‘Sleepy, leafy and lusciously bucolic’: France’s best towns and villages by readers

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Winning tip: Saint-Nectaire: picnic paradise, Puy-de-Dôme

I really loved the peacefulness of Saint-Nectaire. The local cheese is enough to put it on any list but it also has woodland trails, grottos, a spa and an 11th-century hilltop church. It’s also a wonderful base for exploring the Puys but you can’t beat taking a picnic (remember the cheese!) to nearby Lac Chambon and enjoying the crystal clear waters surrounded by ancient volcanic hills. We stayed at the family run Hotel Regina (doubles from €65 B&B) where our bathroom was in a turret.
Anthony T

Brouage – a sumptuous citadel south of La Rochelle

The ancient royal harbour of Brouage
Photograph: M@rcel/Alamy

Brouage is a fortified, star-shaped and once-coastal village in the Charente-Maritime region. The old battlements and eight-metre-high walls make for hours of exploring and give far-reaching views over the surrounding salt marshes (the sea is about 3km away nowadays). The pretty village feels somewhat like a Roman encampment; a hollyhock-lined grid of streets holds the quaint church of St Peter and St Paul with a model boat suspended from the ceiling; meanwhile, the quirky Musée du Vélo is a must for bike enthusiasts. A lazy lunch in the leafy garden of La Conserverie is recommended for a bit of shade, followed by plenty more playing at “archers” in the watchtowers atop the citadelle walls.
Anna Kennett

Medieval watery charm, L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence

L’Isle-sur-Sorgue
Photograph: BTWImages/Alamy

This is a very pretty little town, 30km or so east of Avignon. Close to other perhaps more famous Luberon hotspots such as Ménerbes, Cavaillon and Gordes, it has its own distinct medieval watery charm because it was constructed on islands amid five arms of the Sorgue River. Wander round the compact centre, stroll along the Waterwheel Circuit (there are about 15 waterwheels around the village), view the stunning baroque church or simply sip a morning coffee or lunchtime pastis at a waterside cafe. Sunday is flea market day, and bartering is the norm.
Paul MacDermott

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Champagne and chocolate, Troyes

Troyes, France
Photograph: Jeanette Teare/Alamy

A little known medieval gem of a city in the Grand-Est, Troyes is full of beautiful half-timbered houses, narrow cobbled alleyways and glorious churches. Once the capital of the Champagne region Troyes is a great place to base yourself while visiting famous Champagne vineyards in the surrounding countryside. In town, one of several great places to sample some fizz is Aux Crieurs de Vins. Cellier Saint Pierre by the cathedral is a good place to buy a few bottles of regional plonk. The much-feted master chocolatier Pascal Caffet sells his exquisite confections in the heart of the ancient city. Look out for excellent restaurants and cafes by the side of the canal which flows through the centre of town and discover sculptures, art galleries and quirky museums. The modern art museum is particularly excellent. It’s all just 90 minutes on the train from Paris Gare de l’Est.
Sally

No petrol but lovely cheese, Bain-de-Bretagne, Brittany

Bertaud mill, Bain-de-Bretagne.
Bertaud mill, Bain-de-Bretagne. Photograph: Phil Wahlbrink/Alamy

I discovered Bain-de-Bretagne by accident when running out of fuel while driving south from Rennes to Nantes. A modest town in luscious Brittany countryside, it has bakeries with pain aux raisin so good I diverted for them on my way home. There is an enchanting village square with geraniums and outside tables for eating and relaxing with friends and an ancient church. It is sleepy, leafy and lusciously bucolic. I discovered a crèmerie with cheeses wrapped in wild flowers and a wine shop with great choices and even better advice. There is a tiny night market if you want to cook at home. I dreamed of it often in the bleak 2020/21 winter. I am going back soon.
Tamara

Take the Roman road to Narbonne, Occitanie

Saint-Just Cathedral, Narbonne.
Saint-Just Cathedral, Narbonne. Photograph: John Kellerman/Alamy

We arrived in Narbonne for an afternoon trip from Béziers (just 12 minutes by train) and stayed for three days. Plenty of time then to explore the Palais Vieux, Palais Neuf and the 13-century Cathedrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur. Don’t miss the section of Roman road preserved in the centre of Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Plenty of eating places along Canal de la Robine but our highlight was the bustling Les Halles where we managed to squeeze into an end table at Les Tapas de la Clape for great seafood, wine and coffee. For a place to stay we stumbled across Hotel La Résidence (doubles from €80 B&B) which unexpectedly gave us stunning views of the cathedral. Don’t miss (any) of it.
Michael

High on the ramparts, Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais

The historic old fortified ramparts of Montreuil sur Mer, France
Photograph: Ian Shaw/Alamy

The ramparts walk that circles the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer stands out for me, not least because the path is rather close to sheer drops in places, but also for the extensive views over the countryside and the town itself. I also enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets with their charming buildings and exploring the citadel. About an hour’s drive from Calais, there was once a seaport here before the Canche estuary silted up, explaining the “sur-Mer”. Victor Hugo used the town as a setting in Les Misérables – each summer Son et Lumière shows are performed at the citadel, celebrating this link.
Sharon Pinner

Hive of culture, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy

Saint Sauveur en Puisaye
Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy, the birthplace of the writer Colette, is the village I return often, to replenish my energy in the midst of forests and lakes and castles. A colourful market town with diverse artists, galleries, funky bars, theatre, film evenings, music events, courtyard exhibitions, writer’s festival, even a British tea room. History lovers must see Guédelon, a 13th-century chateau construction. Visit La Poeterie, a sculpture garden with concerts and a deer herd. I spend long summers swimming in the Lac du Bourdon, eating Belgian-style chips while the sun set. Two hours from Paris, to quote the estate agents, it’s the place to be.
Florence

I adore Cahors, Occitanie

Pont Valentré.
Pont Valentré. Photograph: Laurent Fox/Getty Images

Nestled in a meander of the Lot river, Cahors lies protected by the limestone cliffs of the causses (bluffs). Medieval half-timbered buildings delight the eye whether wandering by foot or tourist train.A secret garden trail steeped in the area’s folklore begins with a vine garden at the medieval Pont Valentré bridge Seen from land or a boat trip, it is a worthy step on the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Campostela. Eat at the Petite Auberge for hearty local cuisine and local vin rouge and watch out for the exposed staircase beside it.
Clare Burke

Hooray for Auray, Brittany

Pont Neuf and the Port de St Goustan at night, Auray
Photograph: David Noton Photography/Alamy

I found the town of Auray, 100km or so north-west of Nantes, a lovely place to stay and the perfect base to explore the stunning southern coast of Brittany. It truly bustles on Monday market day, with stalls full of local produce cramming the main square. It’s also close to beautiful beaches as well as the neolithic sites around Carnac. The town’s port of Saint-Goustan is picturesque by day and magical at night, when street lamps reflect across the river by the old bridge. We really enjoyed the simple dining in restaurants lining the quayside and cobbled streets – Crêperie La Goustanaise was our favourite – serving delicious, inexpensive galettes (savoury filled crepes) and Breton cider.
Jean Rich