The Best Loved Villages in France

The Best Loved Villages in France

Looking for a gift for a France-obsessed traveler? This beautiful new coffee table book from the venerable Flammarion publishing house is sure to inspire wanderlust. The Best Loved Villages of France showcases 44 diverse hamlets, highlighting hidden treasures and local wisdom. Stéphane Bern, a prominent TV presenter and journalist at Le Figaro, spent two years crisscrossing the country in order to select two villages that captured the spirit of each region. The resulting TV series, Le village préféré des Français, was a smash hit, and the resulting book beautifully illustrates these village discoveries. A celebration of rural heritage, The Best Loved Villages of France also serves as a delightful travel guide for plotting your next France journey.

In this exclusive excerpt, we take a tour of Vézelay in Burgundy…

Vézelay’s main attraction is the meditative atmosphere of the basilica of Sainte- Marie-Madeleine. Located 150 miles (240 km) from Paris, atop one of the last hills before the end of the Morvan, this jewel of Romanesque art restored by Viollet-le-Duc has watched over the village since the twelfth century. An important pilgrimage center and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the basilica towers over a medieval settlement of 450 inhabitants, where some of the narrow, winding streets date back to the fifteenth century. The church is approached from the main street lined with houses whose cellars open directly onto the sidewalk. Tourists come in droves to follow in the footsteps of some great writers: Georges Bataille, René Char, Paul Éluard, Paul Claudel, and Romain Rolland all chose to reside here and to climb the “Inspired Hill.” It is indeed an inspirational place: listening to a four-voiced polyphonic Vespers sung by the monks and nuns of the Fraternity of Jerusalem is an intensely emotional experience. If you ask the Very Reverend François Tricart, proctor of the basilica and its current overseer, why people have been coming to Vézelay for a thousand years, he invariably answers: “Because of Mary Magdalene.” Relics of the saint and disciple of Jesus have been preserved here since the eleventh century.

You can ask Marc Meneau—the prizewinning chef of L’Espérance, a superb hotel and restaurant where singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg spent the last years of his life (without ever crossing the threshold of the basilica)—anything you wish about Vézelay. His enthusiasm warms the heart. No one knows this place better than he does. “The five-hundred-year-old roots and soil of my village have taught me how to cook in a way that resembles me: it’s a local cuisine, inspired by Vézelay. My father’s saddlery, and my mother’s café and grocery store, dictated a style of cooking that’s like me. It’s one that makes the eyes shine with pleasure, a combination of local influences, of my travels around the world, and of the development of tastes. Between 1970 and today, extensive building works converted the grocery store into an inn, and then into a ‘Relais & Châteaux’ hotel-restaurant where the kitchen gives us hope,” explains the chef of L’Espérance. Keen to offer all-natural produce, he has his own vineyard and organic kitchen garden. Is he Vézelay’s “mascot,” as some claim? He doesn’t seem to object to the suggestion.

Every wall, every street in Vézelay drips with history—some of it significant, some of it less so. It was here in 1146 that St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade in the presence of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine; and it was here in 1190 that Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart met before joining the Third. At a bend in a lane one comes across the Porte Neuve abutting a twelfth-century wall. This “new” gate is famous for its appearance in the Resistance comedy La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now . . . We’re Being Shot At!), in which actors André Bourvil and Louis de Funès speed through it on their bicycles. Indeed, the majority of the night scenes, such as the one in which the two stars hide from the Germans, were filmed here.

At Le Pontot, the café at the foot of the basilica where the villagers usually meet up, Marc Meneau pops in for a drink. “Those who come to Vézelay looking for Jesus should realize that he’s in this house,” he booms, giving the proprietor’s hand a goodly shake. “Hi there, Jesus, I’ve come to have a look at your pretty house. Jesus dwells in this seventeenth-century house and he also lets out rooms. Who’d have thought it? You can even sleep with the angels!” Everyone nods, laughing. But if there is one place Marc Meneau adores, venerates even, more than any other, it is the basilica’s gardens. Standing squarely in front of the vast horizon, he exclaims: “It’s really beautiful. I’d so love to be a painter; green, blue, yellow—the colors!”

The Best Loved Villages of France by Stéphane Bern. Excerpt reprinted by arrangement with Flammarion. 256 pages, hardcover list price $34.95

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  • Hillary
    2014-12-09 18:49:34
    My sister and I had one of the best dinners ever at L'Esperance!