Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France) is an association set up to promote tourism in rural areas. As of 2017 it includes 155 villages.
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Where are most of the Most Beautiful Villages located? It's certainly clear from the map on the association's own website that some regions of France are, officially at least, much more Beautiful than others: the extreme south-west and north-east of the country - apart from Alsace - have very few at all.
And, although you might expect Provence to be generously supplied with Most Beautiful Villages, this isn't quite the case. The entire département of the Bouches du Rhône boasts only one, Les Baux de Provence, and a large area around Marseille and Aix has nothing at all.
There's a pocket of six villages to the east of Avignon in Vaucluse (Ansouis, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Roussillon, Gordes and Venasque). If you were short of time, you could drive this little circuit in under two hours. So if you want to be see as many as possible of the association's choices, it's the place in Provence to go.
On the other hand many lovely villages either can't or don't want to make the Most Beautiful grade. See below for the list of criteria and some of the arguments about the selection procedure. Bear in mind too that the French just love "labels", each with its own guidelines.
If the village you plan to visit is not a Most Beautiful one, you might well find instead that it's a "ville fleurie" ("flowery town"), a "ville d'art et d'histoire" ("town of art and history") or even a "ville internet" Pictured: Mousiers Sainte Marie, by Nepomuk for Wikimedia Commons.
A total of 18 Most Beautiful Villages can be found in the six départements of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA), Les Alpes de Haute Provence (04), Hautes Alpes (05), Alpes Maritimes (06), Bouches du Rhône (13), Var (83) and Vaucluse (84).
The chosen villages are as follows: Ansouis (Vaucluse), Bargème (Var), Coaraze (Alpes Maritimes), Gassin (Var), Gordes (Vaucluse), Gourdon (Alpes Maritimes), La Grave (Hautes Alpes), Les Baux de Provence (Bouches du Rhône), Lourmarin (Vaucluse), Ménerbes (Vaucluse), Moustiers Sainte Marie (Alpes de Haute Provence), Roussillon (Vaucluse), Saint Véran (Hautes Alpes), Sainte Agnès (Alpes Maritimes), Séguret (Vaucluse), Seillans (Var), Tourtour (Var) and Venasque (Vaucluse).
A Thumbnail History
The association which decides on the Most Beautiful Villages was set up in 1982. It was the brainchild of Charles Ceyrac, pictured, the mayor of Collonges la Rouge in central France.
Collonges la Rouge was - like so many in Europe - hit by economic decline and rural depopulation as people moved to the cities in search of work.
Then one day the mayor came across a glossy coffee table book published by the Reader's Digest and entitled Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. To his pride, he saw on the cover a photo of his own village.
Ceyrac had the idea of creating an association with the same name, in the hope of reversing the trend by spotlighting France's rural heritage. He wrote to the mayors of all the hundred or so villages featured in the book and 66 agreed to come in on the project.
You can still buy the Reader's Digest guide to Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is updated and published annually (in French only).
The idea took off and since then other countries and regions have copied it: Italy, Japan, Quebec (Canada) and Wallonia (Belgium) all now have their own Most Beautiful lists.
In France the entry procedure has toughened up greatly since the scheme first started up, although the line-up is not competitive and there is no limit to the number of qualifying villages.
A committee meets twice a year to assess candidates. Between ten and 15 villages apply each year and around one in five is successful.
To be considered, villages should have a core population of under 2,000, have at least two protected sites or monuments and be the ones to apply for membership (the association doesn't send out invitations).
But that's just the beginning of the story. The full checklist of criteria for acceptance runs to 27, according to the association's website, covering such aspects as architecture, environmental quality, visitor and traffic flow and aesthetic qualities.
Improvements are likely to be asked for. Seillans, pictured, was required to replace tarmacked streets in the village with more picturesque cobblestones.
However the association stresses that it doesn't want its villages to be either museum pieces or theme parks and to renounce modernity. Its aim, it states, is to "reconcile villages with the future and bring them back to life around the fountain or on the square shaded by 100-year-old lime and plane trees."
Or, in the words of Ceyrac, in a 1993 interview, "It's not enough to have a château and four half-timbered houses to belong to us. A village is its life: the artisan, the peasant, the businesses, the market, the bistro."
Being annointed as a Most Beautiful Village is a blessing, but a mixed one. The label undoubtedly boosts visitor numbers and attracts upscale businesses such as gastronomic restaurants to the area.
But it can also open the door to tacky souvenir shops and lead to a terrible crush in the high season. It's an especially bad problem in Provence where hilltop villages have poor road access, limited public transport and even fewer parking spots.
Expect to leave your car in a parking area well outside the village and possibly trek up or down a steep hill to get to the centre. Pictured: the approach to Les Baux de Provence.
Some villages experience bus-loads of crowds who swoop in for an hour or two rather than longer-term visitors who stay for a week or two. In winter, they can be very quiet indeed.
Though the association is non profit-making, it is expensive both to win the label and to keep it. There's a charge for the initial assessment visits and a small annual membership fee.
But the real cost is the renovations needed to meet and keep up with the criteria and some communities in poorer regions of France simply can't afford it. Once you've got in, it's not for ever: a village can be thrown out at any time if standards are thought to have slipped.
In recent years, for instance, a controversy erupted around Saint Lizier in Ariège, south-west France, a Most Beautiful Village since 1992.
In 2012 the mayor, Étienne Dedieu, received a stern letter from the association warning that the village was in danger of losing its label. The main reasons: a big new commercial district just to the north of the village and too many cars and modern facades in the centre.
Preferring to develop Saint Lizier's economy and spend his budget on schools and other facilities rather than conservation, Dedieu decided to withdraw voluntarily from the programme in 2013, "before," as he said "they throw us out". Official website for The Most Beautiful Villages of France
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