Carolyn Boyd, one of the UK's leading food and travel writers and an expert on France, picks out her ten favourite French villages for visitors and prospective second home owners.
The Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route takes in many idyllic villages, but Conques, on the path that leads from Le Puy-en-Velay, is a particular highlight. Cobbled lanes meander between peach and ochre timber-frame cottages and its crowning glory is the 11th-century Sainte-Foy abbey. Look up above its entrance to admire its incredible tympanum, which depicts the Last Judgement of Christ.
Inside, the stained-glass windows by artist Pierre Soulages were added in 1990 and complement the Romanesque architecture with their modern design. The Abbey, with its enchanting cloisters, is also home to one of Europe’s greatest medieval gold artworks, a collection of reliquaries known as The Treasure of Conques.
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Best for island escape — Ars-en-Ré
Only two of the enchanting villages on the Ile de Ré hold the prestigious title of Plus Beaux Villages de France: La Flotte and Ars-en-Ré. The latter is the more polished of the two and at its heart is a sun-drenched square and the Saint-Etienne church, with its distinctive black-and-white spire that served as a landmark for sailors.
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Browse the brocante boutiques and galleries before getting into the back streets, where colourful hollyhocks climb up the façades of the white-washed, green-shuttered cottages. The market takes place daily in the summer months and offers a great selection of products, such as fragrant soap and local honey.
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Best for wine — Ménerbes
Although many wine villages hold acclaim for prestigious vintages, Ménerbes holds sway for its simple pleasures: sipping a local rosé wine on the terrasse of the Café du Progrès in the late afternoon after wandering the sun-drenched lanes and exploring the surrounding vineyards.
Among the most enjoyable to visit is the Domaine de la Citadelle, which not only produces excellent wine, but also has the quirky allure of the Corkscrew Museum with its extraordinary collection of 1,000 tire-bouchons in almost every conceivable shape, age, size and place of origin.
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Best for gastronomy — Grignan
You can’t miss Grignan for its sheer majesty. Surrounded by fields of lavender, its rambling pile of terracotta-roofed houses is crowned by a Renaissance château at the top. Wander its rosemary-scented lanes to the panoramic terraces and take in views of cherry orchards, olive groves and vineyards that thrive in the gentle climate.
At the hotel Le Clair de la Plume’s Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Julien Allano serves a superb menu of the Drôme department’s abundant produce, including olives from Nyons, Saint-Marcellin cheese and Montélimar nougat.
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Best for a sweet tooth — Flavigny-sur-Ozerain
Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is set on a hill in the gently undulating countryside north-east of Dijon. With its impressive stone gates and tranquil lanes lined with flower-bedecked houses; it’s little wonder that this village was used as a backdrop for many of the scenes in the film of Joanne Harris’s book, Chocolat, in 2000. It’s still the place to go if you love French confectionery, being the home of the little white aniseed imperials that are sold in pretty tins everywhere across the country.
Aniseed was first brought to the region by the Romans (Julius Caesar fought Vercingetorix on the same hill), but the sweets were made by the monks of the Abbaye de Flavigny, who founded the abbey in the 8th century. The sweets’ workshops are based in and around the Abbey, which is also a joy to explore for its Carolingian crypt.
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Best for colour — Roussillon
Of all the dramatic landscapes to be explored across France, the ochre peaks around Roussillon are among the most striking. This village in Provence’s Vaucluse department is set on one of the world’s largest ochre deposits and visitors can walk around the quarries, dominated by incredible red-hued cliffs.
Roussillon itself is a triumph of yellow and orange houses, making it a spectacular sight in the early evening light. Take a stroll around the narrow streets to admire its galleries and historic buildings, before heading to the top of the village for exceptional views of the Monts de Vaucluse and surrounding countryside.
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Best for its château — Montsoreau
Follow the River Loire west from Tours and there’s no missing Montsoreau’s Renaissance château presiding over the village, looking every bit as elegant as the more famous ones in Saumur and Amboise.
Built on the site of an 11th-century castle, the current château — now home to a contemporary-arts museum — dates from 1450 and was built by John II of Chambes, private adviser to Charles VII, but it found fame in the 19th century, when Alexandre Dumas published his novel The Lady of Monsoreau in 1846.
The village around it is small, with only 500 inhabitants, and has attractive tuffeau stone architecture, riverside restaurants and antiques shops (www.ville-montsoreau.fr).
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Best for mountains — Bonneval-sur-Arc
Whether you’re a winter skier or a summer hiker, the village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise area of the Alps, will captivate you as much for its tiny stone dwellings with heavy slate roofs as for the beauty of its surroundings. The lanes aren’t accessible by car, so explore on foot or, in winter, on skis.
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The village is set at about 5,000ft and in summer it is surrounded by wildflower meadows. Up above, the Col d’Iseran is the highest paved path in the Alps, at 8,858ft above sea level, and presents a challenge for the Tour de France riders when it features on the route.
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Best for views — Vézelay
As you walk through the centre of Vézelay, up the gentle incline towards the Saint Mary-Magdalene Basilica, past enticing boutiques and laid-back cafés, you’re following the footsteps of pilgrims over the centuries. The reward is the chance to enjoy the incredible view from the top, over the gentle rolling hills and vineyards of the Morvan regional park.
For reverence of a more spiritual kind, enter the Basilica to hear the sisters of the Jerusalem Monastic community practice their four-part harmonies. On the summer solstice, the daylight shines through the southern windows to cast a series of perfectly aligned circles along the centre of the nave floor.
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Best for flowers — Gerberoy
Gerberoy is tucked away in a shallow valley amid the golden plains of Picardy. Its cobbled streets are lined with fine brick and timber-frame houses brimming with flowers. Roses, wisteria, hydrangeas and holly- hocks add to the colours of shutters painted in reds, blues and green.
Gerberoy’s beauty owes much to Henri Le Sidaner, the artist who moved there in 1901 and turned a neglected orchard into extraordinary gardens, complete with an Italian terrace, rose garden and pergola. The village also has a few artisan studios selling art and pottery and a handful of restaurants, including l’Atelier Gourmand, with tables in its sunny walled garden.
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