abbey, a 14th century church and the ancient citadel and castle, are the signature heritage sites. Other attractions include the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon (Truffle and Wine centre), and the Maison Jane Eakin art exhibitions. You must not leave without visiting the Musée du Tire-bouchon (Corkscrew Museum), which displays more than 1000 different varieties of corkscrews!
Panoramic views, mountain biking and the beautiful countryside enhance the tourist attractions at Menerbes.
Website – http://menerbes.fr/Menerbes/
The pretty hilltop village of Seillans is a very ancient southern village perched on the slopes of the Var. The village is steeply inclined, accessible only on foot. Winding cobbled lanes take you past old ramparts and massive gateways up to the castle and the church on the summit. Houses arranged in tiers on the steep slopes, narrow paved streets, maze of winding stone steps and little squares with splashing fountains, give Seillans an aura of timeless beauty. Abbeys and churches, castles and ramparts, and the Chapel of Notre Dame de l’Ormeau, are the chief attractions of Seillans.
The charm of this quaint village and panoramic scenery of endless vistas of vineyards and olive groves, combined with sunny weather, attracts tourists from all over France and Europe.
Seillans holds an annual Pottery Market, and plays host to several concerts and events including the Musique-Cordiale Festival.
Website – http://www.seillans.fr
Sault is a picturesque village with a unique character, set on a rocky outcrop at the foot of Mont Ventoux. Unlike other perched villages that are packed with houses in narrow streets, Sault is quiet open with wide squares. Visit the central church, feudal castle and Musee de Sault, for an exposure to the local history and heritage. Indulge in honey-tasting and Lavender tours. The village serves as a base treks and excursions to Mont Ventoux, the Gorges de la Nesque, the Val de Sault, and the Lure Mountain for mountain biking, paragliding and walking trails, Sault is known as a health resort, perhaps because of the proximity to lavender fields which has therapeutic values. It is also listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. You can register for an organised tour to a lavender distillery, walk through the endless lavender fields or be on time for a lavender festival!
One of the prettiest villages is the Moustiers village, perched on a dramatic site, set high on a ravine between two rocky slopes. It offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape dotted with gorges, dams, cascades and streams. The river flowing alongside the village offers great opportunities for outdoor adventure.
The history of Moustiers goes back to the 5th century when monks came in from neighbouring islands to found a monastery. Other historic monuments are the parish church, the 12th century Notre Dame de Beauvoir Chapel and the iconic golden star held up above the ravine by an iron chain
Moustiers is best known for its ceramics. Visit the Musée de la Faïence for an introduction into ceramic production and then check out the shops for handmade, delicate Faience pottery works.