France is a beloved nation for many different reasons. French cuisine is popular the world over. From delectable sauces to scrumptious pastries, the country serves up some of the best fare, in homes and in its many restaurants and cafés.
Art is cherished in France, and one of the most popular art movements in the world, Impressionism, was born right here. Today, centuries later, the country’s many museums and galleries continue to draw visitors from across the globe.Different parts of France experience different climates, and since most places are accessible by a relatively short train journey, residents can head to cooler retreats during the summer months, or enjoy winters in places such as the Alps. Due to its rich history, travellers and expats alike have an opportunity to participate in a variety of interesting traditions. The country’s popularity is evident in the fact that more than 70 million people visit every year.
For expats, starting a life in France has some added benefits. Firstly, there are plenty of choices about where to settle down. France is composed of 21 regions, each with two to eight departments. The French cities, such as Paris, Marseille and Nice, are hugely popular among visitors, and they also offer excellent employment prospects for many expats. Expats who relocate for work usually reside in any of the main cities. Though the options for accommodation may not be plentiful, there are the benefits of great places to shop, a choice of eateries and the chance to engage in different cultural activities. The smaller towns and countryside offer less expensive accommodation, and many move here to enjoy the pleasant climate and scenery. Expats will also benefit from the balanced work-life routine that French locals enjoy. The work hours are fewer and there is provision for five weeks of paid vacation every year. France also has one of the best healthcare systems in the world.
France also has some hidden gems, in the form of its villages, many of which are off the beaten track and therefore ideal for expats looking for a quiet getaway. Most also have Internet access, so expats need not worry about being completely disconnected from their work and life. The charm of these villages lies in the relaxed pace of life, spectacular natural views and traditional architecture.
Here are ten historic villages that expats must visit while living in France.
This is a charming French village, known for its simplicity. It is commonly referred to as the ‘town of bicycles’, because everyone uses a bike to get around. Cycling is the best way to explore the village, and there are well-maintained dedicated paths for it. A quiet beach village, it is located in the west of France, in the region of Poitou-Charentes, in the department of Charente-Maritime. It is a part of the district of La Rochelle.
The village center surrounds a main square with a 40-meter high black and white church spire, which sailors continue to use as a landmark. The main activities here are salt and oyster farming. The most significant harbour of the region, which accommodates about 500 moorings, is located here. To reach Ars-en-Ré, take a train from Montparnasse to La Rochelle, and then another one (or a bus), from La Rochelle to the village.
Piana, located in the south-east of France, belongs to the region of Corse, in the department of Corse-du-Sud. Part of the district of Ajaccio, this small village covers an expanse of about 62.63 km ². Piana is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is often called the Island of Beauty. The Gulf of Porto lies beneath Piana, and the village offers some great views for those who want to feast their eyes on some picturesque natural settings. Worth checking out are the landscapes along the way between Piana and Porto. Many come here mainly to visit the church of Sainte Marie, an 18th century Italian structure. Getting to Piana is easy, but it is an approximately four-hour journey. There are trains that run between Paris and Antony Ratp, and then from there to Paris Orly. From Paris Orly, a plane will take you to Calvi, and then it’s a taxi ride away from Piana.
In north western France, in Brittany, lies Moncontour, a medieval village with about a thousand inhabitants. It was historically a significant defence post and the remnants of the ramparts can still be seen today. It was also an important centre of Brittany’s linen production, which was known to be the world’s best linen. The center of the village is home to the Eglise St-Mathurin, a 16th century church with an ornate bell tower bearing a near-oriental look.
Moncontour overlooks two valleys to the south of St-Brieuc, and its streets are lined with stone walled buildings that render the place an old-world charm. Moncontour is also surrounded by interesting places such as the region of Pays de Mercantour, which has several themed routes for cycling and horse-riding. To the south of Moncontour, closer to Trédaniel, you can find the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Haut, known for its religious architecture.
Located in northeastern France, in the region of Limousin, Saint-Robert has just 350 inhabitants. Built around a benedictine monastery, it ranks among the prettiest villages in France. The village is also known for its thriving classical music scene, which comes alive during the months of July and August. You can even catch its annual classical music festival, L’Eté Musical de Saint-Robert, which started in 1972.
Since Saint-Robert sits atop a hill that is 345m above sea level, visitors are in store for some of the best natural scenery. Around the 12th century church built by Benedictine monks, in the heart of the village, streets lined with stone houses branch out in different directions. These homes are adorned with interesting architectural features such as stone balconies and arched doorways. From the church itself, you can catch some stunning glimpses of the beautiful Correze countryside. The village is also the site for an annual pilgrimage, which begins at Saint-Maurice, located below Saint-Robert.
Another one of France’s most beautiful villages, Locronan, is situated in western Brittany. Locronan’s history dates back more than 2000 years. ‘Tromenie’, a pilgrimage that takes place every six years occurs in Locronan, and holds special significance for the people of Brittany. Many of the village homes date back to the 18th century. The village is well-preserved and since traffic is cut off, it is perfect for pedestrians who want to enjoy the local sights at a leisurely pace. Some important landmarks include the St Ronan church, dating back to the 15th century and the Place de l’Eglise.
Around the town, you will find little artisan boutiques in the side streets featuring the local cultural heritage. Locronan also has some small art galleries that give you a look into the town’s art and history. Reaching Locronan involves taking the train from Paris Montparnasse to Quimper, and then a bus directly to Locronan.
Annecy is among the more popular French towns, and therefore may not be as quaint as the others on the list. However, it is still worth a visit. Located in southeastern France, this alpine town constitutes the point where the River Thiou and Lac d’Annecy meet. The old town or Vieille Ville is an especially popular site, known for its homes covered in pastel hues. Despite its popularity, the resident population has remained static due to the scarcity of available land. Annecy has become a tourist hub owing to its location by the lake and many winter resorts.
Annecy has a reputation of being a romantic town, and the Pont des Amours, or lovers’ bridge, is an often-visited site. For dining and shopping, head to the Rue Royale. Architecture buffs can wander around the town’s many cathedrals and castles. Direct trains from Paris and Lyon will take you to Annecy. From Annecy, Geneva in Switzerland is just a day trip away.
Mittelbergheim, in Alsace, is a commune in the Bas-Rhin department of northeastern France. It is relatively unheard of, so expats can head here for a peaceful vacation without the tourist crowds. This quiet Alsatian village is known for its winegrowing culture. Zotzenberg, a Grand Cru vineyard, is the only vineyard in Alsace, and produces Sylvaner – a popular variety of wine with a distinct freshness and body. Wine lovers will especially enjoy a visit to Mittelbergheim because of the passion with which the local winegrowers tend to their craft. The village also has some great gourmet restaurants, where the local wines occupy an important place at the tables.
In Mittelbergheim, you also have the opportunity to visit the old wooden wine presses, one of which dates as far back as 1739. Apart from soaking in the wine culture, there are also some interesting places to visit, such as a red sandstone church built during the 19th century.
Also along the Alsatian wine route lies Eguisheim, with its streets arranged in concentric circles. This unique layout makes it easy to explore the village. Eguisheim is located in northeastern France in Haut-Rhin, and has a mixed cultural heritage. The village is carefully preserved and one of the most popular attractions here is the 8th century castle, which you can explore via a guided tour. The streets and homes are built around military ramparts, but bear charming features such as pointed gables and bow windows.
Eguisheim is also known for its fountains. Visit the oldest one at the market square, which was constructed in 1557. The fountains are a tribute and celebration of the role of water in the village’s economy, which is sustained mainly by winegrowing. Eguisheim plays host to many festivals, in which flowers occupy a central theme. This only adds to the visual appeal of the village. Food lovers will not be disappointed because the village is also known for its restaurants, featuring some of the best provincial dishes on the menu.
A small village in existence since Roman times, Gordes in Provence enjoys a Mediterranean climate and makes for an ideal expat getaway. It is located at the edge of the plateau of Vaucluse and also makes the list of ‘the most beautiful villages of France’. Gordes is known as a ‘village of artists’ and many renowned artists have settled down here. At the very top of the white and gray stone houses, which are arranged in a spiral, are the church and castle, which overlook the Luberon hills.
Gordes is known for its unique ‘borie’ homes, which are small round stone huts that used to be inhabited by shepherds and hunters. A must visit site is the Abbey of Senanque, located deep inside the green valley, and where liqueurs and lavender essence is still made by the Cistercian monks. Gordes once used to be a hub for the wool and leather trade, including weaving and tanning.
Retaining its 16th century appearance, Riquewihr is another gorgeous town on the Alsace wine route. The many wine cellars and wineries are ideal for tasting some of the best Alsatian wines. Riquewihr lies between the Vosges Mountains and the Plain of Alsace. This medieval town’s half-timbered homes were built between the 15th and 18th centuries. Fountains, inner courtyards and wells decorate these old homes.
The museums in Riquewihr offer glimpses into the history and cultural heritage of the region. Some of the landmarks include the Thieves’ Tower, which was originally a prison. There is also the Dolder Tower, which served as a defensive gateway during the 13th century. There’s a museum of communication, which displays the history of Alsace’s postal service and telecommunications. During spring and summer, the village comes alive with flower adornments; while during winter, Riquewihr bears Christmas colours. A fun place to visit is the shop, ‘La Féérie de Noël’, which is a Christmas shop that stays open all year round.