We often associate the southern coastal stretch of France with azure waters, nightlife, and affluent beach resorts. While these are quite enjoyable, you need to go off the grid to see the heritage lying underneath. Southern France is home to small towns or villages that will put you on a time machine. The medieval heritage is quite well-preserved, as well as the delicate artwork. The best part is, they are right under your nose if you are visiting popular spots like Nice.
Here is a list of the best historic towns in Provence, where art and nature reside in harmony.
Provence is well-known for its medieval towns, but St. Paul De Vence takes the nostalgia to another level. Built atop a hill overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean, the village boasts a unique layout with the steep cobbled streets. Despite looking polished, the stone houses date back to the 16th century, the era of King Francis I. If you feel mesmerized by the quaint atmosphere, you are not alone, as the town was an art mecca for famous artists for centuries.
Starting from the iconic fountain built at the heart of the town in 1615, you can get lost among the narrow streets. However, you shouldn’t underestimate the thriving art scene.
Every artist who visited St. Paul De Vence left a trace. The most notable name is perhaps Aime Maeght, the Parisian art collector, who built Foundation Maeght and introduced a collection comprising works of some of her close friends. To give you an idea of what to expect, he was close friends with Juan Miro and Marc Chagall.
Another element that makes the town iconic is the abundance of chapels with distinct architectural styles. The chapels in St. Paul De Vence, such as Chapelle du Rosarie and La Chapelle Folon, stand out not only with their silhouettes but also the colorful mosaics and stained glasses inside.
For panoramic views, you should head out for Cimetiere de Saint-Paul-De-Vence. Not only will you find stunning views of French Riviera but also the grave of painter Marc Chagall, whose influence became ingrained on every inch of the town throughout the 20 years he spent here.
This medieval town nestled 14 km from Nice and Cannes was initially named Tourettes-sur-Vence, until the French Revolution. From the minute you set foot, you get surrounded by Romanesque buildings covered up in violets. In fact, this flower has a particular role in Tourettes-sur-Loup’s economy and local life. With the artisan community of more than 40 craftsmen, the town has a thriving potential for arts and crafts based on violet crystallization and decoration.
If you are curious about how violets became the symbol of this town, you should visit La Bastide Aux Violets. If you visit Tourettes-sur-Loup in March, you will be lucky enough to witness their annual flower festival.
To blend into the artisan community, take a stroll in Grand Rue at the town center, comprising at least 30 art shops.
Tourettes-sur-Loup has well-preserved buildings dating back to the 15th century, such as Church St. Georgie, and Chateau Des Villeneuve.
If you want to get your muscles pumped up, you can cycle or hike the several hiking trails around Tourettes-sur-Loup. You are also quite close to Puy de Tourettes, where you can join adventurous activities like canyoning, paragliding, or even skiing.
Only 10 km away from the buzzing vacationers of Nice, the village of Eze will take you on a time machine back to medieval times. Of the historic villages in Southern France, Eze is one of the oldest, with a history dating back to the 9th century. Its serenity attracted many influential people, including Nietzsche, who hiked from the coast to the village regularly in the 1880s. If you are tired of holiday crowds and in search of a tranquil getaway with panoramic views of Cote d’Azur, look no further.
Although partially dilapidated, the fortified walls of Eze remained mostly intact and open to admiration. Among the historic structures, Chapelle De La Sainte Croix is one of the oldest buildings constructed in the 14th century. You can recognize the bright yellow walls of the chapel from all over the village.
Eze stands out not only for its stunning architecture but also for the breath-taking greenery. You can even succulents like cactus growing all over the stone walls. For a closer gaze, visit Le Jardin Exotique d’Eze for cacti species and other indigenous plants.
As an outdoor lover, you will enjoy walking Nietzsche’s Path. It is a moderate hike with rewarding views along the way and in the end.
Imagine a medieval French commune with a sprinkle of Italian influence; Saorge near the Italian border fits the definition perfectly.
Although it has a peaceful atmosphere among lush hills, Saorge’s history is quite intense, especially after the French Evolution. In 1794, it witnessed the epic Battle of Saorgio between Sardinia and the First French Republic.
The village is full of ancient houses from the 15th century with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The oldest building in Saorge – from 1092, is La Madone del Poggio Church built by Cistercian Monks. Being seven-stories tall, this iconic church is visible from everywhere in Saorge. Also, you should look out for the baroque church Notre-Dae-des-Miracles that the Franciscan monks built in the 17th century.
With Valee de la Roya and Bendola Canyon surrounding the village, you will have plenty of options to hike and go up to 1300 m above sea level. The canyon is also open to travelers wanting to indulge in extreme sports like abseiling and rafting.
Half an hour to the north of Nice, there lays a hidden gem often ranked as one of the most beautiful villages of France. Coaraze’s establishment was on the slopes of a massive sandstone called Mount Ferion that peaks at over 1400 meters. It is a sun-drenched place, but surely has a fair share of quirky legends. Its name extends as Castellum Cuade Rase, meaning cut tail, which derived from the story of the villagers who managed to catch the Devil by his tail.
From Renaissance frescoes to cobblestone arches, Coaraze is an open-air museum with traces of several famous architects.
The most significant buildings in Coaraze cluster around the Church Square. The oldest building is the Saint-Jean Baptiste Church with a distinct baroque architecture of the 14th century. Another iconic structure is the Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs Chapel that stands out with its radiating blue paint. Gazing at the walls of this bright-colored chapel, you will see depictions of Jesus’ life story. Only one kilometer outside the village, you will come across St. Sebastien Chapel known for its elegant frescoes that illustrate the plague endemic in the area.
Coaraze is a popular spot among artists who settle here for a temporary retreat, so you will have dozens of galleries to explore!
Perched alongside Paillon Valley, Peillon is another picturesque village close to Nice. It was one of the Provence villages that continuously passed onto different rulers. Peillon was initially under the rule of the House of Savoy from the 13th to the 18th century. After the French Revolution, it kept changing hands between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the French Republic.
Compared to the other villages on our list, Peillon is much more rural and authentic due to the absence of souvenir shops and big restaurants.
Before getting lost on the narrow pavements of Peillon, you should make sure to reach the top of the village. You will find ruins of a castle with a Romanesque Chapel from the 12th century, as well as the Church of Transfiguration built during the 18th century. It is an ideal spot for taking panoramic shots of the landscape.
Don’t miss out on Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Douleurs des Penitents Blancs, where you will find frescoes from the 15th century made by Jean Canavesio.
Sainte Agnes is one of the highest villages in France with an altitude of 800 meters. One wonders how people were able to settle in the first place, considering the rugged terrain and the steep slopes. Strangely enough, excavations at the site suggest that the earliest signs of life in St Agnes go way back to 3000 years ago. Also, the ruins of the fortress Romans built to defend the town 2000 years ago remain in one piece.
There are speculations as to who founded St Agnes. Some say that it was a Saracen king who fell in love with a maid and followed her here, while others mention an Italian prince on an expedition who took shelter in one of the cages here during a thunderstorm.
Compared to its neighbors, St Agnes is harder to reach, which adds to its mysterious atmosphere.
The first stop on your visit to St Agnes should be Maginot Line Fort, which had a significant role during the Second World War in terms of defense. You can enter the rooms inside by paying a small entry fee.
Another remarkable place to visit in St. Agnes is the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Although the initial construction was in 1535, the baroque church got destroyed a few times in the past due to fires and wars. Thankfully, the restoration attempts were successful.
Walking uphill on a steep path to the top, you will stumble upon the ancient castle of Sainte Agnes. Archeologists believe that the building dates back to the 10th century but underwent restoration several times. You can notice that parts of the castle have gone through severe destruction, as it was a battle frontier between France and Italy between the 14th and the 17th centuries. Don’t forget to stroll around the small medieval garden outside, and you might even come across the local volunteers who are desperately trying to keep the plants alive.
Imagine a medieval village with a massive canyon crossing the center. Describing Moustiers as one of the most beautiful villages in France would be an understatement.
When you approach the village, your eyes will first meet a gold-painted star hanging on a chain between two cliffs. Although the origin of the star is not clear, the legend describes a knight called Bozon de Blacas, who was born and bred here. When the Saracens held him a prisoner, he promised to hang a star over the village upon his release.
Moustiers has had a long-rooted history in pottery, especially faience. The abundance of ceramic-making also made it a trade center of pottery in the Mediterranean.
You shouldn’t leave Moustiers without visiting the Gorges of the Verdon, the Grand Canyon of Europe. The waterfall in the center is a natural phenomenon that keeps the village alive 24/7. The turquoise waters of the Verdon River not only breathe life into Moustiers but also boast a potential of outdoor activities, such as rafting.
One of the oldest buildings is the Church of Notre Dame de l’Assomption. The architectural transition over the centuries is remarkable because you can recognize both the original roman style from the 12th century and the gothic style from the 16th century. Further up the gorge, you will find the Chapel-Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir from the 9th century, a regular checkpoint for pilgrims in the middle ages.
Now that we have mentioned pottery, we should also make a note of the lovely pottery shops. The most exciting part is that you can even witness the pottery making process in a workshop.
Roussillon is one of those villages where the natural history shaped up the anthropic history. The first sight to strike your eye is the shades of red, orange, and pink, which is the result of the iron ochre deposits around the village, one of the largest in the world. As you can guess, it became the center of the mining industry in France from the moment of its discovery in the 18th century. The pigments extracted from here were widely used in textile and cosmetics.
Today, the mining activities are obsolete, but you can still revisit those times on Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Path) that contains several artworks and ends at the foot of one of the ochre quarries.
If you want to explore further, you should then head towards the Conservatoire des Ocres et des Pigments Appliques- a former ochre factory, turned into an art school and museum.
As you are strolling through the pink-washed streets in Roussillon, make sure to pop into the galleries containing artworks of famous artists from Jean Cocteau to Ambrogiani.
Among the cliffs of Les Monts de Vaucluse, Gordes dominates the mountain range on top of calcareous rock. Its history spans almost the entire history of Europe, from the occupation by the Roman Empire to the 20th century.
The Second World War witnessed a heroic resistance from Gordes against the German forces, who took the village hostage. The life-threatening conditions didn’t stop the residents of the village from fighting back. Later on, the French government awarded the town with a medal called the Croix de Guerre.
The first destination on your itinerary should be Castrum Gordone built in the 10th century to protect the village from the Arab invasion. The nearby Pol Mara Museum is also worth a visit to find out more about the famous Flemish painter and his contemporary art.
Other old buildings include the Romanesque Saint Firmin Church and Saint Jacques Chapel.
There is more underneath the Saint Firmin Palace. The underground cellars served not only as a shelter during the war but also as a critical location for oil production in Gordes.
You can spend your afternoon walking on the Gordes Promenade for gorgeous views of the Luberon region.
* FAQs *
When was St. Paul De Vence built?
In the 1540s
How do I get from Nice to St. Paul De Vence?
St. Paul De Vence is 21 km from Nice. You can take the train from Cagnes Sur Mer in Nice to St. Paul de Vence. You can also take the n400 bus from Nice Albert 1er Verdun to the St. Paul de Vence station.
What are the best day trips from Tourettes-sur-Loup?
There are smaller villages near Tourettes-sur-Loup, such as Florian, Gourdon, and Grasse.
What is famous about Eze?
Eze is known for its beautiful scenery overlooking the French Riviera and the medieval architecture.
How do you get from Nice to Eze?
From Nice, you can take the bus no 82 that departs once an hour. Nice is approximately 12 km from Eze.
How far is Monaco from Eze?
Eze is only 9 km from Monaco.
Which hotels in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie have excellent views?
The top-rated hotels are La Relais de Moustiers, La Bastide De Moustiers and Hotel le Colombier.
Who are the first inhabitants of Roussillon?
Iberians, before the Roman occupation
Where should I stay in Roussillon?
The top-rated hotels are as follows:
La Maison des Ocres
Les Sables d’Ocre
Villa des Roses
What is famous about Provence?
Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur is widely known for the idyllic countryside, medieval heritage, wine production, and art scene.
What is the best time to visit Provence?
The best time to visit Provence is either the spring (March-May) or early autumn (September-October) to avoid the crowds and enjoy mild weather.
How many days do I need in Provence?
You would need at least four days to visit the medieval villages, possibly more if you want to stay over and join hiking tours.
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