Ode to Occitanie: the Most Beautiful Villages in Southwest France
Updated: 6 days ago
Here's my guide to Occitanie, a must see region of sunny southern France. It lies in the warm and sensuous southwest corner, a merger of the former regions of Languedoc Rousillon and the Midi-Pyrenees. Occitanie is a secret out of the way land of wine and wonder -- chock full of art, castles, wine, and cassoulet. And not chock full of tourists.
Lonely Planet describes Occitanie as "feeling like a country within its own right." While the tourists head to Provence, you can head here. Occitanie has buzzing cosmopolitan cities like Toulouse, Montpelier, and Nimes (all worth a visit). But I found that the dreamy historic towns and hilltop villages held the most appeal.
Here are my picks for the best villages to visit in southwest France:
12 Most Beautiful Villages in Southwest France
1. Carcassonne, a Medieval Marvel
The first site of Carcassonne takes your breath away. Carcassonne is a 13th century fantasy world of towers, turrets, walls, winding alleys, and moats. As historian Anthony Horowitz has said, "In no other city I've visited does history feel so alive."
The UNESCO-listed Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers, each one crowned with fantastical “witch hat” turrets. It will appeal to fans of the knight in shining armor era, a group in which I unabashedly include myself.
Because tourists flock in droves to the walled city, you should attack the UNESCO-listed citadel at off peak hours or off season. Or consider staying overnight to enjoy the village after the day trippers leave.
You can also visit Carcassonne's lower city, the Bastide St-Louis. It's inappropriately called the "new town," when in fact it was built in the 13th century. It has a magnificent tree-lined square, the Place Carnot, where you can relax and let the world go by over a coffee or glass of wine.
Here's my complete guide to the town of Carcassonne, which is an absolute must see site in southern France.
2. Collioure: On the Fauvist Trail
Collioure lies at the feet of the chilly Pyrénées, just a few miles from Spain. It's a lovely seaside town, with impressive fortifications rising from the bay and pretty pastel houses everywhere. It's also an oasis of sophistication, with chic cafes and restaurants lining pedestrianized streets.
Because of its famous light, in 1905, Collioure became the center of André Derain and Henri Matisse’s Fauvism movement. The Fauves were dubbed the "wild beasts" of the art world.
They focused on pure color, taking ideas from the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. You can follow the "Fauvism Trail" to find 19 of their most famous works of art.
When you're done strolling the beach and medieval streets, visit the Chateau Royal. It's an 800 year old chateau with great rampart walks and killer views. Collioure is postcard perfect and, unlike Carcassonne, still largely undiscovered. It's the perfect spot to relax and unwind, if you've been frantically touring.
3. Lagrasse: a Beautiful Abbey Village
Lagrasse is a picturesque medieval village listed as one of France's "les plus beaux villages." It's halfway between Narbonne and Carcassonne and sits on the River Orbieu. Like other towns on my list, it's been designated a "plus beaux village" in France.
The famous and very well preserved Abbey of Lagrasse, founded in 799, is on the opposite bank. It's still a Benedictine Abbey. You may see monks in white robes as you meander around the grounds. The abbey has been listed as a historic monument since 1923.
Lagrasse also has pretty houses cobblestone streets from the 14th to the 16th centuries. It's 12th century hump back bridge is a charming looker. It's a perfect detour on your way to the Cathar castles further south. The Chateau de Termes, a ruined Cathar Castle, is right next door.
4. Lastours: Eerie Cathar Castles
The eerie Lastours with its vestiges of mythical medieval Cathar castles is only 10 miles to the north of Carcassonne. There, four castles perch on a rocky spur of the Black Mountains, one of the most ardent spot's of Cathar resistance.
You can scamper up the steep gorge via a rugged mountain trail. Access was obviously not meant to be easy or painless. The best view is from Cabaret castle. Le Puits du Trésor, a renowned Michelin-starred restaurant, sits below on the banks of the River Orbiel, if hiking stokes your appetite.
5. Minèrve: Perched Over a Gorge
Minèrve is another of France's les plus beaux villages. Minèrve is perfectly lovely and photogenic. It boasts charming cobbled streets and stone houses perched high above deep gorges accessed by a high bridge. The unique fortress was "born from a tumultuous geological history and from the action of water over limestone over eons, which carved the rock into narrow canyons."
You have a splendid view of the canyons during a rampart walk. Minèrve was also a Cathar stronghold. It was the site of a famous siege in the medieval ages, in which the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort prevailed, vanquishing the pesky Cathar rebels.
The Dove, a sculpture by Jean-Luc Séverac, commemorates the Cathars who Montfort burned at the stake in 1210. It sits in front of the 12th century Romanesque Church of Saint Etienne.
6. Albi: Pay Homage to Toulouse-Lautrec
Albi is a serious town, with the suggestion of hidden treasure. It occupies a central position in Occitanie and is thus an ideal base for touring. Carcassonne, Toulouse, and the delightful village of Cordes sur Ceil are all within an hour radius. What’s more, very few people outside France know just how fantastic town Albi is. Thus, it doesn't suffer from over-tourism.
Albi was listed as a UNESCO site in 2010 and is a strangely affecting, despite the weight of its past or perhaps because of it.
Situated on the Tarn River, Albi is a perfect ensemble of militaristic medieval architecture and a vibrate urban center. It has a stunning almost militaristic cathedral, Albi Cathedral. It's one of the world's largest brick structures and is a place of superlatives both inside and outside.
Another imposing citadel, the Berbie Palace, houses the Toulouse Lautrec Museum. The museum is fantastic, boasting a huge cache of the Post-Impressionist's vibrant art. Both structures ooze power and stand as a symbol of the Catholic triumph over the Cathars.
Here's my complete guide to visiting the UNESCO-listed Albi.
7. Perpignan: Where France and Spain Meet
Perpignan is a quiet, perfect jewel of a place that is a casual, calm and convivial mix of France and Spain. It's hidden away in the most southeast nook of France where the sun shines most of the year.
Perpignan is a network of cliffs, creeks, and vineyards that most tourists miss. It exudes old town charm, with beautiful Mediterranean architecture and winding medieval streets. Visit the Castillet, a prison fortress in the historic center.
The 14th century Palace of the Kings of Mallorca and Gothic town hall are highlights of Perpignan. Salvador Dali once proclaimed that the Perpignan train station, which inspired his painting, was the "center of the universe." It's not really, but the station has a splashy, unruly, wildly painted ceiling in tribute to the artist.
8. Pézenas: a Stone Village of Pastel Houses
Antique Pézenas is a sophisticated and appealing blend of restaurants, cafes, crafts shops, and art galleries. Until the late 18th century, it was the seat of the Governors of Languedoc. This left the town with stately Renaissance and Baroque architecture – over 100 buildings are listed as “historic.”
Strolling through the perfectly preserved town is the highlight of a visit to Pezenas. Admire the statue of St. Roch (with his dog) carved into the corner of a building. Take in the "hotel particulars," the medieval mansions of the rich and famous. If you want to visit one, I'd recommend the Hotel de Lacoste, a spot which was even visited by Louis XIV.
Pezenas was also a base for the playwright Moliere and his traveling actors. Moliere is thought to be one of France's greatest dramatists and writers, most famous for his play Tartuffe. The town loves Moliere and you'll find restaurants and shops named after him. At the tourist office, there's a 3D film show on his life.
9. Pont du Gard: a Grand Roman Aqueduct
The 2000 year old Pont du Gard is a UNESCO site and a surviving scrap of an ancient Roman aqueduct spanning the Gardon River. Originally, it was 50 kilometres long and stretched from a spring in Uzès down to Nîmes.
Even now, you can't appreciate how large it is until you stand in front of it. With its three tiers of rhythmic arches, it's a dramatic site.
You cross the river on the lowest of the arches. If you're visiting in summer, do not resist the urge to dip your feet in or swim in the river afterward.
You won't be alone; this spectacular site is a place for relaxing as well as experiencing history. There's also an impressive museum, which explains the engineering and history of the aqueduct.
10. Uzes: A Golden Hued Village
Uzes is a honey hued historic town dating back to Roman times with a charming baguette-in-hand-on-the-way-home-from-the-market vibe.
The Renaissance architecture is beautiful. Its elegant squares are the perfect place for lunch or espresso. I chose the outdoor patio of Restaurant Ten, with its atmospheric ribbed vaulted ceilings, on the Place Aux Herbes for lunch.
You can also visit Le Duché, the duke's residence. The dukes of Uzes have lived in this impressive chateau castle on and off for a thousand years. But, mostly, just stroll the creamy limestone streets and admire the renovated architecture.
Along the way, you'll see the Cathedral of St. Theodorit, the leaning Fenestrelle tower, and the medieval garden. Uzes is a true, other Provence, gem.
11. Najac: Fairytale Castle Town
Najac is a tiny quaint town that's steep and hilly. It's reminiscent of Rocamadour in the Dordogne region, with its fetching built-into-a-cliff look. Perhaps because of this striking setting, Najac is listed as one of France's les plus beaux villages.
Park on the Avenue de la Gare and then enter the historic village. Stroll down its one main street. The Place du Faubourg is Najac's market place. There's you'll find tiny cafes and shops.
Looming over Najac is its fortress castle, the Chateau de Najac. Built by the counts of Toulouse in the 12th century, it's listed as a historical monument. It's a fairly steep but manageable hike up to the castle.
The climb is well worth it. The turreted castle is a real stunner with a fairytale look that conjures battles scenes and knights. You can peak at the murals in St. Julien's chapel and gaze out the terrace of the central keep for a sweeping view.
12. Conques: a Pink UNESCO Village
Conques is a tiny hidden gem in Occitanie. There's just one main road that wraps around the pretty-in-pink town. The pink hued buildings have fish scale slate roofs. And there are some attractive half timbered houses more typical of the Alsace region.
Amble down to the main square with the cathedral. There, you'll find some espresso and ice cream shops and can linger outside.
The main site in Conques is the Abbey Church of St Foy and its cloisters. The 12th century Romanesque abbey is a UNESCO-listed site and a main stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. It's most notable for the the frieze above its entry tympanum showing the kingdom of heaven and hell.
13. Lourdes: Pilgrimmge Town
You've likely heard of Lourdes. It's famed as a village of miracles. Legend holds that a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, had visions of the Virgin Mary. Since then, Loures has been a major Catholic pilgrimage site.
Soubirous saw her visions in Lourdes' Grotto of Apparitions, now a holy site. The spring water from the grotto is said to have curative powers. You can immerse yourself in the Sanctuary Baths yourself (after waiting in line). Or just fill up your water bottle at the fountain.
Above the grotto is the 19th century Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. You can admire the interiors (for free) and and attend a torchlit processional at night. There are also guided tours during high season.
Perched on limestone cliffs in the Lot River valley, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is one of France's les plus beaux villages. And it deserves the designation. The tiny medieval town looks straight out of a storybook.
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has more than a dozen buildings listed as historic monuments. High above the village, you'll see the scattered remains of a once mighty fortress.
The village was popular with artists, especially the Surealists. The founder of the Surrealism moment, Andre Breton, said of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie: "Here, I've ceased wishing myself elsewhere."
If you're a Francophile like me or like ferreting out hidden gems in France, check out my other posts:
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