Historic city squares, old towns and villages in France

Place de la Concorde

The octagonal Place de la Concorde is the largest square in Paris. It is situated between the Tuileries and the Champs-Elysées. In 1763, a large statue of king Louis XV was erected at this site to celebrate the recovery of the king after a serious illness. The square surrounding the statue was created later, in 1772, by the architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel. It was known as the place Louis XV. In 1792, during the French re ...
Founded: 1763 | Location: Paris, France

Historic Site of Lyons

The Historic Site of Lyons was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The long history of Lyons, which was founded by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. as the capital of the Three Gauls and has continued to play a major role in Europe"s political, cultural and economic development ever since, is vividly illustrated by its urban fabric and the many fine historic buildings from all periods. The specific reg ...
Founded: 0-100 BC | Location: Lyon, France

Place Stanislas

Nancy, the temporary residence of a king without a kingdom – Stanislaw I Leszczynski, later to become Duke of Lorraine – is paradoxically the oldest and most typical example of a modern capital where an enlightened monarch proved to be sensitive to the needs of the public. Built between 1752 and 1756 by a brilliant team led by the architect Héré, this was a carefully conceived project that succee ...
Founded: 1756 | Location: Nancy, France

Village of Èze

Èze has been described as an “eagle"s nest” because of its location overlooking a high cliff. The earliest occurrence of the name 'Èze' can be found in the maritime books of Antonin as a bay called the St. Laurent of Èze. A hoard of ancient Greek silver phialae dating from the 3rd Century BC was found in Èze in the late nineteenth century. The area was subsequently occupied by not only the Romans b ...
Founded: 14th century | Location: Èze, France

Saint-Paul-de-Vence Village

One of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera, Haut-de-Cagnes is well known for its modern and contemporary art museums and galleries such as Fondation Maeght which is located nearby. The village is located just 15 minutes’ drive from the coastline on top of a large mound known as the Plateau du Puy, on top of which a Roman oppidum was built, followed by a medieval castle, which was then known as the cast ...
Founded: Middle Ages | Location: Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

Tours Old Town

Tours is famous for its original medieval district, called le Vieux Tours. Unique to the Old City are its preserved half-timbered buildings and la Place Plumereau, a square with busy pubs and restaurants, whose open-air tables fill the centre of the square. The Boulevard Beranger crosses the Rue Nationale at the Place Jean-Jaures and is the location of weekly markets and fairs.
Founded: | Location: Tours, France

Yvoire Medieval Town

Located on the French shore of Lake Geneva, between Geneva and Evian, the village of Yvoire is nicknamed the “gem of the lake”. The town is well known for its medieval buildings and summer floral displays, as well as the Jardin des Cinq Sens, a garden in the center of the town. It called one of the 'most beautiful villages of France'. Many buildings date from the early 14th century.
Founded: 14th century | Location: Yvoire, France

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

Situated in the narrow valley of the Gellone river where it meets the steep sided gorge of the Hérault River, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is essentially a medieval village located on the St. James"s Way pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella. Because of its isolation, in 806 Saint Guilhem established the monastery of Gellone here. Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is one of the 'The most beautiful villages of Fr ...
Founded: 806 AD | Location: Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

Minerve

The Minerve village is situated on top of the gorge of the River Cesse in a naturally strong defensive position. Near the village the river disappears underground in a large, naturally-carved tunnel. Minerve has been selected as one of The Most Beautiful Villages Of France. Historically, the village has been the capital of the Minervois wine region. The main bridge leading into the village is closed to all passenger ...
Founded: 9th century AD | Location: Minerve, France

La Couvertoirade Village

The well-preserved fortified town of La Couvertoirade was owned by the Knights Templar, under orders from the Commandery of Sainte-Eulalie, from the twelfth century. The Templars built the fortress there during the 12th and 13th centuries; its two upper floors have since been removed. Following their dissolution in 1312, the Templars" property in the causses was taken by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: La Couvertoirade, France

Chartres Old Town

Chartres old town is located to the banks of the Eure River, which at this point divides into three branches. The rives is crossed by several bridges, some of them ancient, and is fringed in places by remains of the old fortifications. The Porte Guillaume (14th century), a gateway flanked by towers, is the most complete specimen. The steep, narrow streets of the old town contrast with the wide, shady boulevards which enci ...
Founded: 9th century | Location: Chartres, France

Ainhoa Village

Ainhoa is a 'bastide' or walled village in the Basque country on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. The village is on the boundary of the provinces of Labourd and Navarre, just a few kilometres from Espelette and Sare. It boasts typical red and white-fronted houses along its only street.  The town has received an award from the Most beautiful villages in France, an award from an independent orga ...
Founded: 11th century | Location: Ainhoa, France

Sainte-Enimie Village

Sainte-Enimie is a former commune founded in the 7th century by Énimie (according a legend a daughter of the Merovingian king Clothar II), who started a convent there after being cured of leprosy in the surrounding waters. It was the site of several monasteries, some of which still remain. Located in the Gorges du Tarn, it is a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (“the most beautiful villages of Franc ...
Founded: 7th century AD | Location: Gorges du Tarn Causses, France

La Bastide-Clairence Village

A Navarrese fortified village of La Bastide-Clairence was founded in 1288 by Claire de Rabastens on a hillside next to the Aran river hence its Gascon name Bastida Clarença. 800 refugees, mainly from Bigorre, were granted a charter in July 1312 by Louis I of Navarre, the future Louis X of France. The birth of the village corresponds to a need for Navarre to create a strong town in the forested frontier area. La ...
Founded: 1288 | Location: La Bastide-Clairence, France

Historic Village of Olargues

Olargues is a good example of a French medieval town and rated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. It was occupied by the Romans, the Vandals and the Visigoths. At the end of the 11th century the Jaur valley came under the authority of the Château of the Viscount of Minerve. The following centuries saw a succession of wars and epidemics, and it was not until the 18th century that Olargues became re-establish ...
Founded: | Location: Olargues, France

Camon Village

Camon sprang up as a result of a 10th century abbey, later to become a fortified priory, being built in the hollow of a small valley in Ariège, where the River Hers makes a loop. Today, visitors enter into the village through the old arched door of the church and discover the signs of Camon’s religious past and its red curved roof tile houses. Nicknamed Little Carcassonne, Camon is described on the list of the most ...
Founded: 10th century | Location: Camon, France

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château built between 1658-1661 for Nicolas Fouquet. It was made for Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV, the château was an influential work of architecture in mid-17th century Europe. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of the 'Louis XIV style' combining architecture, interior design and landscape design. The garden's pronounced visual axis is an example of this style.

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as 16 million livres. The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

The Marshal Villars became the new owner without first seeing the chateau. In 1764, the Marshal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when duke Charles de Choiseul-Praslin, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, assisted by the landscape architect Elie Lainé. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to preserve the château, which remains privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. It is now administered by their three sons Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. Recognized by the state as a monument historique, it is open to the public regularly.

Architecture

The chateau is situated near the northern end of a 1.5-km long north-south axis with the entrance front facing north. Its elevations are perfectly symmetrical to either side of this axis. Somewhat surprisingly the interior plan is also nearly completely symmetrical with few differences between the eastern and western halves. The two rooms in the center, the entrance vestibule to the north and the oval salon to the south, were originally an open-air loggia, dividing the chateau into two distinct sections. The interior decoration of these two rooms was therefore more typical of an outdoor setting. Three sets of three arches, those on the entrance front, three more between the vestibule and the salon, and the three leading from the salon to the garden are all aligned and permitted the arriving visitor to see through to the central axis of the garden even before entering the chateau. The exterior arches could be closed with iron gates, and only later were they filled in with glass doors and the interior arches with mirrored doors. Since the loggia divided the building into two halves, there are two symmetrical staircases on either side of it, rather than a single staircase. The rooms in the eastern half of the house were intended for the use of the king, those in the western were for Fouquet. The provision of a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king travelled frequently.

Another surprising feature of the plan is the thickness of the main body of the building (corps de logis), which consists of two rows of rooms running east and west. Traditionally the middle of the corps de logis of French chateaux consisted of a single row of rooms. Double-thick corps de logis had already been used in hôtels particuliers in Paris, including Le Vau's Hôtel Tambonneau, but Vaux was the first chateau to incorporate this change. Even more unusual, the main rooms are all on the ground floor rather than the first floor (the traditional piano nobile). This accounts for the lack of a grand staircase or a gallery, standard elements of most contemporary chateaux. Also noteworthy are corridors in the basement and on the first floor which run the length of house providing privacy to the rooms they access. Up to the middle of the 17th century, corridors were essentially unknown. Another feature of the plan, the four pavilions, one at each corner of the building, is more conventional.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was originally planned to be constructed in brick and stone, but after the mid-century, as the middle classes began to imitate this style, aristocratic circles began using stone exclusively. Rather late in the design process, Fouquet and Le Vau switched to stone, a decision that may have been influenced by the use of stone at François Mansart's Château de Maisons. The service buildings flanking the large avant-cour to the north of the house remained in brick and stone, and other structures preceding them were in rubble-stone and plaster, a social ranking of building materials that would be common in France for a considerable length of time thereafter.

The main chateau is constructed entirely on a moated platform, reached via two bridges, both aligned with the central axis and placed on the north and south sides. The moat is a picturesque holdover from medieval fortified residences, and is again a feature that Le Vau may have borrowed from Maisons. The moat at Vaux may also have been inspired by the previous chateau on the site, which Le Vau's work replaced.

Gardens

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km), with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view. Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks.