France has more than its fair share of picturesque villages. Some of them are designated l’un des plus beaux villages de France (one of the most beautiful villages of France). Within a 50 km radius of us I have counted at least 12. But what exactly does this appellation mean and what does it involve?
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France first became an association in 1981, set up on the initiative of the mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge in Corrèze (I’ve been there: the stone really is red). His vision was to safeguard and promote villages like his own. In doing so, he hoped to stem the tide of rural depopulation and stimulate interest in their historic heritage.
Now, 156 villages across France have the designation. As far as possible, the association aims to avoid villages becoming either lifeless museums or historical theme parks. In addition, the objective is to promote tourism and economic development.
Villages have to apply to join the association and fulfil three criteria:
- A population of less than 2,000 inhabitants.
- At least two protected sites or historic monuments in the area.
- Majority support for the application from the conseil municipal.
They then get inspected against 27 criteria and approved (or not) by a committee. Sometimes the village has to make certain changes to achieve definitive approval. Apparently, only around one in five applications is successful. Once approved, the village pays an annual subscription of 3 euros per inhabitant (I wonder how they determine who is an inhabitant). In return, it has the right to use the association’s logo and benefits from its promotional activity etc.
Within these villages, the outward signs of modern life, such as satellite dishes and TV aerials, are banned as far as possible while restoration restrictions are tight.
Here are a few not far from us.
Najac in Aveyron, about which I have written on these pages, is probably our closest PBV. It’s not unlike Shaftesbury in Dorset, being built on a steep hill. Dominated by its ruined castle, a landmark for miles around, it’s home to some characters that are as picturesque as the buildings. The best long-distance view is probably from the village of Mazérolles on the opposite hillside. The castle emerging from the mist on an autumn day is a breathtaking sight.
Then there’s Belcastel, also in Aveyron and dominated by its château.
In our own département, Bruniquel straggles up a steep hillside towards its own châteaux (not one but two), which commanded the major routes and the River Aveyron below. It was used as the set for the film Le Vieux Fusil.
In Tarn, the fortified town of Puycelci sits atop a hill, its present-day tranquillity belying its turbulent past. Founded in the 10th century, it was besieged on several occasions in the Middle Ages, notably by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusades and by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Despite this, it was never taken by force.
While you can’t help but applaud this initiative, you sometimes wonder if some of these villages are a little too sanitised and chocolate-boxy; set in aspic. In summer, they are tourist honeypots – which, of course, benefits the local economy. Out of season, you are on a different planet. The summer residences are shuttered up, most of the restaurants are closed and only the permanent inhabitants are around. The tourists bring vitality and money but off-season is when I like these places best.
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