Can you keep a secret? I have four very special French villages that I would love to share, but have concerns about them remaining off the radar screen. Three are located right on the sea, with the fourth positioned on a hilltop a few miles inland. All are dripping with charm, but haven’t yet been spoiled by hoards of tourists. All of them are unknown to most Americans.
St Jean de Luz:
St Jean de Luz:
St Jean’ de Luz's scenic harbor protects its fleet of fishing boats
The first hush-hush spot is St Jean (prounounced “john”) de Luz. Located near the border of Spain and France on the Atlantic sea, St Jean de Luz is a Basque fishing town with both a sizable harbor and an amazing sandy beach. Streets in the center are all pedestrian-only, making it the perfect venue to leisurely stroll and soak up the pretty town's Basque-influenced architecture.
St Jean de Luz has a significant tie to European history. King Louis XIV chose St Jean de Luz as the location of his marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain in the 17th century. This political marriage was one of the most important as it brought an end to a bitter war. In the 19th century, the town became a fashionable playground for high-society. Today, it’s just a sleepy fishing village.
Deserted beaches & a castle on the sea make Collioure a compelling choice
Collioure is the second charmer. This postcard-perfect village is also situated near the border of France and Spain, but on the Mediterranean Sea. With a population of only a few thousand residents, Collioure is famous for its anchovies and local wines. There are also five beaches from which to choose. By all rights they should be packed, but they amazingly are only filled with French families during July and August.
The coastal village’s wondrous light and highly photogenic pastel colored homes have also made it a draw for artists over the last few centuries. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were a few of the great painters who were inspired by Collioure’s seaside castle, medieval streets, and its lighthouse-church.
Night or day, Cassis enchants
The third village, Cassis, is pure magic. Located <20 miles from Marseille (but a world away) this place is seductive seaside splendor at its best. It reminds me of a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful; Cassis is a stunner that is humble, gentle and gracious. Like Collioure, it is surrounded by vineyards so visitors are offered a rare chance to experience delightful wines that rarely leave the area. Similar to St Jean de Luz, Cassis also is an active fishing village but on a much smaller scale.
Cassis is overlooked by the ruins of an alluring centuries-old chateau, but the real beauty is the town’s calanques. The calanques are narrow inlets framed by steep limestone cliffs. The United Nation’s cultural arm has bestowed upon these calanques their coveted World Heritage Site (UNESCO) award.
Biot oozes authentic charm from a by-gone era
The last of these special French villages is Biot. Positioned on a hilltop overlooking the French Riviera town of Antibes, Biot is just a few miles inland from the sea. This tiny medieval village is the real-deal. While the surrounding hills are replete with expensive villas owned by wealthy foreigners from around the globe, pedestrian-only Biot offers a true slice of authentic Niçoise life that is becoming more and more difficult to find on the tres sophisticated Riviera. Walk through the simple village and you’ll find clothes-lines filled with laundry strung between buildings. Cats wander the narrow cobblestone streets and local children play stick ball. Amidst this all there is French music coming from the centuries old dwellings, as well as delectable scents of Niçoise cooking wafting from kitchens.
Besides authenticity, Biot has an added bonus. Its artisanal glass blowing factories are worth the journey alone. While the unique “bubble” glass has become quite pricey, a visit to see how these works of art are created is free. Another compelling reason to journey to Biot is the Fernand Léger museum located within walking distance of the medieval hilltop village. Léger, a contemporary of Picasso and Chagall, was a gifted artist and his museum is remarkable.
Remember, mum's the word. Keep these little gems our secret.