From our base in Eauze, we took the Van out to visit three local villages. The first to be visited was Montreal sur Gers (see previous post). We then drove a few kilometres further east to the medieval fortress village of Larressingle, also known as the Little Carcassonne of Gers.
Larressingle is also a ‘Plus Beau Village de France’ and fully deserving of the title. It is also something of a tourist attraction being the most visited destination in the Gers (and on the Chemin de Puy to Santiago) but it was almost empty as we arrived. It is a small village almost completely surrounded by 300 metres of heavy fortified walls (that are for the most part in excellent condition) and it is full of charm.
There is only one entrance into the village, across an old moat and through a double arched stone bridge. Inside the fortress walls is a church and a range of medieval houses, most of which are set with their backs to the castle walls and are now home to craft shops and cafes and the local tourist office. It is beautiful.
Having walked all around the inside and the outside of the village we paused for a light lunch – a local artisan beer and a local pizza with goat’s cheese. Very tasty.
While staying in Eauze we took time to visit some of the surrounding villages, starting with Montreal du Gers, a “Plus Beau Village de France” just 10 miles or so to the north east of Eauze.
Sitting on the banks of the Auzoue River, Montreal du Gers is an old bastide town dating back to 1255. It is organised around a small central square of arcades and the gothic collegiate church of Notre Dame (sometimes referred to as the Church of Saint Philippe et Saint Jacques). Unfortunately, we didn’t see the central square in it’s best light. It is used as the town car park and during our visit was packed with cars. It was a pity because if ever a square needed to be pedestrianised it is this one.
We paused in Montreal du Gers long enough to enjoy the small market on the square and walk a slow circuit of the place before moving on to another much smaller but more impressive village to the east, Larressingle. Overall, I didn’t rate Montreal du Gers. It certainly doesn’t have the charm one would ordinarily expect of a “Plus Beau Village de France”.
Notwithstanding the above, just outside Montreal du Gers is the small hamlet of Seviac and the remains of a 2nd century Roman villa, the ‘Villa Seviac’. This villa was a large and luxurious residence discovered by a local farmer in 1864 although it was neither explored nor excavated until the 1970’s. It is now a museum. Little is left of the villa’s original walls but many of it’s mosaics have been restored to their original splendour and they rank amongst the best of their kind in France.
NB We visited Montreal du Gers mid September 2022 but this blog was not completed and posted until 22 October – apologies.
Fifty miles inland from the Cote d’Azur and just a few miles northwest of Draguignan in the Haute Var is the village of Tourtour. It sits on top of a hill called Beau Soleil or Beautiful Sun (a 635 metre high hill in an otherwise flat plain) and; because of it’s location and incredible views over Provence, it is often referred to as the Village in the Sky.
It is perhaps the prettiest village I have seen in France and it came as no surprise to learn it is listed as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages De France.
We were up early to visit Tourtour and quickly found a spot to park the Van in the large car park to the east of the village next to the 11th century church of St Denise. The views towards the coast from this high spot are remarkable but I confess to having been somewhat distracted by a vintage sports car rally which was filling the car park as we arrived. Open top Porsches, Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, even an old open top Bentley, were all present but; the vehicles I was most drawn to were a couple of Morgans and, best of all, two really early MG’s. Sorry, I digress – back to Tourtour.
From St Denise’s it was no more than a two minute stroll down a slight slope into the village. One of first buildings to be encountered, on the left, is the Chateau de Raphelis which now doubles as the town hall and the tourist office. The post office may also be housed there? The panoramic views from the front of the Chateau over the lush green countryside below are even more spectacular than those back at the church but, there are distractions here too in the form of some interesting and unusual sculptures by Bernard Buffet. Buffet was a regular visitor to Tourtour.
Continuing on is the Place des Ormeaux . This shaded wholly pedestrianised square with it’s fountain, cafe-bars and craft shops is the heart of the village. This being France there is a large area set aside next to the square for Petanque and this is where the twice-weekly market is held (Wednesday & Saturday).
Then it was time to set off down any one of the winding cobbled lanes that help form this delightful medieval village.
There is nothing uniform about either the houses or streets in Tourtour. Almost everything is built with suitably sized boulders or individual hand carved blocks of stone hewn from the hill. Some houses are built against huge slabs of rock or a giant boulder which serves as a wall. Others are cut into the rock, cave houses. Most are free standing. All are one of a kind and the narrow cobbled streets twist and turn around these unique dwellings. There are few straight lines in Tourtour.
One unexpected feature of the village, given it’s height, is it’s many fountains. They are fed by a spring, the Saint Rosaire Spring, which also feeds the old washouse and even a 17th century olive oil mill which is still used.
Having walked the whole village at least twice (non uniform streets and cul de sacs make for longer walks) we found our way back to the Place des Ormeaux and paused for a quiet coffee and to reflect on some of the things we had seen in Tourtour but, our visit wasn’t over yet…
Tourtour has fewer than 500 inhabitants. No surprise, some of those people work full time in the wine sector – this is France. However, for much of the year the great majority of the village are involved with the tourist sector; whether it be working in the tourist office or museums or; organising and operating pony trekking or hiking, biking tours or; helping run the area’s cafes, bars, hotels & restaurants. A significant number of artists also now live in Tourtour (sculptors and painters mostly but there are also potters, basketmakers, etc) and these too support the tourist sector running artisan galleries and workshops. We found time to check out a couple…
I mentioned that a vintage car rally was underway as we arrived. We paused on the way back to the Van for a last look at some of my favourites and to take a few photos…
Tourtour is a great place to visit. I don’t know how I stumbled on that one but there is a real ‘feel good’ factor about the place and I’d certainly return. If or when I do I would be inclined to stay at one of the two hotels within walking distance of the village. My preference would be for the Hotel La Bastide de Tourtour, a 25 bedroom hotel and spa…
It was Vanya who suggested Barfleur as our next port of call and, confusing Barfleur with Harfleur, I agreed. I didn’t realise my mistake until half way up the Cotentin Peninsula and so added 100 miles to our journey. I never did get to see Harfleur but, it proved to be, quite literally, a great mistake. Barfleur is a wonderful place to visit.
Situated at the top of the Cotentin Peninsula, 25 kilometres east of Cherbourg, Barfleur is an authentic and picturesque fishing village largely untouched by tourism. It’s cobbled streets, lined with 17th and 18th century shuttered grey granite houses (interspersed on the harbour side with the occasional restaurant or crepery) make for a place with real character and it is fully deserving of it’s listing as a “plus beaux village de France”.
It is a surprisingly peaceful little village with just 700 residents but this has not always been the case. In early Medieval times (Anglo-Norman) it was the largest port in Normandy with a population of well over 9,000 and it is steeped in history. In 1066 the Norman army under William the Conqueror sailed from Barfleur on their way to England and the Battle of Hastings. In 1120, Prince William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir to King Henry I of England, perished when his ship, the Blanche Nef struck a rock and sank off Barfleur, starting a crisis of succession in England which led to a 17 year long civil war (the Anarchy). In 1194, Richard the Lionheart sailed from Barfleur to be crowned King of England. In 1346, at the start of the 100 years war, Edward III ransacked and almost completely destroyed the town. It was pillaged again in the 15th and 16th centuries. Oh,and one shouldn’t forget the naval battle which began at Barfleur in 1692 and which over a few days saw a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet destroy the French fleet of Admiral Comte de Tourville. The list of historic events in this little corner of the world goes on and on.
Most of the current village dates back to the 17th or 18th century. The inside of the 17th century church of Saint Nicholas is impressive but from the outside, with it’s square tower in place of a spire, it looks more like a Norman fort. This was the parish church of Sainte Marie-Madeleine (born Julie Postel in Barfleur in 1756) who was beatified in 1908 and canonised in 1925 for, inter alia, risking her life harbouring fugitive priests during the French Revolution. The house she was brought up in can still be seen.
Other famous people connected with Barfleur include the Neo Impressionist painter Paul Signac who lived there during the period 1932 to 1935 but the the rather special light and colours has attracted many artists (not the least of which is Antoine Guillemet) and writers (Victor Hugo and Jules Renard to name but two).
Driving to Barfleur it was plain to see that the surrounding countryside is quite beautiful. Paul Signac described it as “magnificent and very wooded and the terrain is rolling. It’s one of the high spots of France: the sea is beautiful and the gardens are full of flowers”. I didn’t do it but this scenery is perhaps best enjoyed taking the two mile coastal path from Barfleur to the 233 ft high Gatteville Lighthouse (the second or third tallest lighthouse in Europe). For a small fee, one can climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse and the views (and the sensations) at the top are supposedly worth every cent of the entrance fee. A few utterly useless points about the lighthouse I would share with you:- (a) It is spread over 12 floors (one for each month of the year) and; (b) there are 52 windows (one for every week of the year) and; (c) there are 365 stairs (one for every day of the year). Now, why on earth….? No matter.
Barfleur is known for it’s oysters and also it’s wild mussels. Most mussels are farmed nowadays but these ones, known as the Blonde of Barfleur, are taken from natural or wild mussel banks to the east of the Cotentin Peninsula. They are renowned across France for their quality and are often cooked with the local calvados and; they can be tasted at any of the village restaurants when in season. It was already in my mind to eat oysters that evening but I would have ordered the mussels if I had known they were available. I didn’t find out until later that the season runs from June to the end of October. Next time.
We had a pleasant wander along the harbour and around the village, enjoyed the sunset and then settled down with the dogs at a small restaurant, overlooking the harbour, La Boheme, which specialises in oysters and crepes and served both a Cremant for Vanya and a nice Muscadet for me.
Without a doubt the heart and soul of the village is the harbour. I was up early the next morning and wandered down to the harbour to get a loaf of fresh bread and some croissants from the bakery. The bakery wasn’t open when I arrived but, no matter. For almost an hour I sat, quite happily, watching the fishermen make ready their boats and nets and then slowly motor out of the harbour, one after the other, in just about every type of small and medium sized fishing boat you could imagine. It seemed as if the whole village was up and off out to sea that morning. It is probably the same every morning. Constant and timeless were the words most in my mind.
Our next stop will be Saint Aubin sur Mer. Thereafter we will aim for Fecamp. It is time to start progressing all the necessary paperwork for entry back into the UK and Fecamp isboth close to Calais and large enough offer all the services we need.
I was here a couple of years ago. It is touristy (and I mean very touristy – fridge magnets and toy trains ferrying crowds of people about) but for all that it is very pretty and one of those places that simply has to be seen. More to the point it is within walking distance of La Foret des Singes (the Forest of the Monkeys) which Vanya was desperate to see.
Rocamadour is a small village, well under 1,000 people, built on 3 successive levels into the side of the Alzou Canyon in the Dordogne Valley. It is stunning, especially if you can visit the place when there are no large crowds.
Already a place of some religious significance, in 1166 it became a “must see” destination on the pilgrimage route from Le Puy en Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain after a perfectly preserved, long dead body was dug up just outside the local church. No one could identify the body but it was deemed “incorruptible” and assumed to be Saint Amadour (a one time local hermit). Call me a cynic if you like but such an assumption could only benefit the local community which was immediately renamed the Rock of Amadour (later bastardized to Rocamadour) and when, just 6 years later, the local Benedictine monks produced a Book of Miracles (126 properly authenticated miracles) – well, the place was made! It’s popularity as a pilgrimage spot grew further after 1244 when King Louis IX (later Saint Louis) visited and, despite all kinds of problems during France’s long and bloody Religious Wars (which amongst other things saw the Huegenots burn the long dead body of Saint Amadour), it is now one of France’s most popular places to visit although nowadays there are many more tourists than pilgrims. Rocamadour is not just about Saint Amadour. There are plenty of other extraordinary events associated with this town – even leaving aside those associated with the Black Madonna (supposedly carved by Amadour) and the Miraculous Bell which rings without human intervention whenever the Madonna saves someone’s life anywhere in the world. There is, for instance, the story of the famous Durandel Sword (a bit like Excalibur) which Roland threw away (so the Saracens couldn’t claim it) as he lay dying at the Battle of Roncevaux. It seems he threw the sword so hard it landed 160 kilometres away in the rock wall at Rocamadour. Now there may be some truth to this legend because I have actually seen the sword which is stuck into the rock wall at Rocamadour!
I mentioned that Rocamadour is split into three levels. The lowest level sits against the cliff face at the bottom of the Alzou Canyon and comprises a single street of medieval stone houses now, sadly, almost entirely given over to tourist shops and bar-restaurants. Cut into the side of the canyon directly over the houses, the second level is the religious heart of Rocamadour and comprises various monastic buildings (churches & chapels) the principal ones being the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour and the Basilique Saint-Sauveur. Towering over everything and perched at the top of the gorge is the Chateau or castle which was built to protect visiting pilgrims.
The edge of the plateau above Rocamadour, where L’Hospitalet used to be, is predominantly modern and now filled with tourist shops and bar restaurants. Nothing too wrong with that; tourists have as much right as pilgrims to visit such a beautiful place. It is just a shame the tourist shops and restaurants are not confined to this upper part of Rocamadour and that the medieval part is not left as was for visitors (pilgrims and tourists alike) to enjoy.
There are a few places up on the plateau, along with the Chateau, that deserve special mention. The first is the very prominent Chapelle de l’Hospitalet which sits in the ruins of the old hospital which was built way back to tend sick or dying pilgrims.
Also on the plateau is the Grotte des Merveilles with its stalactites, stalagmites and Paleolithic drawings which go back 20,000 BC. It is a very small grotto with a handful of primitive drawings and it in no way compares with the Lascaux cave system and drawings (also to be found in the Dordogne) but, the 45 minute guided tour through the grotto does provide some temporary reprieve from the midday sun.
One of the best places to visit up on the plateau and less than a kilometre from L’Hospitalet is La Foret de Singes (The Monkey Forest) which is a wonderful park of some 50 acres where three troops together comprising 150 Barbary Macaques roam freely. With less than 8,000 living wild (there were 23,000 in 1978) Barbary Macaques are a seriously endangered species. La Foret des Singes provides a wonderful habitat both for the monkeys to thrive and for researchers to study their behaviours. Moreover “La Foret”, in conjunction with three sister parks (one of which is Trentham Monkey Forest in England), has successfully returned entire troops of Macaques totalling some 600 monkeys back into the wild. Our walk through the park lasted just over an hour but it is not a long walk. We enjoyed frequent, sometimes extended stops through a beautiful setting and would have stayed much longer except we were never going to leave the dogs for more than an hour or so.
To end this particular blog I enjoyed two firsts in terms of food during this trip – One was Rocamadour Cheese (Cabecou), made from unpasteurised goat’s milk presented in the shape of a small disk and eaten warm on a slice of walnut bread and with a crisp salad. The other was the king of pates, Pate Foie Gras, made from duck liver specially fattened by gavage. I loved them both. Vanya was not keen on the pate.
Chilling in the pool this afternoon. Not sure where we are heading next. We’ll talk about it over a wine or two later this evening. One thing for sure, it will be hot and sunny.
Talk about being blessed. If La Vogue was an amazing experience, the next stop at Moustiers Sainte Marie was out of this world.
We took our time over the 85 mile journey, avoiding all toll roads and driving across the Valensole Plateau. For miles in every direction there was little else but large fields of Lavender interspersed with the occasional olive orchard. Unfortunately the Lavender was not in bloom (we’d missed it by a month) but it wasn’t difficult to imagine how magnificent these fields would have looked just a few weeks ago. Beautiful.
Moustiers Ste Marie is a small village of some 700 people in the Natural Parc Regional du Verdon. Dating back to the 5th century it is perched in a semi circle of rocky cliff at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon (the largest canyon in Europe) and it’s setting is as attractive as the place itself with spectacular views as much from the foot of the village looking up as from it’s heights looking down over the rooftops and across the Maire Valley.
It is another plus beau village du France (that’s two in one day); full of charm, narrow streets, little squares, faience workshops, cafes and restaurants; all dominated by the 12th century four storey bell tower of the Notre Dame de l’Assumption Church (which sits in a pretty square in the centre of the village with an unmissable fountain). It’s very much a tourist town now and busy.
The whole town looks a bit like a nativity scene with a 1.25 metre gilded gold star suspended by a chain high in the sky above another religious monument sitting in the cliffs at the back of the village. This is the Chapel of Notre Dame du Beauvoir. There is a legend concerning the star which was related by the poet Mistral. He tells of a knight of Blacas who after being captured by the Saracens in a 12th century crusade swore that if ever he managed to return home he would hang a star up over the chapel in honour of Saint Mary. So it came about.
The high spot of the village for me (and please forgive the pun) is this small chapel. It’s a beautiful little chapel in its own right but the views over the Maire Valley and down on to the village are equally special. It takes only 15 minutes or so to reach the chapel from the village below and it is well worth the effort. I took the left hand path up, passing the Grotte Saint Madeleine on the way and came down by the right hand path. If you’re nervous about heights you will probably prefer to use the right hand path for the ascent and descent but there is no real exposure on either route.
It was first built in the 9th century but the oldest part remaining today is the nave which was built in the 13th century. It was a popular pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages and in the 17th century was known as a chapel where still born children would return to life for the time it took for them to be baptised and their souls could go to heaven.
Before tourism, Moustiers was largely about pottery. It is famous for it’s Faience Earthenware. There’s an earthenware museum in the village holding a collection of this fine glazed earthenware some of which dates back to the 17th century. Faience Pottery is made to this day with the village operating 14 workshops and 22 sales outlets. Vanya gave the museum a miss, preferring to visit a workshop and buy some new Faience Pottery rather than just look at the old stuff. And what did she buy? A glazed wine cooler. What else?
We returned to the village early that evening so as to be certain to get a table in a restaurant (like I said, the place is busy) and thereafter enjoyed a lovely meal on a packed restaurant terrace – the wine was cheap and the food was good; mine was a Wild Boar Stew cooked in Lavender Honey. We were pretty much the last people to leave. Nothing wrong with that.
Just 15 minutes drive south of Aubenas and sitting on the banks of the Ardeche is the small village of Vogue. It’s another Plus Beau Village de France (voted into the top five) and a very popular tourist resort and we were not surprised to see the place quite busy even at 10 o’clock in the morning. Ordinarily I try to steer clear of busy villages but this is one that you just have to make allowances for. It is stunning.
It sits up against a small cliff and it’s labyrinth of narrow winding lanes, of which Rue des Puces has to be amongst the narrowest I have ever come across, is truly wonderful.
This is a place the French love to visit (we didn’t see or hear anyone who is not French during our time there) and, leaving aside “Francethisway.com” and “France-voyage.com” it is difficult to find much in writing about the place that is in English. It is as if the French want to keep it a secret all of their own.
To discover anything about Vogue you need to google in French and if, as is the case with me, your knowledge of the language is insufficient to understand anything about the castle and it’s inhabitants or how the village was built up around it, you should just revel in the place, take your photos and let the views themselves do the talking… Une atmosphere unique; Vogue c’est vraiment chouette; C’est une vrai paysage de carte postale.
We walked around for a couple of hours, sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the sunshine and finished with a photo-shoot of Vanya “a la Vogue” before moving on to our next destination of Moustiers Sainte Marie in the Alpes de Haute Provence.
Good to be back on the move again and it showed in the mileage we completed today. From Labastide-Marnac we made our way south west to Ascarat just outside of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port; a journey of some 254 miles. SJPP has long been on my wish-list of places to visit and I couldn’t wait to get into the town.
We arrived in Ascarat late afternoon and after walking the dogs, Vanya elected to stay with the dogs and chill while I immediately set off on the 30 minute walk into Saint Jean Pied-de-Port or Donibane Garazi as the Basques refer to the town. We are well into French Basque territory here.
As well as being one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, SJPP is a popular waypoint for pilgrims and/or adventurers on the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostella and it came as no surprise to see the place so busy during the late afternoon and early evening. It is both the finishing point for Le Puy Camino (which begins in Le Puy en Velay and is sometimes known as the Via Podiensis) and the starting point for the Camino Frances (which finishes in Santiago de Compostella and is often referred to as the Camino Way). It has long been my intention to complete these two walks which together total about 1,000 miles. Maybe next year.
Enough about the pilgrim trails. All things being equal you will hear more about them next year.
St Jean Pied de Port is a small, walled town on the banks of the River Nive. It was founded in the 12th century after Richard the Lionheart destroyed the nearby town of Saint Jean le Vieux (1177). There is really only one street to the town, La Rue de Citadelle, and it leads from the Porte St Jacques down into the centre of the town to the Church of Notre Dame du Bout de Pont, across the bridge and then up to the Mendiguren Citadel which is now a school.
A church service was underway as I passed the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont and the singing was so good it drew me in. It is a very impressive church with an equally impressive congregation.
I listened to some of the service and then continued up the hill to the Citadelle de Mendiguren passing the Prison des Eveques (Bishop’s Prison) on the way. The museum was closed at the time but I would be returning to the town in the morning with Vanya.
The Citadelle itself is closed to the public (it is now a school) but it was enough to walk the grounds and take in the views.
We like St Jean Pied de Port so much so we spent almost two full days here and failed to take in other villages in the area that also deserve a visit (e.g. Espelette the home of red hot chillies and Sare and Ainhoa both plus beaux villages de France) but there’s always next year or the year after that. They’ve been here a long time. Vanya wants to get to the coast.
Only downside to SJPP – the awful tourist train and the number of shops selling fridge magnets – Ugh!
Because of impending poor weather in the west (according to the met but they’ve hardly been right since we set off) we are heading back east to an AirB&B in Labastide-Marnhac for a couple of days. This will give us a chance to catch up on some chores (i.e. Vanya’s hair and my website, both of which have been neglected of late – only joking Van).
On the way to Labastide-Marnhac we decided to overnight at a small camp site within walking distance of both Pujols and Villeneuve-sur-Lot, thus giving us a chance to visit both places – Pujols for lunch and Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the evening.
Pujols was a small fortified town perched on a 180 metre hill overlooking the valleys of the Lot and the Mail. It is smaller now, after being destroyed during the Crusade against the Cathars (1209 – 1229) and then rebuilt a few years later but what it lacks in size it more than makes up with charm and it comes as no surprise that it is now ranked as one of France’s most beautiful villages. It is a truly charming little village with narrow flower bedecked streets all enclosed within old castle walls that afford lovely views across the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the photos do the talking:-
As for Villeneuve-sur-Lot, even allowing for the fact that it was Sunday (and Sundays are generally quiet across France), it was awful. We walked some 3 kms into the place with the dogs, hoping to find somewhere to eat. A further 2 kms walking around the place persuaded us to settle for cheese and biscuits back at the Boomobile. Awful, truly awful.
Drove from Cognac La Foret to Bergerac today and we’ll probably stay over but en route we passed through a number of very pretty and/or interesting villages including La Bugue, St Cyprien and Beyenac et Cazenac but the one that amazed us both and deserving of a special mention is La Roque-Gageac in the Dordogne department of Nouvelle-Aquitaine in the south west of France. Nestled in a stunning position amongst limestone cliffs on the north bank of the Dordogne it has to rank amongst France’s prettiest villages.
There’s a small troglodyte fort perched in the cliffs some 40 metres above the village (it’s an easy walk up) and while there’s not a lot left of the fort itself the views down into the small picturesque village and the panorama to the south are wonderful.
Without any doubt, the most surprising feature of the village is the Bamboo Garden created by Gerard Dorin in 1970. The cliffs protect the garden from cold winds from the north and the open view to the south ensures plenty of sunshine and the result is a thick forest of different bamboos and banana trees and I swear we also saw fig trees.
We didn’t do it but visitors are advised to take a one hour river trip down the Dordogne on a ‘gabarre’ (a flat bottomed cargo barge used in days of yore to transport goods along France’s riverways). They start from La Roque-Gageac and provide good views of numerous different attractions (including Chateau de Castelnaud, Chateau de Beynac, Chateau de Lacoste, Chateau de Marqueyssac, etc)
As mentioned earlier, the day ended in Bergerac and we’re very much looking forward to exploring the town tomorrow.