Le Plus Beaux Villages de France is an independent association created for the tourist promotion of small villages in France that also has rich cultural heritage.
They’re mostly small (as one of the criteria it cannot have more than 2000 inhabitants) and has to have at least two cultural heritage sites and must pass some sort of evaluation. Dordogne has several entries in this list and we’re starting our road trip in this beautiful region of France, before heading to Lot, Aveyron and Tarn. You can easily squeeze 3 villages a day because they are pretty small and you can spend couple of hours in one village and that still includes a lot of time to wander around and take pictures. I didn’t know how long it will take to visit a village so I allotted more days that necessary for each region, which actually worked well as it gave us more time to rest and also add unplanned random places to visit (and those places turned out to be the best ones!).
We visited 17 villages (+ 1 city) on this 12 day road trip starting in Lyon and ending in Carcassone.
You have to rent a car to be able to visit these villages as there are no public transportation going to most of these small villages. Driving is pretty easy although some road gets pretty narrow and cars go rather fast even on blind curves so just watch out for those. Also make sure you rent a small car. Parking spaces on these villages tend to be on the smaller side.
We rented a car in Lyon, and our first stop was Sarlat-le-Caneda which we made our first base to explore the smaller villages nearby. Sarlat, though not included in the Lex Plus Beaux Villages list, is a gorgeous town that would immediately transport you back to the medieval times. I wrote a separate blog for it here. I would recommend making this as a base for visiting Beynac-et-Cazenac, Domme, La Roque-Gageac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. It was in the middle of summer when we went and France was going through a terrible heatwave so we limited ourselves to only 2 villages a day and gave ourselves plenty of time to stop in cafes and have a cold drink. This also gave us time to get back to Sarlat, cool off in our rented apartment before exploring more of Sarlat once the sun goes down.
Here is our itinerary (adding some suggestions based on what we’ve learned).
Day 1: Drive to Sarlat. This was our longest drive and we spent the rest of the day exploring Sarlat.
Day 2: Beynac-et-Cazenac
Beynac-et-Cazenac is a very picturesque medieval village perched on top of a limestone cliff overlooking the Dordogne river. The setting is pretty dramatic it’s straight out of a medieval movie. We walked up steep winding cobblestoned alleys which eventually led to a stately castle, stopping for photographs of course, and for breaks under some shade. It’s been really hot and this heatwave is definitely slowing us down (that and the aging knees). The top of the hill offers sweeping views of the Dordogne river and valley. The best view of the village is by the parking lot, or as you approach the village.
Day 2: Castelnaud-La-Chapelle
Castelnaud-la-Chapelle sits where Dordogne and Céou river meets. At its cliff top is a 12th century castle that had changed hands several times between the English and the French during the hundred years war. Steep cobblestoned streets lined with stone houses lead to town. As we approach the village we could see the castle up on top of the hill. We thought we had to walk all the way up from the town which was not a pleasant idea during the heatwave we were in.
Luckily we saw parking signs on a road that goes up which took us to a parking lot pretty close to the castle. This seems to be a famous castle for families with little kids as it has a museum of medieval warfare and some mock medieval performances on the grounds. The top of the castle offers yet another sweeping view of the Dordogne and even seeing Beynac downstream on the river.
Day 3. Domme
Domme is another village set high above a hill overlooking the Dordogne valley. Maybe because we saw Beynac the day before that this village fell short of our expectations. It does have beautiful views of the Dordogne valley. The village is pretty small with one main road that’s lined with stores, and to me feels a bit more commercialized than it needed.
Day 3: La Roque Gageac
Another village we visited is the small but gorgeous village of La Roque Gageac. This village is a but more crowded than the others, understandably so. The setting is stunning, with a single row of houses stretching along the banks of the Dordogne river and backing right into an imposing lime cliff. The village is pretty small as there’s really only the main street that runs between the river and the village, and a somewhat limited second street above it. The cliff has a cave that used to be a troglodyte dwelling which apparently dates back to the 12th century. To access the cave you have to climb a really steep wooden set of stairs which we opted not to do.
Because of the limestone cliff, this area enjoys a Mediterranean climate as the cliffs absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. This is why this area has interesting varied vegetation including tropical ones like banana trees, palm trees and even a bamboo forest !
You can rent a canoe and start upstream from Vitrac and paddle your way through the Dordogne and stop at villages. A van/truck will pick you and the canoes down at the last stop (Beynac?) And take you back up. This is a nice way to see the villages but it’s been so hot these days that we felt being out under the sun constantly for 3 hrs is not fun
Oh the food! Everything we’ve eaten in Dordogne is amazing. They are all about duck, cheese and foie gras. Since it was so hot, the salads topped with Rocamadour cheese drizzled with honey were heaven in a plate.
As a bonus, if you are there in the summer months, while driving around Dordogne you will be treated with endless fields of sunflower! I couldn’t get enough of the bright yellow scenery as far as my eyes can see.
Day 4: Les Eyzies
Les Eyzies is not part of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France” list but it’s only 30 minutes from Sarlat and has a lot of fascinating pre historic caves and drawings dating all the way back to Neanderthal times. This is where the first remains of a Cro Magnon man was discovered and you can see the site in a visitor center with more information about it. The most important prehistoric caves around are Lascaux, Faunt de Gaume and Grotte du Grand-Roc. Lascaux is a replica of the real caves where a lot of paintings on the cave walls were found. Check beforehand as they might require reservations or you might need to be there early. We were not able to visit the caves here as this was a last minute addition to our itinerary (but we did in another region) but I would recommend it if you have time.
Day 4: La Roque St Cristophe
La Roque St Cristophe, located in Tursac just next door to Les Eyzies is the largest rock shelter in Europe. Set in a really high limestone cliff towering over the Vezere river, it has been inhabited from prehistoric times, through the middles ages and up to the Renaissance period. It’s pretty amazing to stand inside these shelters and think they’ve been occupied by ancestors of man!
Day 5: Autoire
On this day we left Sarlat on our way to our second stop, Rocamadour. We stopped by a tiny charming little medieval village, Autoire, which is another Les Plus Beaux village that was a last minute addition to our itinerary.
Autoire is really small but pretty. When we parked in it’s parking lot, we noticed most people are in their hiking gears. We learned quickly that Autoire is sort of a hiking destination. Nestled in the middle of a wide gorge, surrounded with cliffs, it has a network of trails around it and a waterfalls about an hour or so away from the village. Obviously we were not prepared to hike as we really didn’t know what to expect here (the heatwave doesn’t help) but we enjoyed taking photos and walking around. We walked it’s quiet main street, lined with stone houses and half timbered ones, went thru each side alley, stopped and took photos of windows adorned with flowers and doors framed by leafy vines. After we’ve walked all it’s streets, which wasn’t very long, we stopped at the plaza, had some ice cream, watched people (which also wasn’t very many) and then went back to our car for our next destination. This was a cool find and I would put this village on my recommendation list if you are around the area.
Day 6: Rocamadour
Rocamadour is beyond unreal. It looks like it’s straight out of a movie, or out of Disneyland, except it’s real and been there since the 12th century (with caves that had been occupied by men in the paleolithic age ).
Rocamadour is built on the face of a rock cliff, consisting of 3 levels. The top level is a castle sitting on top of the cliff, the middle level is the religious level which houses seven sanctuaries/chapels and the lowest level is for the house of the villagers, now a row of restaurants, shops and hotels. The levels showed that when this was built, the local lord (the people) was superior to the bishop (the church). You take a lift (ascenseur) to go up/down each level or walk through several switchback wooded paths.
Rocamadour is a stop in the pilgrimage to Compostela. Our Lady of Rocamadour (Black Madonna) had been known to be miraculous and had been attracting pilgrims since the 12th century. Photos were not allowed inside her chapel but when I went in, there was a prayer session going on, and people were singing in Latin. It was so solemn and so beautiful. There’s a grand staircase of 216 steps where pilgrims would go up on their knees and hands to reach the sanctuaries.
Coincidentally, second time in this trip, we again ran into Tour de France. The tour’s stage 20 is actually in Rocamadour itself. Roads to the town were closed and everyone in town was gathered by the roads cheering on the cyclists as each passes by. It was a ‘bonus’ cool experience to be right in the middle of this world famous tour in this magnificent setting. Due to road blocks for the Tour, we were only allowed to park on the big parking lot at the top level so we had to carry our stuff to the ascenseurs down to our hotel which is at the lowest level. We ended up leaving our luggages in the car and taking only what we need for the night.
We stayed in Rocamadour for a night, although it is possible to explore the village in a few hours and you can drive to your next base. Since Tour de France was also happening at the same day we were in town, I was glad we stayed for the night so we had time to watch the tour, and still had plenty of time left to wander around.
Day 7: Drive to Saint Cirq La Popie
St Cirq Lapopie, perched on top of a limestone cliff overlooking the Lot River, is the next village in our list. Charming and pretty, it was voted in 2012 as France’s most favorite village which probably explains why it has more tourists than the others we’ve visited. Tourists are still mostly French-speaking and I still rely a lot on hand gestures, guessing by context, and Google translate. We stayed right outside of the village as there aren’t really many accommodations in the village. We probably stayed a day too long in this area. There were not many restaurants around and no big towns to wander about. I would recommend probably staying in Figeac, and make that the base for visiting villages nearby including St Cirq La Popie and Rocamadour. Other villages that can be visited around Figeac are Capdenac, Cardaillac and Loubressac also part of the “most beautiful villages in France” list.
St Cirq La Popie is one of my favorites in this trip. This village has the perfect recipe for that storybook medieval village, the cobblestoned alleys, half timbered stone houses, flowers on shuttered windows, stone steps with potted plants, 13th century church in the middle, and the entire village dramatically sitting on top of a high cliff. It used to have a castle, which is now basically a tall rock structure that people can go up for a bird’s eye view of the village. Since we stayed for a couple of days in this area, I’ve taken photos of the village from different approaches and different times of the day, all of which are stunning, including the cornfields in its vicinity. I’m also obsessed with those half timber houses so I had a lot of fun taking photos of them. I just love the contrast of the wood and the stone and the shapes they create.
There is parking right outside the village and you follow a walking path to go into the village.
Day 8: Peche Merle
We were done with St Cirq La Popie but we have another full day in this area, and there aren’t really any big towns nearby to wander about. I looked for things to do nearby, and read about Pech Merle, a cave that has (original) pre historic drawings from 29,000 years ago! I booked tickets for the morning and I was glad we went! It was a very fascinating and interesting experience. It is pretty amazing to think that our ancestors from paleolithic age had created these drawings. Unfortunately photos are not allowed as they are trying to prevent damage to the drawings. Light, temperature changes (like from heat expelled from humans) can damage them so they also limit the number of people in the cave at a time. You can only go in with a tour guide, in groups of 25 and each tour lasting 45 min each. Tours are given in one language only (French) so I know we’ve missed a lot of interesting information but they handed English booklets to us that had summaries of each point we are looking at. Since no photos were allowed I am including here some replicas that were in the small museum outside of the cave.
The art work are actually very interesting, they could very well be the same as some you’d see in museums. Some abstract line art comes to my mind, very good curves. A couple of them made use of the natural shape of the rock wall, like example one edge of the rock wall had a portion shaped like a horse head, so they used that as the horse head and continued to draw the rest of the horse. There were lots of mammoths drawn, some bisons and some horses. There were also negative handprints of presumably the artist who created the drawings. It’s hard to explain but it was a pretty cool experience! And did I mention the cave itself is beautiful! Some parts are so tall and spacious with beautiful calcite formations. I wish I could understand every details that were explained.
Day 8: Cahors
Once in a while we like a break from the villages. We like sitting somewhere and watching the day go by but where we were staying by Saint Cirq Lapopie, there literally isn’t anything around to watch except for the sprinklers in the cornfields. We needed a bigger town with some activity. I saw pamphlets that mentioned Cahors and according to google it’s a city! And only 30 minutes from where we are. Hooray, a city with people and buildings and cafes!
Cahors I learned is the capital of the Lot department of France and sits along the Lot River. I didn’t know anything about this city so we just followed our rule of thumb, when you don’t know where to start , look for the tallest church tower. It seems Cahors is a pretty low key (sleepy?) city. We don’t know if it’s just a holiday or if most are out of town or there just isn’t much going on in this city. We had some refreshments in a cafe, watched a couple of kids fishing in the river, sat inside the Gothic-Romanesque cathedral and watched a light painting in the dome change from one image to the next, found a couple of preserved medieval houses, saw a tourist trolley train (so there must be tourists!), then ended up in a park, sat on a bench and took a nap. It wasn’t too hot, and there was a nice breeze in the park.
After a quick nap on the park bench, we moseyed on down to a pedestrian street, which led to a big avenue lined with tall trees and restaurants. We walked up and down the street and decided on pub food for dinner. It’s been more than 10 days of canard and foie gras so I was happy to eat some chicken tenders and onion rings.
Day 9: Belcastel
Belcastel is another village from Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This one’s a small one and another last minute addition to our plan. The night before, I learned there are 10 villages in Aveyron that’s in this list and one of them is on our way to/from Conques!
Belcastel is a small picturesque medieval town along the Aveyron river, with a chateau dating back to the 11th century and a narrow cobbled five-arched Roman bridge spanning the river. As we were driving to this village we were having major dejavu feelings and thought for sure we will end up in an empty cow pasture again. It felt like the road wasn’t leading to anywhere and all of a sudden this castle comes to view.
Houses line the river bank on one side (with the castle up the hill) and a 14th century church, a restaurant, a small store, and picnic tables under shady trees can be found on the other side. It didn’t take long to walk though the street along the river. It’s a very small village with about 300 inhabitants. We crossed the bridge, got iced tea and potato chips from the store and ate our snacks while sitting on a shady bench by the church while admiring the village right in front of us. This was a good find!
Day 9: Conques
If I already said one of the previous villages we’ve been to is straight out of a fairytale book, I take that back… Because THIS IS THE ONE.
At this point in our trip, this was our favorite. Maybe mostly because there isn’t a big crowd. There are very few visitors and very few commercial establishments. It still feels like a real medieval village. The half timber homes, the gray roof stone tiles, the 12th century abbey church, the near empty cobbled streets all makes me feel I got transported back in the time of Lords and Dukes.
There were a few hikers passing by, as the main route of the French Compostela way goes through Conques. As we entered the village we found the prettiest and most charming restaurant ever. We were hungry so we immediately snagged one of the four tables, shaded by a roof made from leafy vines with purple flowers hanging on the edges. The owner was ever so kind to patiently explain to us (in French of course) where the food he was serving were sourced, all from nearby towns, including the coffee. He even offered to take a photo of us.
We continued to wander the village, taking photos from all directions, and even encountering a girl with a donkey. Yes, he’s a real working donkey, a hungry one at that as he keeps stopping to munch on leaves.
As usual we went inside the church, said a prayer before heading back to our hotel, but not before stopping by another village I found just the night before. It’s amazing how many of these are around, you just keep finding one village after another. We did get lost on our way to Conques. Somehow the GPS took us to some narrow mountain roads in the middle of nowhere, once in a while passing by a cluster of few houses, until we ended up on cow pasture on top of a mountain, opposite the hill where Conques is located. But we eventually found our way to the village, and as we try to find out way, I did find a perfect photo spot overlooking Conques.
Day 10: Najac
This one is another last minute addition to our trip and is one of my favorites! Najac, another one in the list of France’s most beautiful villages, happens to be along the way on our drive towards Cordes Sur Ciel. This must be a bit off the tourist map as there wasn’t many people around (to our delight).
This very picturesque village lies on the rocky ridge of a cliff above the Aveyron river. At the end of the village on the top of the hill is a 12th century castle (aren’t they all ) and the Gothic Church of Saint Jean-l’Evangeliste. It’s been said that the knights of templars had been imprisoned in this castle.
It was such a delight meandering the quiet streets of this village. There aren’t many commercial businesses and you see more signs of local life. It was a bit of an uphill hike to the castle but someone’s gotta do it right? I went up it’s narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower and that gave me the perfect perspective of the village down below, seeing it as a line of houses following the ridge of the hill. We sauntered the streets, ate lunch, and as we were leaving a few craft market tents were being setup. This village was a good find !
Day 10: Cordes Sur Ciel
Cordes Sur Ciel was voted France’s favorite village in 2014 and is definitely one of the more famous of the Les Plus villages. The village sits on top of a hill (surprise) and the name means “ribbons in the sky” because of the fog that descends into the village in the early mornings, forming what looks like strings of ribbons. This did not happen the two days we were there though.
It was surprisingly not crowded in the village and more so in the evenings, when we would have the village all to ourselves. The best part of our stay in Cordes sur Ciel was our bed & breakfast place called D’Ici et d’Ailleurs. We got to stay in a lovely 16th century half timber stone house! As if that’s not enough, our host is this super nice Thai guy who is such a delight talk to. We ended up spending a lot of time talking and laughing with each other. Breakfast on our first day was served on a very charming and homey patio overlooking the valley. On the second day there was a forecast of rain so breakfast was served in the lower level of the house which is even cooler (figuratively and literally). Walls are made of stone , mullioned windows and vintage decors.
One day as we were walking the streets we stopped by a shop selling garden decors made from recycled metals and several Mexican items. I commented on the colorful calaveras and that started a conversation. The shop owner, a very bubbly multilingual French guy, turned out to be friends with our B&B host and our conversations had spiraled to several topics from places in Mexico, to languages, tourists, the French people and before we know it we’ve spent two hours in the shop.
Parking is not easy inside the village (as with most if you are staying within the village itself) but our B&B host provided us with a parking permit which allowed us to park at a space not too far from the B&B. This is when a small car and packing light makes a difference, having to carry your bags up and down hilly cobblestoned paths. The street that goes down from the center of the village to it’s base is very steep, like toe-jamming-into-your-shoes kind of steep. It’s one loonggg steep cobbled street and you’d have to go up and down this street if you want to go to the restaurants at the base of the hill. There aren’t many restaurants up the hill so be prepared for a workout walking the main street down. You can easily make this village (plus Najac) as a day trip from Toulouse.
Day 11: Penne
Penne, also dubbed as “eagle’s nest” was another last minute find as we had another day in the area. Penne is not on the Les Plus Beaux Villages list but after seeing a photo of it in a pamphlet in our room and finding out it’s only 30 min away, we had to go.
It is an interesting sight as you approach the village. Unlike the others which would have an imposing castle on top of a hill, this one has a ruin of a small fortress in a curved rocky outcrop that feels like it might fall over anytime.
The village is tiny and as we stepped into the main plaza in front of it’s church, a lady graciously offered to take a picture of us so this was the only place in this trip that we had a proper photo. I went up to the ruins of the castle (or fortress) and noticed that there are lots of kids doing activities and there are medieval performances as well. The top of the ruins provided a beautiful view of vineyards and sunflower fields below.
We spent the rest of the day driving around, all the way to Albi and back. As another bonus, you drive through stunning sceneries of vineyards and sunflower fields. I could not get enough of the sunflower fields.
Day 12: Carcassone
The last in our own little tour of medieval France is the largest of them all, Carcassone. Also a UNESCO world heritage site, Carcassone is the largest walled medieval city in Europe. It is indeed huge and impressive. However it comes with it a huge amount of crowds as well. We got so used to all the quiet little villages we’ve been to that we stood in dismay in front of the entrance to Carcassone, stared at each other and didn’t know what to do . We looked for the least crowded way to enter the old city but eventually you’d always end up with everyone else. We walked a few alleys, ate ice cream in a little shady plaza and concluded our Carcassonne tour. I’m sure we didn’t do justice to the place so come during off peak or maybe early in the morning for the best experience.
We are in Carcassone for few more days and there are several other historical villages and monuments around but after having visited 18 medieval villages and cities we are ready for something that’s more of the 21st century.
We stayed in Carcassone for 3 more days went on spontaneous visits to Collioure, Andorra and Sete.
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