Nestled amid grandiose landscapes, villages clinging to cliff tops or tucked away deep in the heart of a mountain valley illustrate how man has adapted architecture to altitude and local conditions, as witnessed by wooden chalets, stone houses, roofs with different angles and slopes, and onion-shaped or pointed church towers. Enjoy a tour of some of France's most stunning cultural and architectural sites to explore this impressive aspect of the country's heritage.
The "Les plus beaux villages de France" network is a "voluntary" association covering the whole of France. It currently has a total membership of 151 villages, 20% of which are in mountain areas, including the emblematic Bonneval-sur-Arc and La Grave. The association is a useful first point of reference, bearing in mind that many other less well-known villages are also waiting to be discovered!
In the Alps
La Grave - La Meije, in the Oisans
Stone is the dominant raw material here in the Haute-Romanche, which lies in the shadow of the Le Lautaret Pass. A pointed church spire in the village seems to compete with La Meije (3,984m), the symbolic, world-famous peak that dominates the local landscape. The glaciers here stand opposite sunny mountain slopes dotted with terraces and Alpine pastures.
Saint-Véran, in the Queyras]
Officially recognised as the "highest village in Europe", at an altitude of 2,040m, Saint-Véran is the jewel in the crown of this hidden valley in the Queyras boasting a string of charming villages such as Molines, Arvieux, Ceillac etc. Farms built long ago still retain their huge hay barns, crowned by solid timber roofs made from whole trunks of larch (known as "fustes"), a tree typical of the Southern Alps and a popular building material in the region.
Bonneval-sur-Arc, in the Haute-Maurienne
Located at an altitude of 1,800m in a high valley devoid of forests, this village has retained its traditional appearance, with its squat houses made entirely from stone. The roofs of each building are constructed using "lauzes", a flat, very heavy stone, resulting in a gradient that is less pronounced. The hamlet of L'Ecot, at an altitude of 2,770m at the foot of the Iseran Pass, is a fine example of this type of construction.
Combloux and Cordon, in the Pays du Mont-Blanc
Neighbours of the better-known Megève, and with a more authentic and traditional feel, these two discreet villages stand proudly on a delightful mountain slope. With their Baroque churches crowned by an onion-bulb bell tower, small chalets on "stilts" (known locally as "mazots") scattered across verdant meadows, flower-decked balconies, and extraordinary views of the western side of Mont-Blanc, Combloux and Cordon are a "must" for visitors to the region.
Arêches-Beaufort, in Beaufortain
The hamlet of Boudin, situated in this attractive mountain area, is characterised by a "geometric" style of architecture with pointed roofs and perfectly aligned doors and windows. This charm is enhanced by the greenery of the surrounding Alpine pastures dotted with herds of dairy cows: milk from the Tarine breed which graze in these unspoilt mountain landscapes is used to produce Beaufort cheese.
La Chapelle d'Abondance, at the heart of the Chablais
Another example of a mountain range that has retained its agricultural and pastoral identity, the Chablais is characterised by charming farms with elongated roofs and balconies built using an attractive mix of masonry and wood. Here, also, herds of cows, as well as cheese from the Val d'Abondance, are an integral part of village life.
Around La Clusaz, in the Les Aravis chain
This area is another mountain range which harbours a thriving mountain pasture tradition (hence the famous Reblochon Fermier cheese!) despite the development of high-quality tourism. To catch a glimpse of old traditional chalets, you'll need to head towards the hamlet of Les Confins or the neighbouring village of Manigod. Wood is the predominant construction material used in this area.
Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, at the end of the Vallée du Giffre
Samoëns, a charming village resort officially listed as a "Pays d'Art et d'Histoire", and Morillon are considered the most popular destinations in this high mountain range. However, the village of Sixt, at the foot of a cirque of cliffs known as the "Fer-à-Cheval" (horseshoe), is known more for its atmosphere than its architecture. Although not at a very high altitude, the village is surrounded by wild, impressive landscapes.
Yvoire, on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the Haute-Savoie
This small picture-postcard medieval town on the south side of the lake has the appearance of a resort on the French Riviera, providing a completely different image of the French Alps.
The hill-top villages of the Pays Niçois
The Alpes du Mercantour plunge dramatically down to the sea between Nice and Menton. This balcony overlooking the Mediterranean is home to a string of magnificent and precariously balanced hill-top villages with stunning views at altitudes of between 500m and 800m. Sainte-Agnès, Castellar, Peille and Peillon are just a few examples of these.
Sainte-Engrâce, in the Vallée de la Soule (Pyrenees)
Nestled at an altitude of 680m, at the end of the Vallée de la Soule (or Xiberoa), between the Basque Country and the Béarn, this small village is home to a Romanesque chapel and typically Basque discoidal steles. Sainte-Engrâce maintains its pastoral agricultural traditions with sheep-farming (managed according to the local "cayolars" collective farming system) in the rolling green hills that surround the village.
Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez, on a north-facing slope of the Mont Pilat range
This unusual village, at an altitude of 420m, retains the vestiges of a former monastery. It was here that a former charterhouse, dating from the 13C and comprising small houses which were once part of a hermitage, was divided into 40 lots for peasants at the time of the French Revolution.
The village is situated on the northern flank of the Pilat range, overlooking the industrial Le Giers valley between Lyon and Saint-Etienne.
Known as the "Île de Beauté" (Island of Beauty), Corsica has the appearance of a "mountain rising from the sea", with numerous hill-top villages at altitudes of around 500m. A noteworthy example of this is the village of Sant'Antonino in the hills of the Balagne (inland from the town of Calvi), with its relatively steep terraced orchards.
Baume-les-Messieurs, in the Jura
Nestled amid a stunning landscape of cliffs and folds which are typical of the Jura, this village owes its name to a cave (or "baume") and a Benedictine abbey (the "messieurs" referred to in the name were the monks). The exceptional Romanesque-style altarpiece here is particularly worthy of note.
Usson, in the Auvergne
Clinging to a picturesque volcanic piton facing the Le Puy mountain range at an altitude ranging from 400m to 600m, this village in the region of Livradois-Forez (not to be confused with Usson-en-Forez, 80km further east) is noteworthy for its black stone houses and its homage to Queen Margot, who was incarcerated here at the end of the 16C. It is also worth visiting the local "basalt organs" nearby - an interesting geological feature comprising stunning rock formations.