The most beautiful and best villages in France you simply must visit on your vacation or mini-break.
1 – Locronan
2 – Baux-de-Provence
3 – Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert
4 – Conques
5 – Villefranche de Conflent
6 – Gordes
7 – Séguret
8 – St-Bertrand-Comminges
9 – La Roque Gageac
10 – Collonges-la-Rouge
11 – Roussillon
12 – Tournemire
13 – Vouvant
14 – Najac
15 – Argeles-Gazost
16 – Gavarnie
17 – Venasque
18 – Minerve
Locronan, in Finistère, is a community somewhat set in aspic, or at least firmly rooted in granite and times past.
The village gets its name from Saint Ronan, the hermit who founded the town in the 10th century. This was formerly a major centre for woven linen, of the type required for sails by the French, Spanish and English navies.
Read our Guide to: Things to do in Finistère
Its biggest customer is said to have been the East India Company. As a result, the centre of the village is endowed with splendid examples of Breton architecture that mostly date from the 18th century, and was largely built at the behest of wealthy sail merchants.
In the 19th century, competition from Vitré and Rennes, coupled with the general economic downturn of the period brought ruin and stagnation. Just how wealthy a place this must have been is self-evident if you study the quality of the opulent architecture, especially in the place de l’Église.
It takes a while to register, but there is something not quite right about the setting of the village. And then you notice that there are no spaghetti tangles of telephone cables festooned from building to building, no television aerials or satellite dishes, no road markings, no permanent road signs.
In fact, nothing that visually places the setting in the 21st century. Even the main street is as pedestrianised as the French driver’s mentality will comprehend.
And this means that film makers and television dramatists love Locronan for its authenticity: Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, for example, was filmed here.
Such an un-modernised appearance has to have been a conscious decision, not just happenstance. Either way, it’s a very attractive village, and worthy of such detour as it requires. It is one of three ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’ found in Finistère.
Place de la Mairie, 29180 LOCRONAN
Tel: 02 98 91 70 14
A ruined castle and deserted houses – Les Baux de Provence – stand bleakly on a rocky spur that plunges abruptly into steep-sided ravines. This most beautiful of French villages looks impregnable, and one of the finest settings in Provence. Today, it is a hugely popular tourist destination.
As a world-famous location, and a place steeped in regional memories, Les Baux de Provence combines its outstanding medieval and Renaissance heritage with a sense of hospitality and a wealth of culture. It is one of the most stunning of French villages.
Les Baux de Provence provides a panoramic view down over Arles and the Camargue natural park. It has been patiently restored and enjoys an historical and architecture heritage consisting of 22 listed buildings.
This is a place steeped in history. The castle, is a reminder of medieval times, the Romanesque and Renaissance Saint Vincent’s Church, has beautiful stained-glass.
The Renaissance Window Post Tenebras Lux is a reminder of the Huguenot influence in the 16th century and private mansions built in the 16th and 17th centuries are now art galleries and museums.
Among these are the Musée Yves Brayer and Musée de Santons, and there is the Town Hall housed in the former private residence known as the Hôtel de Manville.
A walk through the streets of Les Baux is a memorable and atmospheric experience, and you should allow at least an hour for this, and be sure to visit the chateau. Better still would be to spend a night or two in one of the guest houses and hotels that are available.
This is a setting you will never forget, but it will be all the more memorable if you visit early in the day, or as late as possible, when it will be less crowded.
St Rémy de Provence, a beautiful town that characterises inland Provence with streets lined by plane trees, and charming alleyways and buildings. On the way, you’ll pass Les Antiques at Glanum, the best preserved Roman mausoleum in France, and dating from 1C BCE.
From Avignon: A7 motorway, exit No. 24 (Avignon Sud); via Noves and Saint-Rémy de Provence.
From Marseille: A7 motorway direction Lyon – A54 motorway direction Arles, exit No. 11 (Saint Martin de Crau – Via Mausssane les Alpilles).
From Nîmes: A9 motorway – A54 motorway, Arles exit No. 7 (Via Fontvieille).
Avignon gare TGV (2h40 from Paris)
Arles (20 km)
Village car park €5 per day; Car park below village €4 per day (€5 in July and August). All car parks fill up quickly during the summer months.
Maison du Roy, 13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
Tel: 04 90 54 34 39
Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is a stunning little village of narrow streets and courtyards built around an old abbey where the Verdus flows into the Hérault. It is a tranquil place, and its church quite superb.
The eponymous Guilhem was born in the mid-8th century and was renowned for his talent in handling weapons as well as his intelligence and piety.
He was brought up with the sons of the Carolingian King, Pepin the Short (715-751-768), and his friendship with one in particular, Charles, the future Charlemagne, was to last until his death.
When Charlemagne came to the throne in 768, Guilhem became one of his most valiant officers and won many victories against the Saracens of Spain, but by the time he returned to France his wife, whom he loved dearly, was dead.
He renounced war, delegated the government of Orange to his son, and rode to Paris to inform the king of his decision to seek a life of solitude.
It was while travelling around the Lodève region that Guilhem discovered the Gellone valley, and set about building a monastery there in which he eventually settled with some monks.
When, finally, Guilhem was able to take leave of the king, Charles gave him a relic of the True Cross, which was placed in the abbey church, now all that remains of the original abbey.
The entrance is off a large square sheltered by a huge plane tree. From the square, narrow streets wander off, turning this way and that in endless fascination.
Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert is a timeless place; it centres on a huge and ancient plane tree from which narrow streets radiate and disappear into inviting corners. Getting there is not easy, and follows a tortuous route above the riverbed, crossing en route the Devil’s Bridge, the Pont du Diable.
The bridge was built at the beginning of the 11th century to link the abbeys of Gellone and Aniane. It is the one of the oldest medieval bridges in France, and is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as one of the features serving the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Today, traffic uses a more modern bridge, although the old one is still very much intact.
Tel: 04 67 57 44 33
Conques is justly ranked among the most beautiful French villages. The village lies in the heart of the Dourdou valley, and for twelve centuries has protected a fabulous treasure.
The village is altogether a comely gathering of rustic stone-built and timber-framed houses roofed with lauzes (limestone slates). And, beside the 15th-century privately owned Chateau d’Humières, stand the remains of the village’s fortifications and a great medieval gateway through which pilgrims traditionally came, and still do.
It is a superb setting, yet one that would have counted for nothing but for a bout of medieval skulduggery by the local abbot of.
Short of cash and coveting the pilgrim-pulling relics of Sainte Foy, a 3rd-century girl martyr, housed in the abbey at Agen, the abbot despatched one of his most trusted monks to enrol as a novice there. The plan was simple: steal the relics and bring them back.
Alas, this ‘Back-to-basics’ plan had a flaw: ten years were to pass before the imposter monk was trusted sufficiently to be left guarding the relics. But steal them he eventually did.
No sooner were the relics installed at Conques than the miracles that had made Agen prosper began. Donations rolled in, and the village suddenly became a halt on the route to Compostella from Le Puy-en-Velay, a feature that today earns the village World Heritage status.
But, even without the relics, this agreeable village would be hugely attractive both for pilgrims and serendipity-led tourists; this is a delightful labyrinth of tilted cobbled streets and alleyways where residents sell fruit and vegetables from their gardens, or tempt passers-by with delicious honey and walnut oil.
Within its embrace there is a wealth of treasures: half-timbered houses, the abbey church of Sainte Foy, which dates from the 11th and 12th centuries, and especially renowned for its tympanum with 124 sculpted figures depicting the Last Judgement, but also THE treasure, that of Sainte Foy, a golden statue covered in gold and precious stones.
It’s all a bit heady if you’re not religious, but you don’t have to go into the church, there’s still plenty to see.
Tel: 0820 820 803
Villefranche de Conflent
Villefranche de Conflent, dates from 1092 when the Count of Cerdagne granted a charter for the founding of Villa Libéra, later Villafranca, and then Villefranche. Here, the valley narrows dramatically and the village almost blocks the onward route.
The village was fortified by Vauban in the 17th century, and lies at the foot of the Canigou at the eastern end of the Pyrenees. Vauban’s involvement makes this one of the locations rated as a World Heritage Site.
Externally, Villefranche de Conflent looks very much as it must have done 300 years ago. But internally the two main parallel streets are today lined with restored houses, shops and ateliers. The later offering souvenirs both locally authentic and generally of excellent quality, although some fall into the category of ‘Things you wish you hadn’t bought’.
Visitors stroll in the time-honoured fashion of France, and heat-weary dogs loll on doorsteps with ‘Please do not disturb’ expressions on their shaggy faces.
Surrounded by the sound-suppressing ramparts of this fortified town, the ambience in the shade of chestnut trees can lull you into a trancelike state in which you relax profoundly; conversation falters then begins anew, time passing unnoticed, unconcerned.
Earlier, a tour of the ramparts had revealed a few readily defended nooks wherein grooves on the wall told of another time where soldiers had sharpened their weapons – presumably smoking a Galloise, puzzling over a crossword or fathoming medieval Sudoku while awaiting the arrival of the next ‘stabbee’ from the attacking forces.
Office du Tourisme
33 Rue Saint-Jacques, 66820 Villefranche-de-Conflent
Tel: 04 68 96 22 96
Gordes has narrow cobbled streets flanked by tall houses. All stacked against the bare rock of a mountainside, clinging to its sides and undoubtedly host to a thousand legends, as well as the apparent imminence of collapse.
All new buildings in Gordes are made of stone, and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are permitted, only stone walls, and all electrical and telephone cables have been concealed underground, except for a few locations on the border of the commune.
Some streets inside the village are cobbled with stones and called ‘calade’. The architecture is remarkable, a blend of stone houses, picturesque squares, bars and restaurants.
Located in the middle of the village, the castle, originally built in the 10th century, and then partially rebuilt in Renaissance style in 1525, is a major tourist attraction, a reminder of a past rich with conquests and suffering.
Today, the castle acts as both a Town Hall and a Museum sheltering the works of the painter Pol Mara, who died in 1998 and spent much of his life living in Gordes, where he was inspired by the beauty of the village and its surroundings.
In the immediate vicinity of Gordes is the Romanesque Sénanque Abbey (a Cistercian abbey) and the ‘village of bories’, which consists entirely of curious igloo-shaped, ovoid ancient houses made only of stone.
As in many villages in the Vaucluse, agriculture is important. Historically, almond trees were the most abundant in the area, and though they are still present, olive trees have largely replaced them. There are also vineyards, producing wine under the AOC Ventoux.
Tourism is a major part of the local economy of Gordes. Accommodating the tourist trade, there are a number hotels, bed and breakfasts, seasonal rentals, and restaurants.
The main sights are the castle, the Saint-Firmain Palace cellars, the Sénanque Abbey and the Village des Bories.
In the surrounding villages, there are many other tourist locations like Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Roussillon or L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the Luberon area, Avignon (the nearest city) and Mont Ventoux. Gordes also has two ‘centres of relaxation’, numerous pools and ponds and miles of walking trails.
Office de Tourisme
Le Chateau, 84220 Gordes
Tel: 04 90 72 02 75
Séguret is one of several beautiful French villages in the Vaucluse. It’s renowned for its very narrow streets and ancient lavoirs.
As well as for the manufacture of brightly painted miniature dolls made in clay, known as santons, most of religious or pastoral significance. Their production was at its maximum in the first half of the 19th century, and although far fewer are made these days, santon fairs are still a feature of the wider Provençal scene.
Séguret is a delight to explore, although essentially it consists of little more than two, very narrow, parallel streets; only locals with small cars dare to brave these streets.
In a very hackneyed sense of the word, there is considerable charm about the village, strung along the lower slopes of a prominent range of hills, the Dentelles de Montmirail.
At one end, a car park, at the other the shaded washing places for which the village is famous. But the charm is real enough; the village does charm you, the more you explore.
Like many of the villages in this part of France, they have their own wine. The foundations for Séguret’s destiny as a wine producing area were laid in the 13th century, first under the Counts of Toulouse, then by the Princes of Orange.
In the 17th century, a wine ‘Confrérie’, or brotherhood, was created and for a time was led by a female landlord, a circumstance that was virtually unheard of in France.
Séguret’s winemakers revived their confrérie in 1985 under the name, the “Confrérie des Chevaliers du Gouste-Séguret Compagnons de Saint-Vincent”. The vineyards were given the appellation ‘Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret’, in 1967.
There is no tourist information office in Séguret; the nearest is in Vaison-la-Romaine. But you can get information at the Mairie: Mairie de Séguret, Rue Poterne, 84110 SEGURET.
Tel: 04 90 46 91 06
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is one of the most appealing and most attractive of the many villages that grace the northern slopes of the Pyrenees. Many of which are overlooked as visitors race on by to the mountains and cities. But visitors who take the time to visit St Bertrand will not be disappointed.
Lying 110km south of Toulouse, built on a Roman settlement, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges rises at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Founded more than 2,000 years ago, this is today an important centre for art, enriched by two millennia of history, a masterpiece of Haute-Garonne heritage.
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is perched on an isolated hilltop, encircled by ramparts, dominated by its cathedral, which contains some marvellous and very descriptive misericords. But in addition to its former cathedral the village has a Romanesque basilica as well as Roman ruins.
There is an archaeological site close to the cathedral in which it is possible to identify the remains of a Roman thermae and of a theatre.
The cathedral has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.
The village itself is a medieval one, with a number of arches and vaults. It has several gates entering it. On the Cabirole Gate it is possible to read about the tax on fishes set by Louis XIV. Another gate, the Majou Gate, is interesting in that it is the one pilgrims used.
Somewhere to eat
It isn’t immediately obvious, but directly opposite the cathedral, to the left of a souvenir shop (L’Art d’Autrefois) is a narrow street. Go a short distance down here to find an excellent, if basic, auberge with a terrace on the left. The food is excellent; as a result, the place is popular, so don’t turn up at one o’clock expecting to find tables available.
There is no tourist office in Saint-Bertrand, but you can obtain some information at the reception entrance to the cathedral, and at the Haute Garonne departmental office.
La Roque Gageac
In a stunning position on the north bank of the Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac, although small, is one of France’s most beautiful villages, backed by a steep cliffs, and with very little to suggest that much has changed there in the last 300 years. This is truly a perfect picture village, located about 8km (5 miles) from the historic town of Sarlat.
The honey-coloured houses with traditional Périgord roofs, line the river and spread up the hillsides beyond. While many of the properties in La Roque Gageac are modest, there is also a number of grand houses, like the 19th-century Chateau de la Malartrie built in Renaissance style (although it appears older).
The strong defensive position of La Roque Gageac and the fortress whose defences continued to be extended up to the 17th century, meant that it held an important strategic and defensive position in the area.
La Roque Gageac has always been an important trading point on the Dordogne river with goods being carried by traditional boats called ‘gabares’.
Replicas of these boats are now used for river cruises. These start from various points along the river with those at La Roque Gageac sailing past the Chateau de la Malartie, the Chateau de Lacoste, the Chateau de Marqueyssac and the Chateau de Castelnaud.
Collonges-la-Rouge is the base of the Association des Plus Beaux Villages de France, a distinction that bestows justified acclaim on some of France’s most agreeable villages.
Exactly so with Collonges. This is an engaging village, liberally adorned with pepper-pot towers, turrets and beefy walls built of burnished red sandstone that flank a warren of narrow streets shaded by aged chestnut trees. It is an altogether delightful and skilful use of traditional materials that blend harmoniously.
This is a most agreeable village to explore, one where you have to work hard to become lost, not that it matters. Arrive in the morning and stay over for lunch; you won’t be disappointed.
Collonges is small-scale, and sadly, like so many ‘Plus Beaux Villages’, now victim of its own renown, but it has a distinctive air of greatness that smacks of a grandiloquence and authority that is more imagined than real. In fact, pull off the road here and the village comes as quite a surprise.
During the 16th century, Collonges was the place chosen by the nobility for their holidays, and it was they who built the mansions and manor houses that give the town its individuality.
One unique and remarkable peculiarity is the 12th-century Romanesque-Gothic church on the main square, which during the often bitter Wars of Religion (1562-98) saw Protestant and Catholic agree to share the church, shedding their differences, and conducting services simultaneously.
The countryside around the village is gently undulating, intermittently wooded and dotted with juniper bushes, walnut plantations and vineyards.
Office de Tourisme du Collonges-la-Rouge
Le Bourg, 19500 Collonges-la-Rouge.
Tel: 05 55 25 47 57
Not to be confused with the Roussillon that is within the Pyrénées Orientales, this ochre-coloured village in the Vaucluse (Provence) puts on an appealing hill-top display, especially set against the backdrop of a snow-clad Mont Ventoux. It lies between the Luberon Hills and the gorgeous Monts de Vaucluse.
Roussillon is renowned for the varied ochre colours of its rocks, which feature in many of its houses and other buildings. Ochre from the Vaucluse is of such a quality that it has made France one of the major producers of the pigment in the world. For good measure, Roussillon is designated one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.
The village is an agreeable place, its main street rising to a cluster of restaurants and bars, while artwork and the production of pottery, both of which have a vibrancy of colour that is even more intense than that normally associated with Provence, has a strong place here.
Ochre has been used since prehistoric times, and was mined by the Romans. However, ochre only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Roussillon-born Jean-Etienne Astier advanced the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment.
Wandering the narrow streets, stairs and squares in Roussillon opens your eyes to the array of natural pigments used throughout the village, and the age-old understanding of how to use this generous natural gift.
In Roussillon, so the tourist office tell you, man has long worked in harmony with nature. The streets of Roussillon are home to many art galleries, displaying works by talented artists which draw the eye of art lovers, collectors and passers-by.
Visitors can discover the story of the ochre sands by following the Ochre Trail – the Sentier des Ocres – a path through the ochre lands that has been laid out and marked. The trail takes you through the earth pillars and hills carved out by water, wind and the hand of man.
In Roussillon you can also learn about the industrial history of ochre in the area by visiting the Ochre and Colour Conservatory “Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur” in the former Mathieu factory on the D104 road, on the way to Apt. This former ochre plant offers tours, classes and information on the use of ochre.
Office de Tourisme de Roussillon en Provence
Place de la poste, 84220 ROUSSILLON
Tel: 04 90 05 60 25
Tournemire is instantly appealing, with its huddle of cottages and be-towered Chateau d’Anjony, built at the time of Jeanne d’Arc. Lying a little off the tourist trail this is a village that could easily be missed. Mid-way between Aurillac and Mauriac, this little hamlet of fewer than 200 inhabitants is characterised by superb examples of Cantalian architecture.
Vehicular access to the village is reserved to residents, but there is adequate parking adjoining the tourist information office. In any case, this is a place for perambulation, for a leisurely stroll that will allow you to take everything in. Ask at the tourist office for the leaflet “Petite notice sur le village de Tournemire”, which will take you on a tour of discovery.
The castle was built around 1430 by Louis d’Anjony, one of Joan of Arc’s companions whose mission was to represent the king’s authority. It is a typical example of the mountain fortresses built in the 15th century. Until the French Revolution, the castle had a very tumultuous story because for two centuries a real ‘vendetta’ or feud opposed the d’Anjony family to their neighbours and rivals, the Tournemire family.
While from the outside the dungeon may seem stately and severe, its rooms are richly furnished and decorated with outstanding 16th-century frescoes. The castle has been the home of the same family from the beginning and it has been open to the public for 70 years.
There is a seasonal tourist information office at the entrance to the village, but most tourist information is handled by the office in Salers.
Pays de Salers Tourist Office
Tel: 04 71 40 58 08
Built at the start of the 11th century, Vouvant is the only fortified village in the Vendée, close to the 20,000-acre forest of Vouvant-Mervent. The setting was discovered by William V, Duke of Aquitaine, while out hunting.
The village lies between La Chataigneraie and Fontenay-le-Compte, in the Vendée, and the centre of the village is dominated by the 11th-century church, the Melusine* Tower and ramparts that overlook a wide bend in the lazy river Mere. The charmingly narrow streets house a host of artists’ studios.
Around the year 1000, William V, ordered the monks of Maillezais to build a stronghold, a church and a monastery on this picturesque sight. Lack of money meant that the church was not finished until later in the 11th century, and then re-built in the 12th century in the Norman style with a Romanesque portal.
The River Mere has been dammed just below Vouvant by a small modern structure, and lower downstream at the Pierre Brune Barrage. These turn the river into a lake, which, with the old ramparts, make a most attractive setting.
The narrow streets and picturesque stone houses with painted shutters and flowers growing out of the roadside and in pots make this an idyllic village to just stroll around or sit at one of the bars or cafés and just take in its easy-going ways.
For anyone wanting to go for a walk, there are well marked trails, details of which are available at the tourist office just below the Ramparts.
Maison de Mélusine
Place du Bail, 85120 Vouvant
Tel: 02 51 00 86 80
The 13th-century fortress village of Najac, perched on a steep-sided hill on the south-western edge of the département, dominates the wild gorges of the Aveyron, and does so in style.
This is one of many villages to have been embroiled in the early 13th-century religious saga of the Cathars, when the ‘Good Men’, as they were called, of a breakaway religious following were persecuted by the Pope and his agents, and, in the case of Najac, condemned to build the church of St Jean at their own expense. They were the lucky ones; many died in flames for their belief.
The village, one of the most beautiful in France, is essentially one long street perched on a ridge. Its timber-framed houses have a relaxed air about them, leaning companionably on their neighbours for essential support, and a relaxed stroll through the village is all you’ll need to absorb the flavour of this idyllic place.
The walk to the castle precincts is well worth the effort, such as it is, for it gives a splendid view both of the village and the surrounding Aveyron countryside. The castle was built to defend the Rouergue when the Counts of Toulouse chose this as the capital of Lower Rouergue.
In 1249, on the death of Count Raymond VII, his son Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of King St Louis, succeeded him, and he it was who decided to strengthen the existing military structure.
25 place du Faubourg 12270 NAJAC
Tel: 05 65 29 72 05
Argeles-Gazost won’t leap out from a map page and attract your attention, and it might seem a bit on the small side, but this neat Pyrenean village has much to offer. It has a compact centre lined with shops and cafés, a thermal spa and a casino. It is not that far from popular ski slopes, a medieval abbey, several lakes and numerous mountain peaks.
Tucked among the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, Argeles-Gazost is an excellent alternative to larger and more expensive resorts nearby, and ideal for walkers, cyclists and other nature-lovers who prefer to be based in quieter, more civilised settings.
The name of Argeles-Gazost’s department, Hautes-Pyrénées, says it all, the High Pyrenees, a wonderful, expansive region of seriously high mountains, even at their most docile…snow-topped summit after summit rippling away into the distant blue haze. And the modest town of Argelès-Gazost is a perfect base from which to explore…and, yes, there really should be an accent!
The French rail system stops in Tarbes and Lourdes, but not Argèles. If you plan to visit Argelès-Gazost, you will need a car, but then you discover the great charm of Argelès-Gazost.
The village is close to the mountains, the hinterland of Cauterets and Pont d’Espagne, as well as the unbelievably complex mountain roads often used during the Tour de France, and the long and splendid drive down the valley to Gavarnie.
Explore the Argeles-Gazost valley
The Argèles-Gazost valley showcases much that makes the Pyrenees unique, from remarkable flora and fauna to a distinct pace of life, traditions, local language and food – you know immediately that you have come to somewhere really special.
Drive along the mountain roads at your own pace. Visit the pretty villages in the Val d’Azun or the ancient village of Saint Savin, places where history comes alive.
Take the cable car up to the Pic du Midi and enjoy the numerous vantage points from the Observatory, with breath-taking panoramas of the Pyrenean chain.
Take the time to experience some of one of France’s most incredible tourist attractions and enjoy excursions that will literally take your breath away!
On yer bike
If you’re looking for the ideal place for cyclists, when it comes to biking, Argeles-Gazost valley really has it all. With its ideal geographical layout and large range of biking trails, the valley has everything a cyclist could want, catering for all disciplines (road bike, mountain bike…), levels of difficulty and tastes.
From legendary road climbs up mythical Tour de France routes including the Hautacam, the col du Tourmalet and the col d’Aubisque, to a much gentler ride along the traffic free ‘voie verte’, one of the most scenic cycle paths in France, there really is something for everyone.
Terrasse Jacques Chancel, 15 Place de la République, 65400 Argelès-Gazost
Tel: 05 62 97 00 25
Tucked away at the southern end of a long and sinuous valley, the village of Gavarnie serves primarily to cater for tourists who come to view the stunning spectacle of the mountain wall that rears dramatically above it.
This is no ordinary mountain wall; this is the frontier with Spain, and if you can get up to the Col du Boucharro you can just step across an invisible boundary line into another country…actually, you can drive most of the way, and a fabulous drive it is, too.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cirque de Gavarnie and two similar cirques on the north face of the Pyrenees are adjudged, along with the mountain landscapes of Spain around Mont Perdu (Monte Perdido, the highest of the Pyrenees), to be worthy of World Heritage status.
What is so charismatic about this place is that it sets the pulse racing, even among those who would never dream of setting foot on a mountain. All around is a predominantly pastoral landscape, reflecting an agricultural way of life that was once widespread in the upland regions of Europe, but now survives only in this part of the Pyrenees.
Transhumance was widely practised here until recent times, a custom that sent the man of the household off into the mountains in spring with his sheep and a dog or two, often the huge Pyrenean Mountain dog, to spend the summer months in the high pastures; not returning until September with a mountain of freshly made sheep’s cheese. Now few follow in those ancient shepherding footsteps.
The landscape here is so dramatic that it provoked George Sand, the author and romantically linked associate of Frédéric Chopin, to depict the section from Luz St Sauveur to Gavarnie as ‘primeval chaos’; Victor Hugo was not to be outdone, and described the track through the Chaos de Coumély as ‘black and hideous’.
Of course, it is neither of those, just a fabulous bit of driving for everyone except the driver, although avalanches of snow often completely blocked the road for a few days. Such occurrences are to be expected, and underline the importance to seek advice from the tourist offices on weather trends and the stability of snow; you may not be going above the snowline, but if the conditions are just so, the snow will come to you.
At the height of summer, when the tourists flock in, Gavarnie, essentially a one-street town, seems to lose some of its rustic innocence and become more mercenary, making money while the tourists shine.
But this period of mass invasion is short-lived, and then Gavarnie resumes its more affable persona, an all-season mountaineers’ centre and winter ski resort, but without the skiing paraphernalia that bedraggles places like Tourmalet, La Mongie and Gourette.
The great central river, the Gave de Gavarnie, is borne from the mountain snows and the Grande Cascade, a torrent of turbulent turquoise bullying its way through the rocks as it has done for thousands of years.
The mountains that form the cirque are the domain of the experienced alpinistes, but for a grandstand view, take the road on the right as you enter Gavarnie village, and follow its serpentine trail towards the Col du Boucharro.
It is no longer possible to drive all the way to the col, but from a large, upper car park, with an amazing view of Le Taillon, it is possible to make an easy ascent of a much smaller peak, the Pic du Tentes, by an obvious path.
Place de la Bergère, Gèdre
Tel: 05 62 92 48 05
Known from earliest times, this seemingly impregnable fortress, sitting on top of its sheer-sided rock and dominating an ancient Roman road, is one of the most authentic villages of the region known as the Comtat Venaissin – to which it gave its name.
This reputation is due not only to its designation by the Historical Register but also because of commitments made in 1967, by the local authority, which established control over all work on the exterior of buildings, including the restoration of ruins, so that their original vernacular character could be maintained. It’s the same principal that applies in nearby Gordes.
The village is listed among ‘The Most Beautiful Villages of France.
Research and archaeological investigation in Provençal caves have revealed that the Comtat Venaissin was inhabited in the Neolithic Age (circa 7,000 years ago). The Romans settled in the area long before the Christian era, and stayed for around 500 years.
Traces of their civilisation are everywhere. Enormous stone blocks from the Roman period are the foundations that support the ‘Towers’ of Venasque. This construction very likely was part of a stronghold (oppidum) that dominated the old Roman road below and provided surveillance of the entire region. Most hilltop villages in this region date from this time.
It was not until 1792 that the Comtat became a part of France when the troops of Louis XVI, still called ‘King of the French’, entered Carpentras to take possession of the Comtat in the name of the Constituent Assembly.
Since 1978, ‘Les Monts de Venasque’ is a trade mark for cherries, the first of its kind in France. The exceptional sweet flavour and size of these cherries is due to the climate and orchards where they grow.
For visitors, there is a particular delight in wandering the village streets, stopping for a coffee or lunch; it’s all very peaceful, relaxing and unhurried.
Office de Tourisme de Venasque
Grand’ Rue, 84210 Venasque
Tel: 04 90 66 11 66
In the extreme south-west of Hérault, the village of Minerve is surrounded by deep gorges cut where the rivers Brian and Cesse meet, and located at the very end of a limestone plateau.
This stony village in the heart of the Languedoc hinterland was an old Cathar bastion, destroyed by Simon de Montfort in 1210 and the village has a column in memory of a stake at which 140 Cathars were burnt.
Only around 100 people live here now; it was never many more. But, as elsewhere, the surrounding countryside is swathed in the serried ranks of vine, and the whole setting one of peaceful seclusion. It is easy enough to make a circular tour, especially if you’re not very good at drawing circles.
This peaceful community enjoys a very picturesque setting, full of unusual curiosities, such as its natural bridges, and a vast cavern that will come as a surprise, if you can find it (you’ll need a torch if you want to walk all the way through). One moment you can be high above the gorge; the next, after a bit of wandering, you find yourself where Ice Age rivers once flowed.
It is a tortuous journey to find the village, but that is part of the fascination, and when it does finally come in sight, shoe-horned into its ravines, it will be a delight. There is a large ‘Pay’ car park and information point at the northern end of the village, and this is the best place to park as only vehicles of residents are permitted in the village.
9 rue des Martyrs, 34210 Minerve
Tel: 04 68 91 81 43