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There’s something about old towns in France that makes you feel like you’ve stepped out of reality and into a storybook. Perhaps it’s the winding narrow streets leading to tall turreted castles filled with flower baskets; the tall crooked half-timbered houses in every shade of the rainbow; or the faded shutters hanging lopsidedly from window panes. Somehow, they have a sense of otherworldliness, a brighter, more colorful and picturesque otherworld that captures your imagination, and your heart.
What’s more, the sheer quaintness of French towns is coupled with unique and deep-rooted histories, some of which span back to the German occupation in WWII, while others span as far back as the days of Leonardo di Vinci.
However, some towns in France are just so picture-perfect that it’s hard to imagine real life unfolding there at all, yet it did, and still does to this very day. We have roamed France, from the beaches of Normandy to the harbours of the French Riviera, and from the vineyards of Bordeaux to the peak of The Alps on the German border, to find you the 10 most fascinating and beautiful storybook towns in France.
Strolling along the Aure River in Bayeux’s peaceful old town with sandy colored medieval stone buildings and vibrant flower pots lined up along them, you’d never believe it was involved in two of history’s biggest battles.
Bayeux is a mere 10 kilometers from the D-Day Landing Beaches, which played an integral part in reclaiming Europe from Nazi Germany, and there are a number of museums, memorials, and cemeteries where you can learn more about it and pay your respects to the fallen.
Bayeux was also involved in the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066 when the Normans tried invading Britain, a story that will never be forgotten thanks to the world-renowned Bayeux Tapestry, which was of course created in this very town.
Carcassonne is famous for its giant citadel, a medieval hilltop fortification overlooking the ‘new town’ below, and the fragrant vineyards in Languedoc’s lush green countryside.
This ancient fortification is built straight out of a medieval dream with drawbridges leading to intimidatingly large arched gates, 53 towering Rapunzel-like turrets, and two traditional crenellated walls surrounded by a moat with a castle, church and a small town inside.
You can wander through the citadel and walk along its imposing walls before treating yourself to a hearty lunch in one of the new town’s excellent French restaurants, and then head to the surrounding vineyards.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is an idyllic French town often dubbed the Venice of Provence, as the River Sorgue forks through it creating a beautiful web of small islands.
Imagine old French ochre and beige buildings with windows framed by green shutters and hanging baskets, narrow canals lined with cafes, petite arched bridges, pretty medieval water wheels and, thanks to the favorable Mediterranean climate, vividly green trees shading every street.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is known for its prominence in art and antique dealing; twice a year, dealers come from around the world to buy and sell their best pieces. There are also, of course, many art galleries and antique stores sprinkled around the town which can be explored year-round.
While Troyes may not be marked as boldly on the champagne route as its neighbors Reims and Epernay, its vineyard and wine cellar tours and tastings are equally exceptional, and it possesses 600 years of history to boot.
Once the capital of Champagne and an important trade route stop, Troyes became a prosperous medieval-style artisanal town and it has remained so ever since with craft shops aplenty.
Crooked half-timbered houses in various shades of daub tower over its narrow, cobbled streets in the Bourg neighborhood, especially on the Ruelle des Chats where its roofs almost meet overhead, while The Cité neighborhood boasts must-see mansions like the Hotel de Vauluisant and the Hotel de Mauroy.
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Sitting at the base of Mont Blanc, The Alps’ tallest mountain, Chamonix is surrounded by piercing mountains which are sugared with snow for most of the year, but turn a vivid green during summer.
This small alpine town, lined with chalet-style buildings with shuttered windows, may look unassuming, but it is filled with an excellent choice of high-end cafes, boutiques and restaurants. And having held the Winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix is a world-renowned ski resort with many enviable ski trails with breathtaking views.
The best views, however, are found on Mont Blanc itself, which can be reached via a 19th century tram that takes you on a scenic ride up to the summit.
Saint-Émilion is a quaint medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking the hilly vineyards of the picturesque Bordeaux wine region.
Although its architecture is much more simplistic than the half-timbered medieval houses found in the east, Saint-Émilion exudes equal amounts of charm with a Monolithic and Collegiate church, grand chateaus and narrow winding streets.
These streets are filled with history, as Saint-Émilion was in fact one of the first places wine was cultivated in the world. So, even if you’re not a wine drinker, there’s plenty to explore and discover about the origins and cultivation of wine in this town.
Or, if you prefer, you can simply wander around its renowned local markets which sell typical French meats, cheeses, seafood and other fresh produce.
Amboise, Indre et Loire
Amboise is a historic town nestled along the quiet Loire River overlooking the scenic Loire Valley, which runs 200km from the west coast all the way to central France.
Its striking scenery has attracted people for centuries, most notably King Charles VIII, Mary Queen of Scots and Leonardo di Vinci who is now entombed in King Charles’ former residence Château Royal d’Amboise. The stunning 11th century white château, which can be explored today, sits on a ledge overlooking the river, allowing its whimsical turrets and its gable to be seen from anywhere in town.
Meanwhile, Leonardo di Vinci’s former residence, Château du Clos Lucé, is hidden on the outskirts of town so he could enjoy painting, botany and inventing before the end of his life.
Vézelay is a whimsical old town perched on a hilltop in the northwestern tip of the Regional Natural Park of Morvan, overlooking vineyards specializing in white wines as far as the eye can see.
Rows of cobblestone houses with typical worn French shutters, blooming hanging baskets and orange tiled roofs cascade down Vézelay’s sleepy streets while a grand abbey rises high above it, making it the postcard traditional French town.
The abbey, named after Saint Mary Magdalene, is the highlight of the town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having held relics of Mary Magdalene herself. Aside from visiting the impressive abbey, the best thing to do here is simply stroll through the streets, enjoying the typical slow pace of life in rural France.
Edging towards the border of Germany, Colmar is a medieval town with a strong Germanic presence.
The old town centre is a jumble of brightly colored half-timber houses and boutiques with steeply sloping gables built along a sleepy canal known as Little Venice, which is typically lined with blooming flowers in the summer and covered in crisp white snow in the winter.
Whatever time of year you visit, Colmar has no semblance of modern life creeping through, making it feel like a magical alternative world that time forgot. The Germanic influence is reflected in the delicious cuisine here, which is impossible not to indulge in, especially as it features gourmet cheese, meats and of course, bretzels.
There’s nothing dreamier than sea views and a salty sea breeze on your skin, and in Villefranche-sur-Mer, you’re likely to enjoy this from anywhere in town since it is perched on the steep coastline of the French Riviera overlooking the Mediterannean Sea.
However, the views are equally impressive from the harbour where you can sit at a cafe and gaze for hours into the endless horizon. Sitting pretty between Nice and Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer is not short of glamour; a number of palaces are dotted around the town, including Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a giant rose-pink palace straight out of a fairytale surrounded by nine themed gardens.
In the more modest part of town you’ll find charmingly narrow cobbled streets aplenty and even a 13th century underground street named Rue Obscure.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.