I’m not sure who is behind the brand “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France“, but they’re one of those organisations that hands out an annual award, and I guess some places choose to partake in the competition, and others don’t.
When I worked in marketing, the (very successful) company I worked for specifically did not enter any industry awards because we didn’t want our competition to see how the sausage was made, as it were. Draw the spotlight of industry attention and the despairing companies we were leaving in our wake might work out how to catch up. I’ve carried the same philosophy into education. Teachers are absolutely chronic for downloading shit they found on the internet: lesson plans, schemes of work etc. And they’re chronic for uploading the same shit for whatever reason: kudos, attention, some faint hope of being paid. Anyway, I’m against this. Although I did upload some of my resources in my naive early years of teaching, I no longer share. The idea that another teacher could deliver one of my lessons is nonsense. You might have the meat, the skin, the breadcrumbs, but I am the sausage.
Anyway, what has this got to do with beautiful French villages? Only this: I imagine that if I was the mayor of a particularly beautiful village, I’d look around me at what made it so beautiful and I’d want to keep it that way. That would almost certainly mean that I didn’t want car- and busloads of tourists rocking up to buy tat and bretzels.
I’ve visited a few of these places. Belvès in the Dordogne, for example, is an absolutely fabulous village perched on a rock riddled with prehistoric cave dwellings. We walked around one evening, didn’t spend any money, and went home. Also in the Dordogne, Beynac and Cazenac was a place we went for a longer visit, staying on a nearby campsite. It was all right. Closer to here, Eguisheim in Alsace is a mediaeval village full of half-timbered buildings and a street plan that is snail-shaped. It’s nice to see and walk around. Key to its charm, however, is the necessity to park on the outskirts and walk into the village, so that you’re not constantly dodging cars as you walk around the concentric narrow lanes.
We always try to do the right thing when we visit these places. I remember parking outside of Gordes in the South of France and walking about a kilometre into the village itself, which is perched on a rocky outcrop in Provence. But other people aren’t so considerate, and my strong memory of Gordes is of standing on a street watching and listening to a steady stream of traffic passing through. It was loud, and it was smelly, and it most definitely wasn’t beautiful.
Limeuil, in Dordogne, is similarly perched on a hillside, but there’s no through traffic, so you have to park somewhere at the bottom of the hill and climb the steep streets under your own steam. This is as it should be. You sweat your way up to the top of the hill, to the church and the lovely gardens, and you enjoy the view, which is well earned. If you can’t manage the hill, you’ll just have to find somewhere flatter.
Riquewihr is another Alsatian village on the list, one we’ve been to many times. It’s another place with a steep main drag, cobbled and largely car-free. What you want to see in these places is a barrier at the bottom of the road with a big No Entry sign on it.
Which brings us to Bergheim, the latest mediaeval Alsatian village to win the Plus Beaux Village de France prize. Hum hum hum. We dutifully stopped at the unshaded “Complex Sportif” car park at the edge of the village. A Couple of hundred metres down the road we saw a second, shadier car park. This one was right outside the village ramparts. So there were at least two places to leave your car. Unfortunately, this didn’t help the village itself, which was chock full of cars parked in marked bays (many of which were painted both on the street and supposed pavement). In fact, I’d say that a good portion of the local council’s budget had been spent on painting parking spaces onto pavements, which doesn’t say much for their attitude to pedestrians. Walking down and around the cobbled streets, there was a steady stream of traffic. It was virtually impossible to get a sense of the mediaeval layout because there were too many cars and vans in the way.
So we bailed, and drove a few kilometres to Ribeauvillé, a mediaeval Alsatian town with a No Entry barrier across its main cobbled street. We parked at the car park off the roundabout and walked up the hill. Maybe things will improve for Bergheim: they’ve only just won the prize. But it didn’t seem very beautiful or charming to me. You’ve got to be absolutely ruthless about excluding cars. I personally wouldn’t even allow the locals (population just over 2000) to drive their cars into the centre. But what do I know? I’m just a sausage.