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,
Criteria for most beautiful village in France
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
I left dreaming of returning for a month and feeling the village
was perfectly poised between preserved and vital.
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.