Moustiers Sainte Marie fountainMediaeval Moustiers Saint Marie sits snugly between two high cliffs close to the north-western edge of the Gorges du Verdon, the Lac de Sainte Croix and the lavender fields of the Valensole plateau.

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One of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages of France, Moustiers boasts the requisite charming cobbled streets irrigated by a river, fountains, an aqueduct, public wash-basins and even a waterfall right in the village centre. It's a refreshing, shady refuge in the high summer, when the village receives most of its visitors.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Moustiers was founded by monks in the fifth century (its name derives from an early provençal word for monastery). Life was hard in those early years, what with Moorish invaders, harsh weather conditions and general inaccessibility.

But the arrival of water power in the 16th century brought light industry to the village. And a big breakthrough came in the following century when a local family, the Clérissys, devised a way of making pottery with an elegant off-white glaze.

It's not known whether the Clérissys did this alone or were helped by a visiting Italian monk from Faenza, where the technique, named faïence, had already been pioneered and perfected.

Ceramics shop in Moustiers Saint MarieThe fine style of Moustiers ceramic, with its delicate, predominantly blue, white and yellow designs, got an unexpected boost when Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638-1715), called for all his noblemen's gold and silver plate to be melted down.

He needed to fund his war projects and big-spending tastes such as the Palais de Versailles. By royal decree, chinaware became fashionable instead, and Moustiers tableware was prized all over Europe.

Competition from England and elsewhere later put the Moustiers potters out of business but in the early 20th century the tradition was revived and now prospers again.

Today the ceramics are produced by a dozen or so local artisans and the streets are lined with shops selling the stuff. This does make Moustiers seem awfully commercialised.

But at least - unlike the tawdry fake-provençal souvenirs on sale in other villages - the work is authentic and of high quality (though, naturally, not cheap).

On the southern edge of Moustiers, there's also a museum, the Musée de La Faïence. Recently refurbished, its nine rooms trace the history of pottery making in Moustiers from the 17th century to the present day. Over 400 pieces are on display, some of them rare. The entrance fee to this small museum is modest and it enjoys full wheelchair access.

WHAT (ELSE) TO SEE

The landmark and symbol of Moustiers is a five-pointed golden star suspended very high above the village between two rocks. In the early 19th century the wires holding it in position attracted the attention of engineers researching the then-new technology of the suspension bridge.

The golden star of Moustiers Sainte MarieThe star's origins are surrounded in mystery. It's first mentioned by 17th century historians, who were unable to account for its presence, and since then there have been many conflicting theories.

The provençal writer Frédéric Mistral wrote a poem fancifully imagining it to be an ex voto offering by a knight named Sir Blacas to give thanks for his safe return from the Crusades.

Other explanations speak of star-crossed lovers from enemy families, or even the Three Wise Men.

Over the centuries, the star has been replaced numerous times, either after falling of its own accord due to wear and tear, or by being vandalised or removed during the French Revolution for ideological reasons.

The current star was hung using a helicopter (goodness knows how the original mediaeval star got there!) and looks tiny when viewed from the ground.

But in fact it measures 1.25 metres / 4 feet across (the arrow in the picture points to the minute speck; in the background is the Chapel of Notre Dame de Beaumont high on the hill).

Bell-tower in Moustiers Sainte MarieThe major historical building within the village centre is Notre Dame de l'Assomption (not to be confused with Notre Dame de Beauvoir, on the edge of Moustiers). It's the main church, parts of which date back to the 12th century.

Made of tuff, the local golden-pink volcanic rock, its most striking feature is the unusual and imposing four-storey square romanesque belltower, pictured. So steeply does the village slope that it has two entrances on different levels

Inside, when we visited, there was rather kitschy and distracting piped music. Of note is the altar, a fourth century sarcophagus in white marble that depicts the Red Sea crossing.

The must-see sight, though, is the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, perched high above the village at the top of 262 steps. Part of the way is accompanied by stations of the cross in Moustiers ceramics.

Built of stones eroded from the cliff side, these steps are steep and the descent would be slippery, particularly in wet weather, despite the fact that there is a handrail for most (though not all) of the way.

Trainers or at least shoes with a good grip are strongly advised, though we saw plenty of tourists happily skipping up there in flimsy sandals, ballerina pumps or even flip-flips.

Early morning or sunset are the best times if you want to avoid the crowds and the heat. A sign at the bottom of the path warns that there are no toilets on the trek. No refreshments are available either, so be sure to bring your own water.

Once at the top, you'll be richly rewarded with a magnificent view of the valley and, of course, the rooftops of Moustiers. Pictured: high as it is, the chapel is still dominated by even higher rocks.

Notre Dame de Beauvoir in Moustiers Sainte MarieYou can also follow a marked side trail (leading off to the right just before the chapel) round the rock. Allow a good hour for the excursion if you want to enjoy all this to the full and take the climb easily.

Cool, serene and lovely, the chapel itself, parts of which date back to the 12th century, is a so-called sanctuaire à répit.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these sanctuaries were reputed for miracles. There are just a dozen or so of them in Provence.

A mother whose baby was still-born would bring the corpse to one of these sanctuaries. Once there, her fervent prayers would revive the infant just long enough to be baptised, thus releasing its soul to go to paradise.

It's thought today that a feather was placed on the baby's lips and, wafting in the warm air from the candles, it created the brief illusion that the child was breathing. Whatever the case, 336 miracles were recorded in the registry at Moustiers between 1666 and 1673.

ALSO OF INTEREST

If you like to sleep in late, it might be a good idea to avoid Moustiers in the week from 31 August to 8 September: the Fête de la Diane. During this period, a group of musicians, Les Dianiaires, goes around the village every morning waking everyone up at 5am.

It's a sort of rehearsal before celebrating the anniversary of the Nativity of the Virgin on 8 September itself. On that day a pilgrimage sets out at dawn from Diana's Fountain in the main square and climbs up to the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir for early morning mass, accompanied by the musicians.

Afterwards a communal breakfast is held on the village square. The great provençal writer Jean Giono describes being taken on this pilgrimage at the age of 16 in his collection of essays, Provence. Buy Provence by Jean Giono (in French) on Amazon.

Lavender fields in the plateau de ValensoleMoustiers is located in prime cycling, hiking and horse-riding country (and many other sports, such as fishing or canoeing, are on offer). The Tourist Office sells maps of various walking trails for a small charge.

Apart from the Gorges de Verdon and the Lac de Sainte Croix, attractions include the lavender fields of the Valensole plateau, pictured, about 20 km / 12.5 miles south-west of Moustiers.

An easy route along country roads for mountain bikes (VTT in French) has been marked out with yellow signposting.

HOW TO GET TO AND FROM MOUSTIERS SAINTE MARIE

By car: Moustiers is 130 km / 81 miles from Marseille and 100 km / 62 miles from Aix en Provence. Out of Marseille, take the A7 motorway, then the A51, exiting at either Manosque or Vinon sur Verdon. The drive takes about 100 minutes. From the Côte d'Azur, take the A8 motorway, exiting at Les Arcs Draguignan, from where Moustiers is 60 km / 37 miles.

All the Most Beautiful Villages of France are expected to provide adequate parking but the lie of the land often doesn't make this easy, especially for provençal hill villages such as Moustiers.

Here there are a number of car-parks scattered around the outskirts, but you will need to walk up a steep-ish hill at some point to get to or from your car.

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By bus: By far the best bet by public transport is bus no. 27 from Marseille, which goes to Moustiers (changing in Riez) via the Aix en Provence TGV and bus stations. The journey time is just over two hours.

Note, however, that this is a very restricted service, even in summer (July-August) and especially in winter. Timetable for bus no. 27 to Moustiers Sainte Marie, the Gorges du Verdon and Castellane

By rail: There is no train station in Moustiers Sainte Marie itself and the two closest train stations are not very close at all. To the west, Manosque - 50 km / 31 miles from Moustiers - is on the regional train line from Marseille and the journey (Marseille-Manosque) takes about 80 minutes.

Click here for the timetable for trains from Marseille to Manosque. Select timetable no. 13 (Marseille-Manosque-Gap-Briançon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.

To the north, Digne - 47.5 km / 29.5 miles from Moustiers - is served by the little Train des Pignes from Nice and the journey (Nice-Digne) takes about three hours 20 minutes. Click here for the timetable for the Train des Pignes from Nice to Digne.

In July and August it's theoretically possible to take a bus from Manosque to Moustiers, changing at Riez, with Autocars Sumian (there's one connection a day). Realistically, you're more likely to require a taxi.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Tourist Office for Moustiers Sainte Marie is on the place de l'Eglise, by Notre Dame de l'Assomption. Website for the Moustiers Sainte Marie Tourist Office.

Moustiers Sainte Marie aerial viewThe weekly market in Moustiers is on Friday mornings and in July and August there's a craft market on Tuesday evenings.

Where to eat, drink and stay: The centre of Moustiers is very touristy but, just outside the village, the mid-priced Ferme Sainte Cécile has been finding favour.

For gastronomes, La Bastide de Moustiers, also on the edge of the village, belongs to the empire of the superchef Alain Ducasse and has one Michelin star. A handful of (expensive) rooms and suites are also available.

Click here for our full list of Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence.

 

 

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