During a journey through France, especially one that contains free time and a car, it is essential to divert for some authenticity and beauty in one of the country’s picture-perfect little villages. These are places that feel undiscovered because they tend not to cater only to summer and vacationing hordes. Instead, they are cozy enclaves where the sense of romance is heightened in the quiet off-season.
Some were constructed beside Roman ruins or on sleepy riverbanks. Many have a medieval castle or a Gothic or Romanesque church at its centerpiece. Some were built among green fields and orchards. Still others have a town square around which markets arise with color and clamor on set mornings all year long. Many have central fountains, encircled by a restaurant or bar that is full until closing time, and packed again for café crème and croissants come daybreak. What is found in such places is la France profonde, the country of our dreams that smells of baking bread and sounds like a single set of heels clacking on cobblestones. What is not found here are chain stores or junky gift shops.
The French government has made it easy to find these towns, some of which are officially designated Les Plus Beaux Villages. This association, formed in 1982, is one of the most elite clubs in France, and involves a rigorous selection process. Any town —even a geographically gifted or historically significant one —that has a whiff of the theme park, or has given over its soul to souvenir joints, is not considered. It needs to have at least two significant historical landmarks that the village is committed to preserving, and cannot have a population over 2000. This is important because some of France’s most magnificent smaller towns — Uzès in Languedoc, Grignan in the Drôme, or Honfleur in Normandy — do not qualify. Presently, there are 157 towns with the Les Plus Beaux Village distinction and though it’s nearly impossible to choose the best, here are 10 of the most irresistibly charming ones.