Some ladies (in Singapore that is) will remember various Japanese or Korean drama serials where the lead actors and actresses “live” in some quaint village in the middle of France learning to bake cakes… The truth is – these villages do exist and they are gorgeous. Fact is, it’s hard to make a living learning to bake cakes in these villages!
In our road trips throughout France, we had the pleasure to traipse across numerous small villages that seemingly appear out of nowhere.
Take the village of Domme as an example, it was built on higher ground and could not be easily spotted from roads! The fact that the village is a Bastide (fortified town) means that it was intended to be hidden or at least – hard to attack when found! But beneath this seemingly benign setting lies a story of how this fortified town was a powerful regional entity in the 13th century. Its thick walls and fortified gates are testament to the wealth of the “city” at that time. So don’t sneeze at the size of the town now, it was powerful back in the day!
Located in the Perigeux region of France, Domme sits within easy distance from numerous prehistoric caves which are now turned into wine cellars. For the immense wealth of the region comes from its fertile lands bearing grapes and other agricultural products. And some of these caves (eg Lascaux) contain priceless treasures of cavemen paintings!
Then there are cliff top villages, mainly built around a strongly fortified manor house such as the one near La Roque-Gageau (the village Beynac is just a little further down). You must remember that during the Middle Ages, the people who tilled the land were not free men, but serfs tied to the land. Much of the land were owned by the nobility class – they having taken it by force of conquest. Sigh what’s new?
The strong homes of the nobles often offered protection in times of siege by neighboring warlords. This practice of building their homes near their “lords” gave rise to fortified towns and eventually cities.
Today, these pretty hill top villages offer a labyrinth of opportunities to see and smell the daily lives of the villagers. Its summer when we came and canoeists can be seen paddling on the Dordogne river. At Monpazier, we were fortunate enough to be there on a normal market day to smell and see the delights coming from the bounty of the land. Ultimately we gave Sarlat a miss, given the number of tourists expected there, probably outnumbering locals…
A similar story envelops the village of Gordes in the southern French Vaucluse region. Here, the village grew alongside the nearby Benedictine abbey of Senanque, built on top of the ruins of a Roman temple.
Not officially part of the French Kingdom was the reason for its fortification and today the castle (built in 1031AD) at the top of the village still stands testament to the battles in the era for control of Provence. As we drove towards the village, rows of small hotels and pensions appear on both sides of the road. It’s obvious that this is a pretty place to stay for a few days!
Many a pretty village can be the location of a UNESCO heritage site. St Emilion in Gironde for example goes back to pre historic times as well. The streets of the village are narrow and winding, making it not suitable for driving. Yet we saw a garage at almost every house that we drove past! You need to drive a really compact car here. The size of our Opel Zafira made it rather difficult to maneuver!
We ‘dismounted’ when we had the opportunity to park and walked the rest of the way to discover the village. Take note you need to pay because we saw the local cop doing her rounds. No cheating! Last time we were there it cost €2 per hour. Quite sure it has gone up by now.
Late afternoons are advantageous, as it meant that fresh batches of breads and pastries come right out of the oven here, in time for people to pick up a snack or two for tea. And they are famous for it too! From palm sized crunchy Macaroons to beautifully shaped cup cakes, a good cup of coffee would top the day! You probably noticed the prices too huh? It’s €2 per macaroon and that was in 2005! We do wonder what the rampant inflation has done to prices since then. Anyone’s got an update for us on how much it now costs?
During summer, crunching on a macaroon while walking along the cobbled streets makes for a relaxing day after driving hundreds of kilometers.
We spent a lot more time in St Emilion, not just because of the ease of walking around its heritage cathedrals (yes there are two of them and we hadn’t mentioned them much), but also because it is in the heart of a famous wine producing region! The name should ring a bell – St Emilion wine anyone?
It thus should not come as a surprise that some of best places to wine and dine lie within the walls of this village. Mostly Merlot and Cabernet are cultivated here and you can see them from the edge of the village going beyond the forests and on. For those who are in the know, the region has more than 70 wines classified as Grand Crus here (more than 68 are at least a Classés). For any wine lover, this is definitely paradise! And for more on the bubbly, read more about our Champagne story here.
Cave dwellings are not new, as since the dawn of prehistory man has sought refuge in the crevices of mountains and hills away from the savage beasts that may devour him.
At Rochemenier, the lives of folks who lived underground is preserved so well. It is true that these can be found all over the world. However considerably the difference in design flair from those in Cappadocia (read here), there are larger and more spacious living spaces.
But then, you would not know how these places can be experience without coming would you? So, pack your bags and fly to France where you can pick up a car and get down to these beautiful French villages! Here are the locations of the above described lovely places:
These journeys took place over 2003-2005
Noteworth of mention would be Rocamadour, nestled in the Parc Causses du Quercy. We drove by on the way down to Carcassone (read here).