Walking into Fairy Tales: Charming Historic Small Towns in France

I will be taking a month-long summer break from blog writing. Europe is where I am heading, and time permitting, I plan to visit (in some cases, revisit) a clutch of historic small towns spread across France.

The choice of France is an easy one. The country is home to a veritable trove of lovely historic towns that date to the medieval period. From wine-growing regions to the alps, these destinations give visitors that straight out-of-a-storybook feel, with colorful Hansel and Gretel-styled houses, narrow cobbled streets that wind their way uphill, high perches offering stunning views of the coast, and of course, the obligatory castles, fortresses and churches that make each town visit a step back to the past. Scroll below for a glimpse of 21 of the most beautiful small towns in France according to media company Condé Nast. Brief descriptions of each town’s location and the main attractions are provided.  

Gordes is a hilltop village perched high on a cliff, 340 metres above the valley floor, and overlooking the luscious Luberon valley, which itself is one of the most beautiful places in Provence, France. The village has a colourful ancient history, having survived plagues, earthquakes and bombings. Its residents, who are called Gordians, are known for their rebellious spirit, having sparked medieval invasions and supported Resistance fighters during World War Two. Gordes is known for Its spectacular views of the Luberon and since the 1950s, have gained an artsy reputation which still exists today.

Chamonix is a vibrant town known as both a world-class ski resort and a mountaineering destination. Situated in the Haute-Savoie region of France, it is bordered by Switzerland and Italy and dominated by the mighty Aiguilles de Chamonix mountain chain peaking at the top of Mont Blanc (4810m). With these vast, jagged mountains towering over the town, the scenery here is arguably the most spectacular in the French Alps.

Perched high up a white limestone cliff on the southern coast of Corsica lies the medieval town of Bonifacio. Known as the “Mediterranean’s Sentinel,” or simply, the “Citadel of Cliffs,” this secluded town features an ancient citadel, narrow streets, colorful houses and locals who speak in a unusual dialect comprising Italian and French.  Despite its coastal location, cobblestone alleyways and a myriad of monasteries, chapels, prehistoric sites and Roman cisterns, it is relatively undisturbed by summer crowds, which makes Bonifacio one of France’s best kept secrets.

For many decades, this picturesque town and UNESCO Heritage Site in the Southwest of France has been an economic and religious center attracting royals, winegrowers, and pilgrims. Every square in the small village center is packed with history and historic architecture. Thousands of hectares of vines surround the medieval village, making the landscape an unforgettable scenery.

Situated in the spectacular Luberon area in Provence, the beautiful village of Roussillon lies at the foot of the Monts de Vaucluse and is considered as one of the most impressive villages in France. Roussillon is famous for its ochre deposits, the largest in the world, and are visible from its profusion of magnificent red cliffs ochre-roofed buildings. The red, yellow and brown shades of the earth form a striking contrast with the vivid Provencal sky and the lush green pine trees, lending this village a magical feel.

Located at an altitude of 1,326 metres at the confluence of five valleys, Briançon is the highest town in France. This City of Art of History, fortified by French military architect Vauban in the 18th century, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its remarkable group of fortifications built between the 18th and 20th centuries to improve the town’s defence system. The picturesque old town offers visitors many examples of its past, including the 18th-century collegiate church of Notre-Dame, the 14th-century Cordeliers church, old houses lining the steep, narrow streets, the charming Place d’Armes square, which is surrounded by colourful Provence-style facades, fountains and sundials. In winter, Briancon becomes a popular destination for ski lovers as its ski area is part of the famous  Serre Chevalier ski resort.

Annecy is a delightful lake town in the Haute-Savoie region of France surrounded by mountains on the edge of the Swiss border. The lake, Lac d’Annecy, boasts some of the freshest water in Europe, replenished each year from the snow melt. With a very walk-able and bike friendly atmosphere, Annecy is an ideal place to spend many lazy afternoons exploring local shops, snacking at fresh food markets, or take a picnic in one of the many parks.

Imagine small narrow roads, archways and superbly restored stone houses, shady squares, refreshing ancient fountains, and one will soon be seduced by the marvels of Eze, a medieval village built over 400 m above sea level hugging the French Rivieria. Èze Village, lying between Nice and Monaco, is basically two villages on three levels. The lowest is Èze-sur-Mer, through which the Nice–Monaco railway line runs. 427 m higher is Èze (Èze-Village) which is the main attraction of this region due to its hilltop location giving spectacular views of the Mediterranean coastline and beyond.

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is a Provençal village with a rich history and architectural heritage. Built between two rocky slopes, it offers captivating views, both from the heights (of up to 630m) as well as at the foot of the village. Situated in the department of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in the heart of the Verdon Regional Nature Park, the town boasts lovely natural surroundings and cultural heritage such as Romanesque churches dating to the 12th century.

Located in the south of France about 80 kilometres (50 mi) east of Toulouse, the old city of Carcassonne is one of the largest surviving medieval walled cities in Europe. As a natural defensive spot beside the River Aude, the site has been occupied and fortified before Roman times. The city center consists of a lower, external defensive wall surrounding a higher wall with many towers, which encloses the ancient town, within which are streets of medieval dwellings, a cathedral and a chateau as well as a museum that explains the impact and story of the Albigensian crusade.

Located approximately 70 km northwest of Paris, Giverny is a magnet of a destination for art lovers who flock to the town which Impressionist artist, Claude Monet called home in the late years of his life, and where he painted some of the world’s most iconic water lilies landscape pictures. Besides Monet’s home and garden (preserved by the Foundation Claude Monet), the picturesque village and its surroundings also offer captivating attractions such as the Church of Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny, the 16th-century church that Monet attended and where he and his family are buried, and the nearby historic town of Vernon on the banks of the River Seine, which boasts a particularly picturesque old mill, and its fine arts museum, the Musée de Vernon.

Located close to the D-Day Landings beaches, the medieval city of Bayeux is a living history capsule. Among the town’s main attractions are Notre-Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of Norman Romanesque and Gothic art, and the world-renowned Tapestry, listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World register, both of which bear witness to the opulence of the Duchy of Normandy. As the first town to be liberated in June 1944, Bayeux is a good base to visit the beaches and other sites of the D-Day Landings in Normandy. The town center itself features narrow cobbled streets and elegant 17th and 18th century mansions and town houses.

Located on the southwest coast of France, the attractive town of St-Jean de Luz grew up around the mouth of the River Nivelle as a fishing port, pulling in large catches of sardines, anchovies and, rather less salubriously, whales in bygone days. Later, like the rest of the Basque coastline, it became a fashionable resort for well-to-do French, English and Spanish tourists in the late 19th century, though the town still maintains a sizeable fishing fleet.

Colmar is a small town which located in the Alsace region of northeast France where France meets Germany. Colmar is said to have been the inspiration for the village in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, and it’s not hard to see why. Walking through its streets is like seeing childhood fairy stories come to life, with its cobbled streets, quaint, colorful medieval buildings, and candy-colored bakeries. A canal runs through the little town where visitors can take a leisurely boat ride.

Located at the confluence of two rivers near the Lot Valley in southern France, Conques is an ancient town rich in history, tradition and cultural life. It was the site chosen by the 6th century hermit Dado to withdraw into solitude. Thus arose a Benedictine monastery with the Carolingian dynasty. Since then, Conques has become a pilgrimage center and a major step on the way to Saint Jacques de Compostela. The town, which is situated around its abbey built in the 11th and 12th centuries, offer visitors charming views of house facades with wood sides and stone-covered walls.

Vezelay is a town that oozes with medieval history. It is situated 50 km south of Auxerre in Burgundy and on the edge of the Morvan Regional Park. In addition to being listed among the ‘most beautiful villages of France’, Vézelay and its basilica are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The village, founded in the 12th century, is more or less one steep street that rises up to Vezelay Abbey at the top of the hill. The abbey was a major starting point for pilgrims on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela and an important place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages as it kept relics of Mary Magdalene. It is also strongly connected to the Crusades: St Bernard preached the Second Crusade there in 1146 and Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus met there to leave for the Third Crusade in 1190.

Castelnou is a lovely little village in a beautiful setting of rolling hills. Located in the eastern Pyrenees in southern France not far from the border with Spain, the village sits in the shadow of the castle that towers above the village and around which it developed from the 10th century onwards. The historic center is entered through a large stone gate, dating from the 14th century that is part of the fortifications erected around the village at that time. Walking the narrow-cobbled streets lined with stone houses that lead upwards to the castle is a real step back in time.

Situated right in the heart of the Alsace amidst a pleasant, undulating landscape is the charming town of Bergheim, one of those rare Alsace towns to have almost completely preserved its medieval town walls (built in the 14th century). The well-preserved village center features some fine monuments and half-timbered houses. At the western entrance of the village, the imposing and turreted Obertor (Porte Haute), which also dates to the 14th century, is Bergheim’s only remaining gate. With its winding streets lined with wine-growers houses and wrought-iron signs, Bergheim has become a favorite destination among domestic tourists stopping along along the Alsace Wine Route. In fact, last year, it won the prestigious title of “Village Préféré des Français” (the Favourite Village of the French).

A jewel in the lush Manse Valley, this little village with only a few hundred residents offer some of the most beautiful town architecture in France, with streets graced by beautiful floral-decoated tuffeau houses.. The pretty small houses typically date from the 15th and 16th centuries and are built in the very-white stone that is characteristic of the region. This local white rock is called tufa and is soft enough to be carved quite easily, hence its widespread use in the decorative elements of buildings in the region, including renaissance style castles.

Situated in the hinterland of Nice at an altitude of nearly 400m, picturesque Peillon is one of the most beautiful villages of the French Riviera. This medieval village clings to a cliff face overlooking the Paillon de l’Escarène, with steep narrow streets winding upward through houses that seem to be literally carved out of the rock, the sun-washed ochres of their facades bending perfectly with the landscapes which surround the village.

The charming and beautiful town of Dinan in the northwest region of France is famed its historic architecture, including timber-framed houses, well-preserved medieval ramparts, and castles complete with 14th-century tapestries. The fact that the town has barely changed since the Middle Ages makes every visit a true stepping-back-in-time experience. This rare example of a medieval town is made even more unique by its position of quite literally hanging on the side of a hill, which is uncommon since most medieval towns lie at the bottom of a valley or at the very top of a hill as opposed to being perched midway up. The strategic placement of Dinan has probably been a large contributing factor in its survival.

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