Many rural communities in France are watching with alarm as their populations shrink, but for 149 villages, small is beautiful! They belong to Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, an association created in 1982, which regroups the loveliest little villages in the land. Starting in September, we will be featuring the diminutive beauties that are located in Provence.
One of the conditions for becoming a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages is to have fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. All the villages must also have at least two officially classified sites or monuments of historical importance. But there their similarity ends. Spread from Provence to Brittany, from the Basque region to Alsace, these miniature beauty spots can be perched or fortified, surrounded by gardens or set on the edge of the sea, and may have been the scene of momentous events in history, or simply a setting of undisturbed bucolic bliss.
The President of the association that regroups them all is Maurice Chabert, Mayor of Gordes (the village beauty queen with which we will launch our series). He was unanimously elected in 1996, to succeed Charles Ceyrac, Mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge in the Corrèze region, who founded the association. Chabert explains that it is not enough to be tiny and pretty. Villages have been rejected that are both, because they lacked a soul of their own, having become museum pieces or just attractive collections of tourist facilities. “That doesn’t interest us,” he insists. “We want some local life in our villages. Contrary to what people think, not just very rich or very old people live in our villages.”
President Chabert has set very high standards for the association. In addition to assessing new candidates, he decided right at the start of his mandate that the Quality Control Commission would also re-assess existing Plus Beaux Villages, to make sure they still deserved the title. “That wasn’t terribly popular!” he admits. “There was some gnashing of teeth, because some villages have been declassified.” Ten out of 70 that were reviewed, to be exact, which is keeping the remaining member villages on their pretty little toes.
Chabert’s strict rules are a guarantee that these little gems will remain unmarred by industrial development or the architectural horrors of uncontrolled tourism. “What is most important is quality tourism,” confirms Chabert. “That’s what is most beneficial, financially and that’s what causes the least damage – or rather, no damage at all.”
Here in the South of France, we are lucky to have a whole cluster of gorgeous little communities belonging to Les Plus Beaux Villages, each with a character of its own, all absolutely lovely.
Département by département, they are:
Hautes-Alpes : La Grave-la-Meije, Saint-Véran
Bouches-du-Rhône : Les Baux-de-Provence
Var: Bargème, Gassin, Seillans, Tourtour
Vaucluse: Ansouis, Gordes, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Roussillon, Séguret, Venasque.
The long days of summer are a perfect time to visit some of these petite beauty queens, which are living proof that good things do indeed come in small packages.