Travelling opens up our horizons and our experiences as we move out of our own country comfort zones and into a different culture that has history, tales of love and war and unique community values ingrained into its fibres.
Every country has its own complex jigsaw creating a cultural canvas that gives us the privilege of stepping onto its land, walking through its labyrinth of villages, towns and regions, to understand its music – from its heart and its deepest soul. And France is one place where that soul is so freely expressed. Ghosts of past eras guard their secrets in the ancient walls where their homes are honoured and more importantly preserved for future generations.
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an association that officially launched on 6 March 1982 and was the vision of Charles Ceyrac. There are currently 157 villages throughout France (including the island of Corsica) which have the enviable label of being one of the most beautiful villages in France and this body offers the community a chance to conserve their heritage.
It wasn’t until we began to travel full time in March 2016 that we stumbled upon this gorgeous collection of places with awareness of their role in French culture. Without much structure, we started to visit places, not because they were on the list necessarily, just because they looked or sounded beautiful. And yet it was with woeful realisation that we had only actually visited a mere 15 of 157 village and a large majority of those were in Provence, during our three months there last year. Shame on us! From that moment on, we committed to exploring more of these delicate delights and knitting together our own French cultural experience by meandering our way through the countryside. This blog and the many more to come over time, I’m sure, is a short insight to those we visited and the routes we took, with the hope that perhaps you too may decide to continue your cultural education en France.
Part 1 – Occitane in Autumn
Autumn is a great season at the best of times, although in the oak forests of Occitaine in south of France, you will be treated to a canopy of colour. Every shade along the spectrum from brown, green, red, gold, orange and yellow. In fact the colours we have seen this week make Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat pale into insignificance.
Our mission this week was to explore the area east of Cahors – covering the Lot, Tarn et Garonne, Tarn and Aveyron regions and what a treat we were in for. We started our route from Toulouse and we took just over five days, taking a pretty relaxed pace. If you click the markers on this interactive map below, you will see the villages we visited.
Hidden in the depths of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses de Quercy, our route took us through some wonderful scenery. Meandering through the forests, we felt as though we were being transported into our very own private Narnia. We became one with the oaks; leaves falling like snow, covering the ground with a golden carpet. And yet after thirty minutes we were suddenly left speechless and breathless as we reached the junction for St-Cirq Lapopie.
With the village to our left, the river to our right – we saw emerge from behind the trees, a village perched high above the valley floor – dominating the sky line with the grace of an eagle. This Medieval village dates back to 13th Century where history of family feuds is evidenced by the three different castles looking for supremacy against one another. Sat 300 metres above the Lot valley, this lofty village commands a view to the hills beyond and is master of all it purveys.
Within its protective embrace, St-Cirq Lapopie has 13 listed buildings and is a homage to the artisans who crafted their wares; from button makers, wood turners and skinners. Climbing up from the valley floor to the height of the castles’ towers, we got a real sense of medieval tunes played out through the ages. And today on a crisp, autumn day, the chimneys puffing out their smoke left us with a feeling that we had gone back in time. No tourists to cloud our view, only cobbled streets that took us in-between the houses that have so many ancient scars and stories to tell.
This is a completely 3D experience; we approached the town from the river beneath, and looking up to the skies there was a perspective of grandeur; then within the walls we smelt the bygone era of artisans and felt like Alice in Wonderland, and then on the road back down to the river, we saw the village stretch out like one of those concertina Birthday cards giving us a totally different view of the multiple layers of streets and rooftops, framed by the Lot valley beneath us. What a ‘wow’ this place was and a magical experience.
There’s two camping opportunities; both an Aire and an official Campsite, both just down the hill from the village. We stayed at the Aire on the river’s edge and for €7 with free services. We had a grand position along the river Lot, staring across the banks at houses carved into the gorge walls and the distant sound of the weir as the river made its way through the valley. A short walk along the river’s edge brought us to a mill and lock on this navigable river and soon the prospect of a stretching climb to the village heart. (44.47017 1.67893).
After a couple of nights, sitting out a weather front in nearby Monteils, we headed off to Najac, a completely unique village nestled in the Aveyron valley. The drive to it gave us glimpses of what we would experience, although we were not ready for this village’s mystery. In the distance a castle silhouette caught our eye, although we were brought back into the present moment, by the distraction of the most enthralling oak-lined road to this village kingdom.
Parking at the foot of the castle hill, we diligently climbed through the woods. As we reached the church and castle, we were most definitely impressed. And rightly so as this has royal heritage, as one of the many chateaux royeaux in the area, demonstrating the Royal control of Najac back in 13th Century. It’s said that the dungeon here was where the Knights of the Templar were imprisoned. Sadly the fortress was closed when we visited, although it is still an incredible sight with its fairy-tale turrets that look to the valley below.
As we continued our walk through the old village, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d climbed all this way for just this tiny hamlet and – don’t get me wrong, it was lovely and certainly very quaint with its ancient architecture, although we felt a little underwhelmed at this point. And then the walk continues – just up one street. There are no others – just one street and soon we came to appreciate the unique status of this plus beau village. The whole place is just on one street along an entire rocky ridge. With the church and chateau one end and the town square and fountain at the other, this 0.6km long village is like nothing else we’ve ever seen. The cobble streets gives a feel of Dickensian England yet with its typical French shutters we were left in no doubt which side of the Channel we were stood.
Highly coloured shutters and facias rewarded our continued walk, with stone and wooden structures that give it such an authentic feel. Suddenly the love for this village oozed from within us. A respect for the way the residents perched their existence in the most of unlikely places and yet thrived for over seven hundred years. It was like a movie set and to appreciate it without the buzz of the crowd on this cold yet stunningly beautiful, blue sky day was a honour. Najac is a delight.
We stayed at a free Aire in Monteils about 20 minutes away (44.26702 1.99721), although there are two options in Najac itself, on the valley floor:
Camping Paisserou (44.2206 1.9693) which has river frontage pitches for €16 except for July and August when the price rises to €27.
Najac Aire (44.22137 1.96741) opposite the municipal swimming pool, an old tennis court has been converted into an Aire where you can park for access to the village for €2 for 2hrs or €6 for 24hrs with facilities.
After an overnight stop in Saint Antonin Noble Val, which in itself is worth a visit for its canals and ancient buildings, we took the Aveyron Gorge route, which was very special. If you’ve ever been through the Gorges de Verdun, then this is a second-cousin twice removed, with the same hallmark narrow roads, craggy outcrops and stunning valley floor views – just a little shorter. If your vehicle is under 3m tall and less than 3.5T then traversing this road is very easy, if not a little caution needed. The other side of the gorge, Bruniquel was waiting for us; a bastide, which is a fortified village common to this region of France.
As we walked up from the car park, we had a welcoming view of the village’s hub – a clock tower that proudly sits at the gateway. With this as a welcome we wandered around the outer edges of Bruniquel, marvelling at the deep red Virginia Creeper clinging to the old walls and the radiant yellow maple trees. Ancient portals signal the outer reaches and soon we found ourselves weaving back into the sanctuary of the bastide’s embrace towards the gardens and chateaux. Again out of season the museums were all closed, although to walk through the streets of this tiny village is almost enough to sense the feuding cousins that split the chateau into two. This is a small and compact village with charm and delight.
There is a dedicated camper parking area with water facilities two minutes from the village, although Saint Antonin is so close with its Aire, that this is a perfect stopping point. (44.152091 1.75128). Alternatively you could motor further onwards to Puycelsi another 30 minutes drive away, where there is parking available. (43.99426 1.713816).
Rising up from the valley floor our eyes fell upon Puycelsi and although some way in the distance, we just knew it was going to be something special. We were so excited to explore this one and I can’t quite tell you why;, it was a just a feeling in the depths of my stomach – like a butterfly had been released. After an overnight stop in the parking area at the bottom on the village, we woke with anticipation. Sadly an early morning mist had descended and shrouded the whole area in an eery, white blanket. Somehow this made our whole exploration that bit more intriguing and atmospheric. The 800m thick ramparts, on the face of it, seem to be unwelcoming although that soon altered when we walked around the rampart walls. We imagined what the view beneath the four cornered bastide might look like as it stretched invisibly in front of us over the Grésigne Forest and Vère Valley.
Unlike the other villages, the buildings seemed to have been steam-cleaned, they were so pristine. The love and tender care that radiated from the bricks gave this village a really energetic feel. Children laughed in the small school playground and the mist still clung to the buildings like a child being prised from its mother’s arms. Although as it turned out – it hadn’t always been this way – even up until recently as the history books told us.
Wandering through the alleyways of this charming village, the mist didn’t change how the homes gathered around us in comforting embrace. Puycelsi had such a lovely feel about it – we felt immediately integrated into it. Its 13th century history of sieges and survival of four major epidemics made the village resilient and its strength grew. It was only after World War 2 when the houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair that Puycelsi lost its courageous hold. Although it didn’t take long for people to gather and put a concerted effort into renovating this prosperous and ancient village and hence the love we felt in the walls of each home.
Puycelsi, with its fortress reputation, defensive walls and resolute spirit is written into every cobblestone, into every brick and every rafter – its medieval tale is one that will now be held as a legacy in this stunningly restored village.
There is a car park just in the shadow of the towering ramparts, attached to the Tourist Information, where camping overnight was permitted – see Bruniquel for co-ordinates. We had a sheltered and quiet night there and once the mist had cleared by lunchtime, the views were incredible.
Castelnau de Montmiral
The final village on our list for the week was a short drive down the road from Puycelsi. Through beautiful autumnal agricultural land, where the shadows extended like long fingers towards the horizon, Castelnau soon appeared above the Vère river valley with the residue of mist curling around its turrets.
Castelnau de Montmiral is another bastide and dates back to 1222. Yet it is not the towering village ramparts that struck us most; the first thing that we saw was the monument on the hill – a Virgin Mary standing gracefully at the village entrance, enticing us into the bosom of the community.
This, unlike the others has no chateau, as this was destroyed by war. Yet what it lacked in victorious castle splendour it made up for in its village square, which had us spinning round in awe as we took in the medieval architecture, archways and central fountain. It is said that the pillar of one of the buildings was used to tether adulterous women, thieves and animals before they were sacrificed. We could almost imagine the sound of the villagers’ heckles when we stood still for a while, as their voices echo around the square.
One final wonderment that we couldn’t miss was inside the church. Whilst the walls needed a bit of TLC, the beautiful blue ceiling was pretty impressive with its magnetic portrait of religious design. Although we moved deeper into the church to seek out the small ante-room where the famous 14th Century Reliquary jewelled cross, once owned by the Counts of Armagnac, is kept safely. Whilst it is behind protective gates, it is an incredible sight with its sparkling jewels.
The final draw of Castelnau is not found in the streets, nor the timber framed walls of the ancient buildings. No you must look to the sky and watch for the clouds of Red Kites and Storks that encircle the village on the day’s thermals. It was a truly magnificent sight – there must have been 30 birds just floating in the sky, playing not hunting and it was a sight to behold.
There is a car park dedicated to Motorhomes at the side of the village, although it’s not very level for overnight. So we headed out of the village where we had a couple of options; there were two France Passion sites en route to Gaillac although our ‘home’ for the evening was actually just beyond the town along the river Tarn, at Lac de Bellevue (43.861818 1.818547). This was a great spot close to the lake with full facilities. A perfect end to a perfect week.
And so there is our autumn extravaganza around the most colourful, atmospheric region. A tour that allowed us to rub shoulders with ancient ghosts, battle scars and charming streets that old legends have now made into modern homes. The protection of Les plus beaux villages de France allows their history to be honoured and never be forgotten. Our visit was made even more special by the autumn colours and no crowds. Whilst there were no shops or cafes open we were happy to not share these special places with anyone else.
From this point forward, our exploration of these charming and characterful villages will continue – may not be tomorrow or next week, although rest assured our French education will expand in the future of our Motoroaming Adventures.
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