Les Plus Beaux Villages de France:
France’s Most Beautiful Villages
One of the most special parts of our sojourns in France is visiting the isolated villages that are considered local treasures. Foreign visitors rarely discover these beautiful havens of culture because they are difficult to access unless you have your own means of transportation. We love these villages for their genuine French ambiance unaffected by mass tourism or globalization. In the villages we chat with residents, eat in family-owned restaurants, and discover artisanal goods which have been made by hand using traditional processes for generations. Our favorite villages are those that have won the title “Most Beautiful Village in France” (“Plus Beau Village de France“).
What is the “Most Beautiful Village in France” title? The title is part of France’s innovative approach to a widespread problem faced by industrialized countries around the world: how to keep countryside villages from becoming ghost-towns.
Since the Industrial Revolution, cities have been booming. There has been a gradual mass migration from the countrysides to the cities. The increased mechanization of production continues to draw people to the cities for work in either factories or the myriad of other businesses that thrive as a result of the population growth and wide availability of cheap industrial goods. Cities are centers of education, culture, and entertainment. Leisure time and expendable income, also bi-products of the Industrial Revolution, make cities attractive places to live because of the plethora of shops, restaurants and social activities. These days many countries struggle to create attractive incentives for young people to live in the countryside and small rural villages are declining as a result. Why do the hard physical work and long hours of a farmer if it is less profitable than working a desk job in the city?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, this phenomenon coupled with growing globalization created ripples of fear that cultures were “dying” and needed to be “preserved”. In synch with this view, many countries began to create “open air” building museums to preserve examples of rural architecture, and “living history” villages with costumed docents, or Historic Preservation laws that forbid rural residents to update their domains, etcetera, etcetera. In most cases, the efforts to keep the rural heritage alive are so non-organic that the results are hollow approximations of real rural culture more akin to lifeless museum exhibitions or theme parks.
To nurture artisanal professions, France has prestigious award competitions and an elaborate system of laws that promote, protect and create a reverence for artisans and artisanal products. These (and other measures) have organically helped expensive and time-consuming old fashioned handmade production methods and goods to compete with the inexpensive industrial ones. These alone help keep rural professions alive and alluring. Similarly, France ‘s “Most Beautiful Villages” title is designed to raise awareness of the country’s rural patrimony and thus help the villages thrive organically by bringing customers to the villages to stimulate the economy.
In 2015, there are 157 villages bearing the title. When you go to a village that has been awarded the title, you know that it will be visiting a picturesque place with at least two protected sites or monuments to discover. To qualify for the title, the villages must be small -with less than 2,000 residents. To learn more about them, you can visit the association’s website and use their interactive map.