Selling Your Soul, or How one becomes one of the most beautiful Villages of France.
The Most Beautiful Villages of France is a thing. Kind of like The Most Interesting Man in the World is a thing.
B & I tend to like superlatives. And, apparently, we like countries that like superlatives. Like Iceland’s pride in all things, France takes its beauty and its civility seriously. There are designations for being a Ville/Village Fleurie, a four flower rating system in place since at least the 50s. Rânes is a Village Fleurie (but only earned 1 of 4 possible flowers). When we first arrived, and until I googled it ten minutes ago, I assumed this meant there were awesome flowers. There are here. But it’s bigger than that. It’s about creating an environment that fosters beautiful flowers but it’s also about (and the Ville Fleurie website says it explicitly) about improving the quality of life and making people feel welcome, even if it is only a one flower welcome. Well, shit, that’s awesome.
But, back to the Most Beautiful Villages in France, which are apparently even more special than FlowerTowns. There has been one, yes ONE, village we’ve driven into that has elicited a “meh” from Brett. The town was Jort. No offense to the Jorties, but we just weren’t feeling it. And in high school we called jean shorts worn by dudes jolts. We’ve driven a lot this month. Nearly every place we drive through earns a -cute-, or a -charming-, or a -That’s a nice boulangerie-. Just not Jort. So it seems absurd to think that there is some higher, nay, highest class of beautiful since it would seem to encompass the whole damn country and all 32,000 villages (minus Jort). But there is a ranking and a process.
If you earn the designation you get to place a sign at the entrances to your village.
There are 157 villages that have earned the designation. A village or town must apply and meet a stringent set of requirements, including having fewer than 2,000 residents, at least two protected sites or monuments (ah, they all have bazillion old churches…), and “mass support” for the application. Then you get evaluated, chartered, etc and have 27 objective criteria to meet. The mayor gets interviewed (one aspect of rural French life is no matter how small the town, it has a mairie, or mayor’s office, even if it is wee). No small feat, mes amis. And even then you might get listed “with reservation”. Ouch.
We’ve visited two, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei and Beauvon-en-Auge. The latter was by chance as we drove La Route du Cidre, a 40 km winding journey through the Pays-d’Auge, the region best known for producing Cider, Calvados, and Pommeau. It was cute, for sure, but had a Disney-fied feel. Every one of those Tudor-style buildings seemed to house a storefront for eerily similar old lady hat collections.
The former (former/latter is a skill set I need to practice, sorry) was an intentional visit, and oh so worth it. While it only earned two stars according to Michelin, we were enchanted.
We wandered. We took photos. We managed to sit an enjoy a cup of coffee while Loie crawled around, an unheard of treat even with our pretty mellow kid. We passed a house called “Serendipity.” We discussed the artists that call the town home. As we drove away from the cobblestone streets and charming restos, B asked if I had seen the boulangerie. No. No, I hadn’t. No boulangerie in site, which is an impossibility. Whether you meet the 27 other criteria seems pointless if your town is missing the ONE thing (besides a mairie) every dang town has. Our theory? They sold their bread soul to the devil to get the designation. There is, I fear, no other explanation. Because no matter how beau, a ville sans boulangerie is no ville to me.