// F R A N C E
If dreamy villages, lush countryside’s and delicious carbs are your thing, then put down your croissant and read on!
What amazes me about France is it’s variety. This beguiling country is both sleepy and captivating and has snippets to satisfy everyone. Whilst it is near impossible to imagine France without thinking of the Eiffel Tower sparkling in Paris or the famous golden sands of the French Riviera, I’m here to tell you that France has so much more than meets the eye. The country's towns and villages have beauty to rival any major city in the world, with hilltop views, flower-lined canals, and pastel buildings pulled straight from the pages of a storybook. With that in mind, I wanted to share a few of the villages and towns in France that I visited last Christmas and then more recently for my birthday.
Let’s rewind a little to Christmas 2018 when I visited Colmar.
Colmar is the capital of the Alsace wine region and is arguably the prettiest town in France. Resembling what locals endearingly label their very own Little Venice, the small canals and brightly coloured houses are something out of a fairytale. Rumour has it that Colmar was the inspiration behind Belle’s village in Beauty and the Beast (and it’s not hard to see why!)
For six weeks around Christmas, the whole of Old Colmar, miraculously protected from the vicissitudes of history, becomes one huge multi-faceted Christmas Market. In 2017, Colmar’s Christmas markets were actually elected as the ‘most beautiful Christmas markets in France’. And though I have not seen all the Christmas markets in France, Colmar has all my votes.
The Colmar Christmas Market is made up of six mini-village markets – each with its own flavours, delicacies and professional craftsman. It is everything you’ve ever imagined a Winter Wonderland to be and so much more. My mum (who has a particular obsession with anything festive, cute and wintry … perhaps where I get it from) was in her domain, drinking the richest hot chocolates, trying every Nutella crepe she could get her hands on and buying more wooden ornaments than you could possibly fit on one tree! (Yep, definitely where I get it from).
We also visited Strasbourg along our Christmas travels. Unlike Colmar, we weren’t overly impressed with its Christmas markets, as they were pretty basic and didn’t bring anything to the festive game.
So, given that fact, let me skip ahead to the good parts…
When I first arrived in England, I was eager to start exploring and EuroTunnel's (running from Dover to Calais) cheap and convenient combo made hopping over to France a piece of pie. We drove around the French countryside, buying delicious local delights and confusing locals with our accents. One of our stops on our impromptu roadtrip was Etretat and, though it is a hot mile away from the latter suggestions in this post, I thought it's beauty warranted it a spot on my list.
The little town of Etretat is located in the Pays de Caux, on a section of the coast of Normandy called “La Côte d’Albâtre”, and is renowned for its impressive white cliffs, featuring dramatic rock arches, a large rock needle and tunnels. The weather-beaten, white cliffs surround the very authentically rustic village and has become immortalized in the works of artists like Claude Monet.
On the beach, the cliff formations are visible on each side: the Falaise d’Aval to the left and the Falaise d’Amont to the right. As it is surrounded by cliffs, the little beach is relatively protected from the winds. Many tourists come here in summer to admire the magnificent setting of Étretat, making it the perfect place to relax during the sun light hours and get a little festive once the sunshine fades into night.
You can climb up the cliffs surrounding the beach for some incredible views. The Falaise d’Aval is reached by a set of stairs (180 steps) leading up to the crumbling (and windy!) side of the cliff. The path starts at the right end of the beach, where you can see remains of bunkers, part of the “Atlantic Wall”, an extensive system built by the Germans to defend against an anticipated Allied invasion of continental Europe from Great Britain.
As for reaching the top of the Falaise d’Aval, a very steep stair-path winds up to the top of the “Falaise d’Amont”. (You will need approximately 1 hour for a return walk). Here stands the Notre-Dame de la Garde Chapel, made of stone. In 1854, Étretat’s fishermen decided to build a chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin, their Patron Saint. The Nazis blew out the building in 1942 and it was rebuilt in the early 1950’s. Behind the Chapel stands another monument, which looks like a tall white arrow, dedicated to aviators Nungesser and Coli, who were the first to attempt the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. They departed on the 8th May 1927 but were never seen since.
The following spots are from a more recent roadtrip with my traveller in crime.
Let’s dive in.
Cirque de Navacelles
Cirque de Navacelles is a small village that lies at the heart of the Causses and the Cevennes territory. Nestled in the gorges of the Vis and the southern Causse, at the foot of the Larzac and the Cevennes, it is more than just a geological curiosity. The Cirque de Navacelles is the result of an evolving, millennia-long, harmonious alchemy between people and nature. This rich and varied protected natural area shelters an outstanding biodiversity and its magnificent landscapes are studded with traces of agro-pastoralism and megaliths. And it's not surprising to find that this place was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in June 2011.
I drove three hours from Toulouse to Navacelles to arrive at the most beautiful B & B called Chambre d'hôtes L'Ammonite. Despite being struck by a stomach bug on the morning of my flight, the hosts were very caring and made my experience comfortable despite my tumultuous health turn. The rooms are simple yet ample and the price includes a traditional breakfast served in the dining room downstairs. You have the option to dine for dinner for a small fee too if you wish to!
You can have a peek here for yourself if you’re looking for somewhere to stay around the area.
* Just a quick note on the road to reach Navavelles: The mountain road is a mix of many hairpin bends and narrow unlit tunnels. It is referred to as a balcony road due to the way it is cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s the kind of road that you shouldn’t drive on if you fear heights. And definitely avoid it if you’ve got a campervan. My topsy turvey tummy was turning into a spin cycle as my car wove down and clung onto cliff face on the way into the valley. I was undeniably relieved that I arrived to the accommodation in one piece!
Carcassonne is located in the Languedoc Roussillon Midi Pyrénées region of France. The city is several millennia old, dating back to BC times. The fortified castle contains 53 towers and barbicans. In 1849 it was decided that the castle be preserved as a national monument and it was added to the UNESCO world heritage list of sites in 1997. You can explore all that’s within for a very reasonable 9.0 euros (for an adult).
Carcassonne is smack in the middle of the largest wine region in the world, so get your taste buds ready! There are several vineyards and wineries close to the town. You can choose to go via a tour operator or visit independently. It’s worth calling in advance to make sure that they are ready to host you. You can have a browse through the various vineyards on this site. Vin en Vacances is a local tour company that can arrange day tours if you don’t want the hassle of organising it yourself (which is what I would do).
Nestled nearby the Tarn River lies a place called Albi. The ‘must see’ asset of Albi is the Albi Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral of Saint Cecilia. Being initially built as a fortress in 1287, this stunning cathedral was under construction for 200 years and is apparently the largest building to be made from brick in the world. This building, along with a selection of other UNESCO listed buildings, is what makes Albi so special.
In addition to the array of Gothic, red brick-built buildings, Albi is also home to the Pont Vieux. This Old Bridge is still in use after almost a millennium. Originally built in stone in 1035, then clad with brick, it rests on eight arches and is 151 m long. In the 14th century, it was fortified and reinforced with a drawbridge, and houses were built on the piers.
We spent our time here walking through an abundance of markets and the maze-like streets, taking heaps of snaps and basking in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Cathedral of St. Cecilia
The magnificence of the Albi Cathedral of St. Cecilia, in southwestern France, belies a history based in bloodshed.
Set on a hill above the River Tarn, it was designed to proclaim the might and power of the Catholic Church after the Albigensian crusades against the Cathars. Entire town populations were massacred, and the Cathars, considered heretics, were defeated.
The interior is, in a word, dazzling. Every surface holds painted religious scenes, ornate designs, or scroll work. Spreading across the vaulted ceiling is the largest collection of Italian Renaissance frescoes in France, contemporary with the Sistine Chapel. These 16th-century frescoes show pastoral and Biblical scenes set against a blue-sky background and are honestly the most beautiful designs I have ever seen.
This magnificent Albigensian fortified town boasts an exceptional Gothic heritage. The upper town of Cordes-sur-Ciel has preserved its stunning Gothic houses, among which the Grand Fauconnier house, the Prunet house and the Grand Veneur house. A stroll in the medieval town is a real delight, especially because streets are lined with craft shops and artists' galleries.
Like Albi's Cathedral of St. Cecilia, Cordes-sur-Ciel also has a history that presents a stark contrast the beautiful village that exists there today.
Amidst the chaos and fighting of the Albigensian Crusade, Count of Toulouse Raymond VII set about building what is now known as Cordes-sur-ciel in an attempt to fortify his lands.
The buildings are in a remarkable state of preservation. While they have been renovated and added to over the centuries, they still hold their original and charming character.
On entering the town it is the streets, alleys and lanes of the town that some preserve its late medieval character in the most striking fashion. The often winding, irregular and at times awkwardly narrow lay out is distinctly medieval.
You can find the medieval village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie perched high on a clifftop overlooking the meandering River Lot. It is not only a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, but is also steeped in history, and home to 13 listed buildings. This cliffside village is indeed particularly photogenic, with a harmonious group of beautiful stone houses with brown-tiled roofs and its fortified Gothic church. It has been a haven for creative folk for many years. So much so in fact that Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement, said, “I no longer want to be anywhere else,” when he spoke of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.
I’m a big fan of hilltop towns in general, but Rocamadour stands out with its spectacular views over the Alzou canyon. The one-street town is known for its cliffside collection of religious buildings, including Chapelle Notre Dame and its famous Black Madonna statue. We didn’t walk down to the main street (because our sleepy eyes were not ready for that kind of exercise so early) but we did admire the village from above and it was pretty special.
We stayed at this ridiculously cute and homely place called Hotel Restaurant Le Troubladour the previous night. There’s a restaurant attached where the dishes are made with local produce. And a big bonus, this place is a couple minutes drive from the stunning views of Rocamadour! The guy at the reception desk said you could walk (but we didn’t have that kind of time up our sleeves and drove instead).
So that's it. That's my list of cute villages that you must visit if you are any way cute inclined! And for every suggestion I have researched and made throughout making this post, I can guarantee you that I have found many more alluring French villages that I have since added to my list. It's one of those oxymorons where the more you cross off your list, the more that seems to find its way onto it...