A two-day-old pain au chocolat sums up the problem. Capdenac-le-Haut is a fortified hilltop settlement in south-west France that fiercely resisted the English during the Hundred Years War. It has a lovely square, a proud mairie and a ruined castle overlooking the horseshoe bend of the Lot far below. Unusually for modern France, this hamlet of a hundred souls even has a shop – a boulangerie, no less. But when I bite into the rancid pastry I buy there, my tastebuds confirm what my eyes have already registered. This is a ghost town. There’s barely anyone around, clearly not enough for fresh baking.
In crowded Britain villages like this would be overrun by city dwellers seeking pretty weekend cottages. But France is littered with beautiful villages – what to do with them all? One answer is Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This association was formed in 1982 when 66 mayors of picturesque French villages came together to defend their patrimoine – local heritage. Today there are 156 Plus Beaux Villages across 21 regions and 69 départements, including Capdenac. To qualify as a potential member a village must have fewer than 2,000 inhabitants and at least two historical sites. To be accepted it must convince the inspectors on dozens of points to do with preserving its architecture and traditions.
From Capdenac I drive to Provence to meet Maurice Chabert, mayor of Gordes, who is president of the association. Gordes looks like a film set for a certain kind of Provence: turquoise-shuttered stone houses that seem to tumble down the steep hillsides; boxes of fruit stacked up outside an épicerie; pavement cafés with blackboards proposing the formule du jour; a man in a pink Lacoste polo shirt whizzing by in a Renault Clio; three tall crop-haired gendarmes with an air of menace passing the 16th-century castle. It gets packed out in summer, a woman selling postcards tells me. “The end of June is lovely, with the lavender out. After July 14 [Bastille Day] it’s awful.”
You can see the château from the mayor’s office. Chabert is a short wizened ex-teacher in his late seventies who speaks with great certainty about Gordes. Nothing is left to chance. There are 700 swimming pools but you’d never know – natural stone is the only colour permitted. There are no traffic lights or overhead powerlines, and soon car parking is to be put underground at great expense.
I ask him why villages still matter. Nearly everyone has a grandparent or father who worked on the land and relied on a village, he replies. “It’s part of our culture. Industry started late here. La France profonde still exists. In the United States you don’t have that – the village with a château, church, a square where people play boule and sit and talk.”
The problem is that there are 32,000 villages in France with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Many have a church, square or château. Being classified attracts state subsidy for restoration projects, brings in tourists and allows some of the stardust from the most popular ones to rub off on their lesser-known contemporaries. There are meetings between the mayors so that lessons can be shared across the organisation. “We try to avoid mass tourism in favour of quality tourism,” he says. A website, guidebook and maps are available to promote the villages. Little-known villages that are accepted can see an increase in visitor numbers of 40 or 50 per cent, he says. About 20 or 30 villages, such as Gordes or Riquewihr, in Alsace, are famous in their own right but the others need the association’s brand.
Halfway through the interview the photographer and I suggest we repair to a pavement café. Chabert looks grave. He explains that the owners of the rival cafés will get jealous. He’d rather do it at a village down the hill from Gordes. I have to stifle a laugh – we’re back in the peasant universe of Jean de Florette. In the end we prevail, Chabert is greeted like a hero by the café’s patron and, over glasses of white and rosé, we get down to practicalities.
Every year Chabert receives 10 applications from villages wishing to join, of which two are successful. Villages are revisited every six years and two are shortly to be disqualified. The mayor is a purist and thinks supermarkets, industry and other signs of modernity have no place in these villages. But can’t gentrification go too far?
Today there are 800 second homes in Gordes, a village with a population of 1,900 and in the winter most of the little shops are closed. But for Chabert that’s not a problem. Many families want to keep a link to their terroir for a few weeks a year, while tourists may want to explore markets and cultural events. It’s this act of keeping alive rural France that Les Plus Beaux Villages is all about, he says. “The young go off to be engineers in the town to make a living. But later they’re happy to return to the village during holidays, to go back to nature.” He pauses before turning the conversation to himself. “I don’t want to try to find paradise in a town, it’s here!”
Tom de Castella travelled from Portsmouth to Caen as a guest of Brittany Ferries (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk)