It’s no secret that France is full of charming villages, where cobbled streets and half-timbered houses create an ambiance of centuries past. Over the past few years, wandering through tucked away French villages has become a bit of a pastime for me.
Add these villages in the Occitanie region in southern France to your bucket list as each is a delightful glimpse into a time gone by. Bring your curiosity. Bring your camera. You’re going to love this adventure in Occitanie.
Pro Tip: Occitanie is the second-largest administrative region in France and is comprised of 13 departments. We will be visiting towns in the following departments: Aveyron, Lot, Tarn, and Tarn-et-Garonne.
1. Bruniquel, Tarn-et-Garonne
Bruniquel, listed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, is set on a rocky hilltop overlooking the Aveyron River valley. Stone buildings and a maze of cobbled streets make Bruniquel perfect for exploring. Look for stone carvings over ancient doorways, gorgeous arched windows, turrets, and spectacular views over the Aveyron valley. You will get the distinct impression that Bruniquel has not changed much over the centuries. Photographers will be in heaven.
The tiny streets all lead to the main square, Place de l’Horloge, where the impressive stone clocktower continues to watch over its inhabitants. Continue walking up to the summit of Bruniquel to visit its two castles, the old and the new castle. Classified as historical monuments since 1840, the old castle originates from the 13th century and the new castle from the 15th century. Both have rich histories and have seen many changes over the centuries. Wander through the knight’s room, the Renaissance gallery with its sweeping panoramic views, and admire the tower, named after Queen Brunehaut.
Pro Tip: The countryside here is lovely and it is well worth getting off the beaten path to discover sleepy villages tucked into the forest. If you are up for an adventure, make sure you have a good map of the area. Two villages on this list, Penne and Cordes-sur-Ciel, are nearby.
2. Conques, Aveyron
When one steps into the tucked-away village of Conques, one immediately breathes more easily. Perhaps it is due to the fact that pilgrims have been passing through Conques since the 11th century, creating an ambiance of peacefulness and inspiration. Sit in front of the magnificent Romanesque Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy and watch the modern-day pilgrims, walking sticks in hand, resting after a day of hiking the Saint James Pilgrimage route.
The medieval village of Conques is an explorer’s paradise. Birdsong and the sound of the rushing River Dourdou provide a glorious backdrop to the half-timbered houses, cobbled laneways, ancient archways, and church towers.
The famous and incredible Romanesque tympanum over the western doorway of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy depicts the Last Judgement. Carved in the first half of the 12th century, the space shows the kingdoms of heaven and hell. Don’t miss the scale for the weighing of souls. Study its ancient 124 figures which still carry a trace of color.
Pro Tips: Plan to spend a night in Conques to witness the sound and light show. Stand before the tympanum and watch as the 124 sculpted figures are revealed in color. I recommend the Hotel Sainte-Foy located in a 17th-century building, which has views of Sainte-Foy Abbey Church.
3. Cordes-sur-Ciel, Tarn
It’s no wonder that Cordes-sur-Ciel was voted the French people’s favorite village in 2014. I can guarantee you it hasn’t changed since. In fact, it really hasn’t changed too much since it was built in 1222 by one of the Counts of Toulouse. Make the trek up the hill and you’ll be traveling back several centuries.
The walk up the hill to Cordes-sur-Ciel is steep, and oh, so worth it. The views of the countryside are expansive and the winding cobbled lanes are delightful. The stone, half-timbered homes, cascading summer flowers, and pedestrian-only streets create an authentic medieval ambiance.
You don’t need a list of things to check off in Cordes-sur-Ciel. Just wander.
Pro Tip: From May 1 to September 30, there is a tourist train from Place de la Bouteillerie taking you up the steep hill to Cordes-sur-Ciel. Cost: $3.60.
4. Najac, Aveyron
If you like fairy tales, then Najac is the place to visit! Najac is classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages and stretches sleepily along a rocky ridge. The Château de Najac, Najac’s fortress, sits at one end of the ridge guarding the town. Set on a steep hill, the views from Najac over the Aveyron River and its valley are stunning and the birdsong is vibrant. Slow your pace. Breathe in the country air. And imagine living here in the 12th and 13th centuries when Najac was flourishing with a population of 6,000.
Walk from the center of the village, Place du Barry, towards the Château de Najac. Pay the entry fee and marvel at the ruins of the fortress that was built in 1110 by Bertrand, the Count of Toulouse. The fortress was built as part of a defense system to guard the lands along the Aveyron River. The fortresses at Bruniquel and Penne were also part of this defense network.
Notice the height of the tower and the tiny slits for the archers to protect against any oncoming attacks. Be sure to climb the spiral staircase to reach the keep. The views are unrivaled.
Pro Tip: A speciality of Aveyron is the fouace de Najac. It’s a bread created in the shape of a crown with a distinct orange blossom flavor. Keep your eyes open for this gastronomic pleasure!
5. Penne, Tarn
At first glance, Penne takes your breath away. Is it truly possible to build a fortress on a pinnacle of rock? Stretched out along a rocky outcrop, the village is topped by its ancient castle precariously perched with a view far and wide. No wonder Penne is also known as the “eagle’s nest.”
The bucolic setting overlooking the Gresigne Forest, the largest oak forest in the south of France, and the Gorges de l’Aveyron make the village of Penne even more spectacular.
Wander along the narrow, cobbled streets past half-timbered houses and up to the castle where you will be transported back to medieval times. Explanatory panels and interactive guided tours explain the daily activities and festivities that would have taken place in various rooms of the castle. You might even luck out if you visit in peak season, with guides dressed in medieval costumes.
Don’t miss the lovely Church of Saint Catherine with its belfry tower. Built around the end of the 13th century, the church was part of Penne’s defensive system and the entrance to the town.
Pro Tip: It is only a 15-minute drive between Bruniquel and Penne so plan to visit both towns on the same day.
6. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, Tarn-et-Garonne
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val makes an impression from the moment you lay eyes on it. The natural setting of the two rivers, the Aveyron and the Bonnette, along with soaring limestone cliffs, is impressive. Add in the spire of the church towering over the red roofs of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and you’ll be enticed to stay a while.
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is a magnificent bustling town with discoveries to be made at every turn. It developed around a Benedictine Abbey in the 8th century and has the oldest town hall in France: the Romanesque House, dating from 1125. As you stroll the streets of this picturesque town, look for the House of Love and the House of the King.
Movie buffs will know that The Hundred Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren, was filmed in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in 2013.
Pro Tip: I love the Sunday market at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Arrive early to find a parking spot. It’s a fabulous market with plenty of local produce, including saffron and Chasselas de Moissac (white sweet grapes). The clothing and variety of artisanal goods round out the experience at this market.
7. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Lot
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, called one of the most beautiful villages in France, is indeed worthy of the compliment. The town is perched high above a bend in the Lot River, and its jumble of red-roofed homes tumble down the cliffside. The tower of L’Eglise de Saint-Cirq-Lapopie soars over the town and the château ruins provide sweeping views of the lush Lot Valley.
Stroll the steep cobbled streets of this medieval village through Gothic archways, past the 13 designated historic monuments, and crooked half-timbered houses. Take a guided walking tour, organized at the tourist office in the main square. Be sure to pop into the many boutiques selling locally crafted items.
Andre Breton, a French writer, described Saint-Cirq-Lapopie like “an impossible rose in the night.” Yes, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is that magical.
Pro Tip: Looking for a delicious lunch? Le Cantou on Rue de la Pelissaria is a fabulous French gastronomic experience! As you drive up the hill in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, the parking is very well marked. There are several paid parking lots above the village. Once parked, you walk down into Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is definitely on the tourist trail and can get very crowded. Try to arrive early in the day.
Every traveler has a thirst for different experiences. Some examples: