Recently I’ve been contemplating what makes one French village more lovely and desirable than another and came to the conclusion that it all depended on the day, time and season of the visit. Maybe I was very fortunate on the day we visited Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère: the weather was warm, the day bus visitors had vanished for the season, and the lunch offerings were most appealing.
The village of around 500 residents sits right on the Vezere river which flows like liquid molasses, gently and lazily around the village and nearby woods. Sparkling miniscule mites buzz in the golden rays, the warm air tinted with the colours of Autumn. A leaf strewn walk beside the river, a crunch through carmine and russet, provides a wild contrast to the benign and domestic village. St Leon’s tastefully restored church invites quiet reflection. The hardest part of my fascination with this village is sorting through the prolific amount of photos I took on the day. Come for a walk around Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère with me.
Next time I visit, I’l stay a while, hire a canoe, walk till the paths run out, and visit the cemetery. But then perhaps beautiful memories should not be tarnished through revisiting.
What makes a French village so special? It’s a question that taunts many a traveller. The answer may be found in one of those many photographic coffee table books on the subject or perhaps in the long list published by the association, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. When staying in the Dordogne departement of southwestern France, it’s a delightful and popular pastime to explore these designated Plus Beaux Villages as well as the small but undesignated communes of the district, thus creating your own list. With advice from the hosts of our rental house in Monpazier, Giselle and Jean-Pierre, together with a bit of reading, we embarked on a busy two weeks of driving around the Dordogne and only now, I’m a little closer to answering that question, though I would be quite keen to do some more research on site.
The association, Les Plus Beaux Village de France, was set up in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac and today the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. The aim of the association is to
“avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, “theme parks”. Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”¹
The departement of the Dordogne has its fair share of beaux villages and if we count a few in the neighbouring Lot et Garonne, the list grows longer. Belves, Beynac, Castelnaud- la- Chappelle, Domme, Limeuil, Monpazier, La Roque Gageac, Saint- Amand- de- Coly, Saint- Jean- de Cole, and Saint Leon sur Vezere have received this prestigious title. Most villages have a market day, though after a few markets, you will begin to recognise many stall holders. Still, there will be surprises and very local specialties in each of them. The smaller villages and hamlets not on this list are often more beautiful in many ways.
And so back to that question. What makes a French village so special? It really does depend on the day. My ‘best of’ list is naturally informed by my own value judgments as no doubt yours would be too. Many factors affect that judgement, such as, the weather on the day, the density of tourists which goes hand in hand with the season, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the village to a river, the attraction of a market in progress, the arrival of a cavalcade of day tourists in small buses, turning your favourite village into a theme park, the blustering cajolery of les Anglais, the Dordogne’s more recent residents from over La Manche who are omnipresent in some villages, congestion or its opposite, deathly quiet, the authenticity of the architecture, signage, cuisine, and friendliness, just to name a few factors. Although food is often high on my agenda, my main interest in this area is medieval history and architecture, as well as following the course of the Vezere river, a most enchanting river, as it winds its watery way through this verdant rural land.
Of the 50 or so villages, hamlets and towns that I visited in 2017 and 2011, my favourite villages include Saint Leon sur Vezere, Belves, Monpazier, Issigeac, Limeuil, the small commune of Biron, and the larger towns of Le Bugue and Bergerac. During a visit to this area in 2011, we stayed in Brantôme en Périgord and grew to love that town and the little hamlets nearby. We also have a list of our least favourites, which includes Eymet ( nice architecture but oh- so -English) and La Roque- Gageac, beautifully situated on a steep slope next to the Dordogne river, but frequented by a long procession of bus tour groups. Below, a media show of the picturesque village of Eymet.
The history of the region can be read in the architecture, with castles, chateaux, churches, abbeys, bastides, and cave fortresses along with the more modest domestic architecture and streetscapes such as medieval market halls, bastide walls, village squares, fountains, laneways and half-timbered houses. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you have a car to tour the myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns that dot the countryside.
There are 520 communes in the Dordogne, 1500 castles and 18 Bastide towns. So much to see and so little time. More research is definitely required.
For Helen and Chris, who will be there soon enough. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my favourite village, Saint Leon Sur Vezere.
I’m writing at the kitchen table, as I usually do, before dawn. The sun rises slowly, though here in the Dordogne region of France, dawn seems to drag on forever, like a long twilight in reverse. Morning is not much fun: fog and mist often continue until lunchtime when the sun finally breaks through and shoos the grey away. Jackets and scarves for the morning: t-shirts and sun hats for the afternoon. No wind spoils Autumn, no leaves quiver: the climbing vines on village stone cottages are turning crimson and pink.
On days like this, an outdoor lunch calls, perhaps a picnic by the Vezere river or a drive to a nearby village, just in time to nab an outside table at a little inn for the menu du midi. For us it will depend on the offerings of the day, which are chalked up on boards at around 11 am. Some days the menu has little appeal: it’s often duck gesiers, magret de canard, salade d’ aiguilllettes, or fois gras – it’s a hard life for ducks and geese around here. As pescatarians ( vegetarians who eat some fish on occasion), we can be hard to please in this region so there’s always a back up plan.
Packed in a little box in the boot of our car is a good goat’s cheese, a few tomatoes, a baguette and a bottle of Bergerac Rosé for our little field trips into the woods, rivers and villages of the lovely Dordogne countryside. If we pass a market on the way, we add a homemade walnut tart, a bag of apples, or perhaps a nice quiche. One way or the other, there’s always a good lunch.