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My Favorite Places in France...

One of my favorite things about living in France is discovering the country. I've learned a lot about French culture and history from visiting some of the major cities and regions. But what I find equally interesting is discovering the countryside, tiny villages and hamlets. There are hidden treasures everywhere. This, for me, is one of the best advantages of living in France, discovering the nooks and crannies of the country that you don't necessarily have the time to see on a 10 day European tour.

There are several things that I get out of these discoveries.

Exploring the countryside and villages allows me, in a way, to reconnect to my love of everything French. Whether its climbing the stairs of an old dungeon to gaze upon a lookout, reading a plaque and discovering an archaic word I've never seen before, soaking in the silence of a 12th century church, or tasting a local specialty (sometimes even the smallest villages have their own food specialty), I rediscover the beauty of this country, of its history, and its language in visiting these places.

France actually has classifcation for villages, one famous one being 'les plus beaux villages de France' (the most beautiful villages of France).[1]  This 'label' is awarded by an association and villages can submit an application to belong to the group. Once they do, they are allowed to use the 'most beautiful villages of France' label, and this, obviously, brings in a lot of visitors.[2]

Another is the label 'villages of character'. Often not as 'beautiful' as the previous category, but still villages that present a particular architectural or landscape feature. Villages that obtain this label get funding and help from the regional tourist offices, to help fund maintenance of public spaces and, once again, to promote tourism.

Obviously quite a few of these villages are touristy, and on a nice weekend you can bet you won't be the only person wandering around some of the cobble stone streets. But it's also tourism that keeps these places maintained and restored.[3]

Visiting the French countryside and villages also makes me appreciate the landscape and geographical diversity of a country that's about the size of Texas. While we have amazing, diverse landscapes in the US, you often have to travel quite far before seeing any change in region or in landscape. When I think especially about the region I'm from (the Midwest), you literally have to drive for hours before you'll see anything other than flat farmland.

In France, a couple of hour's drive from Lyon, I could be in a different climate and completely different landscape.

It's not only the geography that changes, but the regional identity. We have the Alps region to the east of here, with its traditional mountain food and traditions, the Burgundy region to the North with its rich history of Dukes and wine culture, to the west the more rural but beautiful rolling hills of the Loire department, and the nature and caves of the Ardèche to the South, a region famous for growing chestnuts (for more about regional diversity, see:

Finally, I simply enjoy the beauty of the landscape and these villages. Maybe it's my American eyes that are so used to seeing new buildings that I find everything old to be quaint and cute. But  there is a certain feeling I find in visiting these places. The weight of history, the landscapes and stories they tell, the austere traditions, all of these contribute to a feeling of presence you can't get in the center of Paris or some big city. 

So now for a touristic detour, with pictures of some of these places that I've been lucky to discover. Enjoy!

On a long weekend trip to the Ardèche, we got to discover the beauty of this mountainous region, and villages like Jaujac. 

Jaujac, Ardèche

Easter weekend last year, we decided to take a drive to the Loire region, not too far from Lyon. I had read about it in a local magazine. We discovered, among other things, this amazing tiny castle on the Loire river, and Saint-Jean-Saint-Maurice-sur Loire overlooking the river's valley. 

view from next to the dungeon, St. Maurice-sur-Loire
Château de la Roche

Jarnioux, typical golden stone

Jarnioux was the first village we discovered while exploring the Beaujolais. The region is called 'les pierres dorées' (golden stones), and you can see this in the architecture. I don't know if this place can even be called a village, since it basically consists of a few houses, a church, and an old castle. 

a view of the Jarnioux village

An afternoon this fall we wanted to get out of Lyon for a few hours. We found Crémieu, a village known for its historic hall. We hiked up to the top of an abandoned castle where we had a view of the town below.

Crémieu, old abandoned castle site
view of Crémieu from old castle

One of my favorite recent discoveries was a Medieval castle lost out in the Burgundy countryside, Berzé-le-Châtel. We were lucky to have a beautiful spring day as we took a guided tour of the grounds. 

entrance to Berzé-le-Châtel

part of the Berzé-le-Châtel complex...the family descendants
still actually live in part of the castle! 
view from Berzé-le-Châtel overlooking the valley below



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