Balazuc, Ardeche, France

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Sunset over Balazuc in the Ardèche region, France

Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!


Find More Beautiful French Villages
  1. Perouges
  2. Largentiere
  3. St Guilheim le Desert
  4. St Nectaire
  5. Megeve

 

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Château de la Batisse, Auvergne, France

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Château de la Batisse in the Vallée de l’Auzon, Auvergne, France

Once upon a time long ago in a kingdom far away, there lived a fierce lord called Gérard d’Aultier. He lived in a beautiful castle in the charming, sunlit valley known by those who lived there as the Vallée de l’Auzon, a place often passed through by pilgrims following the St James Way (part of Santiago del Compostela). Sadly, the lord had no sons to inherit his magical castle, and so it was passed on to another powerful local family, La Volpillière, who added turrets and towers and other adornments, until they, too, had no male heir. Due to legal quarrels, the chateau lay dormant, slowing becoming derelict, until being bought by a local enterprising man, repairing the castle to its former glory before reselling it. The new owner of Château de la Batisse was Jean Girard, the Secretary of the King, and his newfound seat of power allowed him the prestigious name-change, Girard de Chasteauneuf. A tangled family web handed the château from one heir to the next, finally arriving in the hands of its present owners, the respected family, Arnoux of Maison Rouge from Riom, who lovingly care for the aged yet enchanted building. Defended as much by its defensive walls, thick towers, arrow slits, and keep as by concerned parties such as Monuments Historiques, and La Demeure Historique, Château de la Batisse is also preserved via the prestige, respect and loyalty it inspires in the region’s inhabitants. Nestled into its enchanted woodland valley in the heart of Auvergne, on the cusp of the charming village Chanonat, and under the watchful eyes of the burg Saint-Amant-Tallende, it is safe to say that the fairytale Château de la Batisse is living its happily ever after.

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Largentière, Ardèche, France

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Largentière, Ardèche, France

Rusted rims, broken headlights, faded paint, cracked leather. The sun bathes the ancient automobile (for no other word can describe this masterpiece) in warm, southern light. The backdrop of ancient stone buildings hundreds of years old provides an appropriate setting for such a magnificent historical treasure trove such as this vintage auto. Largentière, a medieval town in the heart of the French region of Ardèche, seems as if it was meant for this car. A stone labyrinth since the 13th century, Largentière was once a thriving industrial towns thanks to mining  of silver and lead (hence its name, ‘l’argent’ means ‘silver’ in French) and its prime location along the rails, but the mining has since died down, leading to the closure of its train station. Largentière is a veritable labyrinth of narrow stone streets, overhanging arches, and cobbled alleyways. Artsy and hipster, the village boasts an organic crêpes restaurant, La Rue Crêpanous; a quirky thrift shop called Recycl’arts; Le Goupil, an artisanal hipster beer bar; and a bookshop piled floor to ceiling, Le Voyageur d’Écriture, or ‘the traveller of writing,’ among others. It is a window to another time, or to several other times. Lost in the Ligne Valley in the sunburnt southern landscapes of the south of France, buried in the magnificent Gorges d’Ardèche, this paradisal little village reminds us that what has past is not necessarily lost.

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Tain l’Hermitage, France

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M. Chapoutier Vinyards, Tain l’Hermitage, France

M. Chapoutier, one of the most famous vineyards along France’s Rhone River is located in Tain l’Hermitage, about a half an hour south of Lyon, in what it called the Cotes de Rhone region. Cote Rotie, Crozes Hermitage, St Joseph, Ermitage, Cornas, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Condrieu, Cotes de Rhones Villages are just a few of their wine types, and within these, many more brands and types. In France – one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world – wine is everywhere. And it it is cheap. A bottle of Crozes-Hermitage here costs anywhere between 7 – 15€ (depending on the type), but the same type/brand of wine in the US can cost upwards of $12 a glass! Therefore, it is easy to drink decent wine without going broke, and Chapoutier wines are, in fact, pretty decent. And because good wine is cheap and accessible, nearly everyone knows their way around wine. To be a wine connoisseur (a French word, you may notice…) in France, you have to be REALLY knowledgeable; an ordinary French person would seem like an expert in the US!  And another interesting fact is that in the US, the wine is named after the grape (chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir or gris, etc) but in France, wine is named after the town, region, village or castle where it is produced, meaning you have to be even MORE knowledgeable (and even have some notion of geography!) to pick your wines. Chapoutier-produced wines are the kinds of local wines, along with the wines of the Beaujolais, that you find in and around Lyon. And if you visit the vineyard, be sure to do a tour, and a tasting to increase your French wine knowledge!

Beaujolais, France

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Beaujolais, France

If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !

Cantal, France

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Cantal, France

One of the most rural regions in France is Cantal, located in the heart of Auvergne, central France. In fact, there are roughly as many people spread out over the Cantal region (147,000) than there are who love in the capital city of Auvergne, Clermont Ferrand (141,500)!  Located in a region known for its ‘dead volcanoes’ as the French love to say (so, dormant or extinct), much of what infrastructure that does exist is largely made from a coloured volcanic stone. Roads twist and turn, winding through cheery farms and past pleasant fields. It is a quiet place. This is the place one should come in order to seek solace, to escape from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Life is simply slower out here. It is the perfect escape – especially in the summer months, when temperatures are mild, and the water from local lakes and streams is perfect for swimming. Don’t miss out tasting the delicious local Cantal cheese, named after the Cantal Mountains (which give the region its name!). Made with cow milk and aged for 1-6 months, it is one of the oldest cheeses in France – dating all the back to the times of the Gauls. You won’t regret it!

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

One of Auvergne’s most popular chateaus, Murol is a round hunk of stone dominating its mountaintop. While in and of itself it’s a very neat castle to visit, another thing that makes it special is the workshops that Murol puts on during holidays and  warmer months. These short demonstrations, activities and workshops show various aspects of what life was like in the Middle Ages for the people of the castle, from nobles to servants. Falconry (or hawking) is one such example. Falconry was quite popular during Medieval times, though only accessible to the wealthy, such as kings, royals, nobles and rich landowners or merchants, as they were the only ones with enough time and resources required to train the birds. Though it began as a means to hunt small game, hawking soon became more for sport than for necessity, as the falconers prided over his own birds and their accomplishments. Birds were trained to return to their trainers’ arms for bits of food and to bring prey back untouched, and hooded when not training. During certain periods at Chateau de Murol, visitors can still experience this ancient sport, watching hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey zoom around the castle, only to return each time to the falconers’ gloved arm.


Visit More Beautiful Places in the Rural Country of Auvergne in France
  1. Chateau de la Batisse
  2. The Massif Central in Auvergne Volcanoes National Park
  3. Village of Olliergues
  4. Village of St Nectaire
  5. The Cantal Region 

 

St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

Casually labeled as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in France,” St. Guilheim is a snug village in the south of France, located within reasonable distance from Montpelier. Don’t be fooled by its name; this is no desert! The name is leftover from another time, when the land was desert-like. And “Guilhem” is the local patois way of saying the name “Guillaume” (“William” in English). With cobbled streets underfoot and the tiled roofs overhead, voices echo off the tiny squares, footsteps echo off the narrow streets. Rock walls are crumbling under the bald mountain tops looming just behind as you wander the alleys clutching a melting ice cream. Though not very large, St Guilhem certainly is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful county!

Saint-Nectaire, France

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Saint-Nectaire, France

If you like cheese, you may have a stronger grasp on rural French geography than you realised. This is because in France, cheeses are often named for the villages where they originate, and remain very region-specific for centuries, shaping both local culture and local pride. Roquefort, for example, comes from…wait for it…Roquefort, France!  And the cheese Saint-Nectaire comes from the village of the same name–also the same name as the village church, pictured above. Located in central France, in the rural department of Auvergne (where Michelin comes from!), the village itself doesn’t seem that special at first glance. But no one can pass through without stopping to buy Saint-Nectaire cheese from the source!  However, it wasn’t always so tranquil here. This quiet village was once a thriving spa town in the 19th and early 20th century, and as a result, there are still several once-grand hotels from the 19th century at the base of the beautiful church. Today, thermal spa towns–including Saint-Nectaire–have lost some of their popularity (except in Scandinavia and places such as Budapest). Yet, there’s something enthralling about glancing into the past at these once top-of-the-line resorts that makes one long for the old days of steam engine travel: 2-month-long trips,  grand hotels, dressing for dinner, days spent visiting thermal baths or preparing for balls. Just make sure you try the cheese.

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Salles-Arbuissonnas-en-Beaujolais, France (Gathering)

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Salles-Arbuissonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gathering

A literal interpretation of ‘gathering,’ this photo is from the gathering of the grapes in the French wine region of Beaujolais, just north of Lyon. It happens every year, around August or September, and lasts between 1 and 2 weeks–and the harvest is no picnic. Grape-pickers must bend over and pick grapes for 8 hours a day starting around 7.30 am, with only midday, evenings, and Sundays for rest. Yet–the ambiance of the grape-picking harvest makes for an unforgettable experience. Home-cooked fantastic French meals, never-ending glasses of house wine, hanging out around the fire, playing games and telling stories, enjoying quiet, village life–all the while simply enjoying the silence. Gathering the grapes is no easy task–but it is an experience we all should have one day. You will never appreciate wine more–and never waste it again!

Albigny-sur-Saône, France

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Turreted house in Albigny-sur-Saône, France

Turning a corner and spotting a pair of turrets, even in a small village, is a pretty normal thing in Europe. There was a moment in history where everyone in Europe with a lofty bank account wanted a castle (during the 18-19th century), and there just weren’t enough to go around. So, they started building – and they got creative. Sometimes these ‘new’ castles were habitable, like this one here in Albigny. Sometimes, they were ‘follies’ (more common in England), where people constructed facades of (usually ruined) castles on their property for aesthetic purposes, like Sham Castle near Bath, UK. Their constructors always pretended they were old and ruined but in fact they were carefully constructed to look that way. Or sometimes they renovated their old mansions to look medieval or Gothic, adding turrets, gargoyles, crinolines, moats, towers, or other objects of the same effect (like the gargoyles at the House of Chimeras in Kiev). Sometimes they modelled their new castles on other famous castles, like Vajahunyad Castle‘s Transylvanian inspiration. Other times, in order to maintain some ‘authenticity,’ they bought up bits of old castles and put them together in a Frankenstein-type creation, like at Kreuzenstein Castle. In any case, with all these creations, it begs the question…what is a ‘real’ castle? Is there such a thing? Or are they all ‘real’ castles…?

French Alps

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French Alps

You know that massive outcropping of stone, forest, and rock that divides France from Switzerland and Italy? Yes, well, that is the infamous French Alps. Mont Blanc, as you are probably aware, is the tallest mountain in Europe, calling in at 4,810 m (or 15,780 ft), first summited in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Paccard, in effect marking the commencement of modern mountaineering. But enough about that. Contrary to popular belief, the Alps are not just snowy, desolate places where only skiers and the most advanced mountaineers can be found; in fact, much of the alps (in the warmer seasons) looks a lot more like these photos. Fields covered in wildflowers, animals grazing on gentle slopes, footpaths tracing mountainsides with the odd cheerful hiker passing by, here is a different perspective of the Alps. Of course, getting to the summits, even the ones visible in these photos, is still a challenge, involving a scramble, deep concentration, and coordination between all four limbs, but the view is worth it. Whether you prefer to climb the big mountains or the smaller ones (often referred to as the ‘Pre-Alps’), the graceful beauty, intense peacefulness, and stunning views of the French Alps will instill the power of Mother Nature in you. There’s a good chance that you will walk away a changed – and happier – person!


More Amazing Places to Hike in Europe
  1. The Swiss Alps
  2. Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
  3. The Beaujolais, France
  4. The Scottish Highlands
  5. Massif Centrale Mountains, France
  6. Above Bergen, Norway
  7. The Tatra Mountains from Zakopane, Poland
  8. The Gauja River Vally, Latvia

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Salles-Arbuisonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

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Salles-Arbuisonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

For many of us, the beginning of fall means chillier weather, falling leaves and pumpkins. However, for those who happen to live in or near the Beaujolais, this season means the Beaujolais Nouveau (the new wine created by the September grape harvest!). Beaujolais is known for its famous vineyards and the bottles of red wine that they produce. Rolling green hills and medieval villages greet visitors amongst labyrinths of vineyards that continue as far the eye can see. Although less well known than other French regions, the production of Beaujolais wine actually beats that of Burgundy’s wine production! Those who want to discover the beating heart of French culture, spending time on a French vineyard is arguably the best way – especially spending 1-2 weeks working as a grape-picker during the great grape harvest. The three-course meals you will eat will be rich, hearty, delicious and never-ending, levelling out with a staggering cheese-plate and pints of coffee. The fantastic, to-die-for wine comes in unmarked bottles filled up from the vineyard’s personal barrels created by last year’s grape harvesters. Evenings end in a chorus of classically French songs sung by the whole family and accompanied by accordions and saxophones, giving one the impression that you have stepped back in time to another era. So what are you waiting for? Grape-picking might not be the easiest work…but the experience will stay with you for a lifetime.

Anse, France

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Anse, France

Finally back in France after a summer abroad, it’s time to start re-posting in order to fall in love with Europe again, one photo at a time. This here is Anse, a lovely French town plopped in the middle of the famous region, the Beaujolais, well-known both in and outside of France for its superb red wines. Small enough to be quaint but large enough to feel alive, Anse and the surrounding countryside is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Lyon, France’s 2nd-biggest city. No need to worry about traffic on the highways or paying 5-6 euros for a drink at a pub–life is far simpler in Anse. Whether you prefer to tramp through the breath-taking countryside (all the while taking in views of French vineyards!), wander the ancient streets imagining bygone times, eat at local family-owned eateries, or do a little wine-tasting yourself, Anse is the place to be! And at a mere 30-kilometer trek from Lyon, there’s really no excuse not to go!

 

St Germain M’or, France

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St Germain M’or, France

Wander along a quiet labyrinth of stony streets, up and down steep and uneven paths, through narrow passageways twisting alongside ancient houses. Tiny cafes dot the corners. Laundry and flower-boxes hang alternatively from second-story balconies. The sun is out, and no one is hurrying. Just outside the village, you can just make out the edges of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region. Children play on bikes in the main square, friends sip coffees or wine in the corner cafes. The smell of fresh bread emits from a local bakery. You can hear the birds chirping, friendly neighbours chatting in French, the wind whistling. While the much larger city of Lyon is a mere than a half-hour’s drive, you feel so far removed from the city that you forget the others’ existence. So you stop hurrying too. You stop thinking so much. You cast aside your list of things to do, you cast away your cares and worries. You let your shoulders relax. You sit down at one of those cafes, order yourself a a glass of fresh Beaujolais wine, and bask in the quiet French sunlight.

Château de Vimy, Neuville-sur-Saône, France

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The château de Vimy in Neuville-Sur-Saône, France

Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or une maison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!

 

Col du Mollard, France

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Col du Mollard, France

Rather a Winter Wonderland, eh? It’s hard to believe that only two hours west of this snowy landscape, it was  already spring–flowers were in full bloom, sunbathers were in the park in dresses and short sleeves, and street vendors were selling sunglasses at an exceptional rate. For a small country, France really does have a lot to offer: the sunny Mediterranean to the south, chic Parisian culture to the north, rolling fields in the centre, magnificent Alps—with magnificent skiing—to the west, not to mention picturesque villages, sprawling metropolis and everything in between. It’s easy to take a break from the city by heading east—you’ll soon find yourself in the mountains surrounded by snow, ice and little wooden chalets. For those of you who love to ski even when the weather is getting warmer, never fear—there’s always the Alps. And the pre-alps. And the countryside in general. France has an enormous skiing culture—you may even call it an obsession—that seems to be as integral to the country’s cultural identity as baguettes, public murals, turreted chateaus, sprawling vineyards and blocks of cheese.

Alsatian Countryside, France

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Rural Alsace, France

If you’re not fascinated by castles and cathedrals, stop reading right now. Because to me, there are few things more amazing than the sheer force it took to quarry the stone, carry it away, carve it into all manner of shapes, execute a building plan that won’t fall down, lift the stones up to actually construct the building, create a building using little more than manpower and pulley systems, then adorn it with intricately carved statues and carvings. All before the age of machinery, calculators, computers, factories, electricity, or even indoor plumbing and heating. And the fact that so many of these structures still exist–and you can even go inside them!–is, well, mindblowing. Today, we rarely build things to last, and we also rarely think about the aesthetics of what we are building. In fact, buildings are often put up knowing that they will be pulled down in 10 years’ time. When I was travelling through Alsace via TGV–a lovely way to travel–castle after castle after church after church rose up from the French hillsides to scratch the sky. I don’t know their names and I doubt I ever will, but it’s reassuring that at one point, people cared so much about the things that they were building that they built them to last 800 years. Not only are they still usable today, but their designs are still inspirational and sensational and admired. It’s sad that some of them just sit by the roadside, but it does make for a pleasurable “I spy” game while chugging through the French countryside.