My Belleme, village in France

My Belleme: Most beautiful village in France?

by Teri Murphy, Washington DC, 2008,

Like the Russell Crowe character in "A Good Year," I too passed the best summer of my childhood in my uncle's beautiful village in France. At the time I thought the town's name, Bellême, meant "beautiful soul." Now I know scholars trace it to bellisima, "most beautiful." And thus, even though it is not listed on the official list of most beautiful villages in France, I feel justified in calling it that—just as did those who built its original castle on the defensible highpoint of a ridge line atop beautiful, rolling farmland.

Criteria for most beautiful village in France

My criteria?

  • Old and well preserved, with the one new development standing at a respectful distance and echoing the town's design.
  • Sinuous, curving streets that beckon in all directions.
  • Small enough to see everything on foot, but big enough to require a week to do so—especially if you allow yourself to be lured downhill into surrounding farmlands (population 1,700).
  • A variety of architectural styles—a photographer's dream with no two doors, windows, or walls alike.
  • As my anti-urban planning hero Jane Jacobs would say, there's a "there" there. When you arrive at the main square, you know you're there.
  • Bustling enough to offer a handful of cafes, restaurants, and shops, but quiet enough in the early morning to permit a misty and magical stroll through time.
  • Echoes from all of European history for those who care to do the research: an early Roman arch and moat that now serves as a swan pond, a church sacked and rebuilt several times during religious wars, echoes of 10th century brutal feudal rivalries (English conqueror Robert de Bellême was called "le diable" for roasting peasants on the town square). But also the town saw a fair share of the "belle epoque" when a train brought nobility from Paris to vacation here and wealthy families built factories, raced horses, and sailed in hot air balloons. The train and factories are now gone but several fine houses remain.
  • A church that guide books call "merely a squat 17th century local church," but in whose cool and richly painted and carved interior I find a welcome intimacy after the mega cathedrals of the usual tourist route. Does some of its vibe come from the nearby Buddhist Abbey frequented by the Dalai Lama? (If the church is locked you can ask the grocer across the way for the key.)
  • And of course my family memories...

Childhood memories of the most beautiful village in France

My father died when I was 14, and my mother brought her parents, my sister Tina, and myself from California to visit the village where my grandmother was raised. Still in Bellême at that time in 1965 was my grandmother's brother, Jean Ronçin—Uncle Johnny. He was an assistant to the mayor, and he ran a plumbing store adjacent to the town's oldest landmark: the Roman arch that gave entry to the old walled square. Today a wine boutique graces the spot where I had my first experience of meals that last three hours with laughter and conversation between each course. I was struck by how my family had more education than our french relatives, but they conversed much more easily across a broad range of topics. (I was also struck by being served peas in the middle of my plate—meant to be savored alone rather than as a "side" dish.) And oh-my-gosh the butter-drenched, pureed potatoes served with cutlets of lamb, beef or fish, all also sauteed in butter.

My family stayed in a house several blocks away from Johnny's, through an arch and down a shaded lane. It was called "Carnavay" which I thought was the most beautiful word I had ever heard. (Johnny's daughter, Josiane, said the most beautiful english word she had ever heard was "oleomargarine.")

Our daily routine that summer was simple: eat breakfast, walk to town to buy postcards, return to write them on the deck overlooking the garden, walk back to town to buy stamps, take the cards to the post office, have a large meal at Johnny's, read a book in a cafe, nap, return to Johnny's for dinner. And on Thursday mornings, visit the farmer's market in the town square where a man roasting chickens on a spit basted them regularly with garlic and butter.

The routine livened up a bit after my sister and I hooked up with some local kids. Belleme has a motocross, an annual motorcycle race on a winding hillside course, so all the kids rode souped up bikes or minibikes. They took us to the town's pool, tennis court, miniature golf, and for walks in the famous old-growth forest where mushrooms draw connoisseurs from all over Europe. But our favorite activity was to hang out with the french kids in a local cafe, awed that a 14 year old was allowed to order beer. We were even more awed when someone called out, "Fâites un melange," and everyone mixed their beverages into one large glass: beer, chocolate milk, Orangina, Coke, and coffee, and the "melange" was passed around for everyone to sip from.

Grown up echoes

On my recent return to Bellême with Tina and my nieces in 2008, we found very little changed: flowers in the town square, businesses moved to new locations, and a golf resort and residential development at a respectful distance. Where the cheese shop used to be was now an Internet cafe, and in front of it lounged a group of handsome youths that could have been the same group we hung out with 40 years ago.

We stayed at the Hotel Relais St. Louis and were thrilled to learn upon arrival that it was directly across from the swan pond. Very charming with a fire place and suit of armor in the dining room and rooms that were small but cheery and look directly over the pond and across to historic mansions. We did not dine there, instead enjoying steak, omlettes, and pasta at nearby Boul d'Or. But the Relais food has won awards, and our "petite dejeuner" there was delicious and elegantly served: croissant, coffee, local apple juice, pain au chocolate, jams, and rich creamy yogurt with a side of honey to be stirred in "á gout"—to your taste. The room was 80 Euros, a third or less than what one would pay in Paris.

Cousin Josiane now lives in Paris, and she very generously drove us to and from Bellême—thus saving us the train ride to Nogent Le Retrou and the 15 minute drive by bus or taxi from there to Bellême. With her fast driving we sped by Chartres and arrived in just over two hours. She bought flowers for her father's grave and "boudin noir," the local specialty of blood sausage that she tactfully told us later we must try but shouldn't feel obligated to finish. I washed mine down with the other local specialty of hard cider, "cidre brut"—like a cross between apple juice and champagne.

I spent the early morning wandering back streets and watching the town wake up: butchers delivering meat, old men exchanging news, gardners tending small plots of vegetables in their back yards, and everyone popping in to the boulangerie for the day's bread. When Josiane returned from Paris to pick us up, we gathered at a cafe by the church for sandwiches: ham, cheese, tomato, hard boiled egg, and cornishon pickles on crusty french bread. We played cards while awaiting our order, and when the drinks arrived I stifled the urge to say, "Fâites un melange."

I left dreaming of returning for a month and feeling the village was perfectly poised between preserved and vital. Bellême may not be rated officially as the most beautiful village in France, but it still has a beautiful soul.

If you go, tell them Teri from Washington sent you.
Me enjoying a cidre brut


Official site for Belleme, Orne, in the Perche region of Normandie France

Tourist office email:

We stayed at Hotel Relais St. Louis

Need to stay first class in downtown Belleme? Try the mansion co-owned by Veuve Cliquot champagne.

See also a fabulous collection of historic postcards of Belleme available in book form as "Memoire en Images: Bellême et ses Environs"
by Jacques Plat, available in Bellême stationery store

Here's a New York Times piece on the Perche region by a writer who fell in love with it and bought a farmhouse over a weekend


Photos of earlier family visits in Belleme with Uncle Johnny