Where to find French hilltop villages without the crowds

May 23, 2018 (Last Updated: May 25, 2020)
by Carolyn
Window view at Cordes sur Ciel

There’s something about a medieval hilltop village that captures the imagination and draws the tourist.  Perhaps it’s our fascination with villages built so precariously on rocky outcrops or maybe we are just drawn by the sheer beauty of these villages that were built many hundreds of years ago.

Whatever the reason, the popularity of these villages can be a deterrent to those who don’t particularly like crowds.  After exploring the popular and very busy villages of the Luberon in Provence a couple of years ago, I was thrilled to discover that there are a number of hilltop villages in France that are relatively crowd-free. 

They aren’t in Provence and they aren’t in the Dordogne – but they are just as beautiful.  Let me introduce you to the hilltop villages of Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne. 

As much as I enjoyed my stay in the southern French city of Toulouse, I’m a country girl at heart and was eager to explore the towns and villages away from the city. 

Whilst any of the places mentioned below could easily be explored on a day trip from Toulouse, I planned a three-day road trip of the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne departments and set off to discover some of France’s loveliest villages. 

Puycelci ramparts The ramparts at Puycelci.

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Day 1 – Giroussens – Gaillac – Puycelsi – Montricoux 

Distance: Toulouse – Giroussens 30km – Gaillac 23km – Puycelsi 22km – Montricoux 18km 

Les Jardins des Martels, Giroussens 

Our first stop on day one was at Les Jardins des Martels (Martel Gardens) just outside Giroussens.  Considered one of the most beautiful gardens in France, this privately-owned garden covers over 35,000m² over five different levels.

Amongst the garden’s features are a 1000-foot canal, a Balinese garden, English-style garden beds and an aquatic greenhouse.  Various seasonal festivals are held throughout the year including the Lotus Festival which is held in early July. 

The garden also houses a mini-farm where around 150 animals roam in semi-freedom. 

Allow at least 1.5 hours to explore the gardens. 

Entry fee is around €8.50 per adult, reduced prices for children 4 to 17 years. 

Every day during July and August, the garden can be reached by a narrow-gauge steam train from Saint-Lieux-lès-Lavaur.  Limited trains operate from April to June and September to October.  More info HERE

Jardins des Martels France Les Jardins des Martels is well worth a visit, particularly if you are a garden lover.

Gaillac, Tarn 

After admiring the beauty of Les Jardins des Martels, we drove on to Gaillac, just 23 kilometres away. 

Crossing the River Tarn to enter the town, we were greeted by the Abbey St. Michel, built from the pink-hued stone that the region is known for.  Inside, we admired the impressive structure and enjoyed some respite from the hot midday sun.  

The local tourist information office is conveniently located at Abbey St. Michel, as is a cellar door showcasing the local Gaillac wines. Gaillac is one of the oldest wine growing regions in France, with vines believed to date back to the 4th century BC, so it’s worth enjoying a tasting a two. 

Our next mission was to hunt down some lunch so we walked into the centre of town to investigate. Most shops around Place de la Liberation were closed for the midday siesta but Le Cappuccino, a bistrot and pizzeria, offered outdoor dining under the shade of umbrellas. Perfect! 

Abbey St Michel Gaillac Abbey St Michel sits beside the River Tarn at Gaillac.

Puycelsi, Tarn 

Having re-fuelled, we hit the road for our next destination, and one I was really looking forward to visiting. 

A keen visitor to villages that are members of the French association Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages of France), it was a given that Puycelsi (sometimes spelt Puycelci) would be in my itinerary. 

Much to my delight, as we drove the 20-odd kilometres to Puycelsi, we passed alongside field after field of sunflowers in full bloom.  Visiting in mid-summer, it was the perfect time of year to see these pretty flowers at their best. 

After numerous photo stops, we arrived at the gorgeous hilltop village of Puycelsi.  This medieval bastide (walled) town is built on a hill overlooking the Grésigne Forest and the Vere valley and, just as I’d expected, was oh-so pretty. 

A walk along the ramparts, which stretch for 800 metres, provided superb views of the valley below. 

Puycelsi France The picture-perfect village of Puycelsi in France’s Tarn department.

Fourteenth and fifteenth century half-timbered buildings, many with the upper storey overhanging the lower storey, line the narrow, cobbled streets and alleys.  Brightly painted shutters adorn the windows and geraniums and petunias spill out of window boxes, adding to the charm. 

And there’s not a thing out of place!   

A must-visit is the 14th century Church of Sainte Corneille where a fairly non-descript exterior hides the most amazing blue and gold interior.  It was a totally unexpected surprise in a village of just 450 people. 

There are a few artisan shops to browse, a bookshop and a couple of restaurants to choose from as you wander the pretty streets.  A good bet is Roc Café at the town entrance where they serve, amongst other things, delicious crepes. 

Puycelsi is definitely one French hilltop village that is not over-run with tourists.  Despite visiting mid-afternoon in July, we were surprised at the lack of people around (note: this is a good thing!!).   

Interior of church in Puycelsi The interior of Puycelsi’s parish church is stunning.

With a mix of gardens, abbeys, sunflower fields and hilltop villages amongst our day’s sightseeing, it was time to head to our overnight accommodation at Montricoux. 

I wrote a review of our wonderful accommodation Hostellerie and Restaurant Gorges les d’Aveyron at Montricoux which you can read HERE.  

Day 2 – Bruniquel – St.-Antonin Noble Val – Cordes sur Ciel – Montricoux 

Distance: Montricoux – Bruniquel 6km – St. Antonin Noble Val 23km – Cordes 30km – Montricoux 38km 

Bruniquel, Tarn-et-Garonne 

Just a few kilometres from our accommodation at Montricoux was the second hilltop village on our itinerary.  Another Les Plus Beaux Villages des France member, Bruniquel boasts a dramatic location overlooking the lush Aveyron valley. 

After parking our car at the entrance to the village, we set off on foot to explore the ancient streets of Bruniquel.  Following the signs, we headed first for the two castles that once kept watch over the town. 

Built side by side, both castles can be visited for a nominal fee (€3.50 per adult). The ‘old’ castle dates back to the 12th century, whilst the ‘new’ castle was built in the later years of the 15th century.   

A number of rooms can be visited in the old castle including the kitchen, donjon and chapel, whilst the new castle now houses a museum of pre-historic artefacts found in caves near the castles 

One particularly interesting feature of the castle is a 20-metre-long viewing gallery in Renaissance style that overhangs the valley below. 

Bruniquel France Ancient streets lead you uphill to the two castles at Bruniquel.

Wandering through the village is like being in a movie set.  Every building is lovingly cared for, every street is immaculately swept and there’s not a hint of rubbish anywhere.  In a country where dogs are very much man (and woman’s) best friend, there’s no evidence of their ‘remains’ to be seen. 

Each corner I turned, I fell more in love with Bruniquel.  From the ancient stone arched gateways to the blue shuttered windows, from the staircase turrets to the pretty belfry, Bruniquel stole my heart.   

And just as we experienced at Puycelsi the day before, there were hardly any other people around.  I doubt we would have seen 50 people (including residents) in the couple of hours we spent in town. 

Before saying farewell, we enjoyed a coffee at Taverne du Temps on Place de l’Horloge, and promised to return to Bruniquel again. 

Bruniquel street A quiet square in Bruniquel.

St. Antonin Noble Val, Tarn-et-Garonne 

Taking a break from hilltop villages for the time being (although there are plenty of others to explore in the area), we followed the Gorges de l’Aveyron to the riverside town of Saint-Antonin Noble Val. 

Built around an 8th century Benedictine Abbey, the town on the River Aveyron still retains its medieval appearance.  You’ll see the spire of the adjoining church as you cross the bridge to enter town. 

A focal point in town is the central square with its large covered market hall which comes alive on Sundays when the weekly market is held. 

Around the square, you’ll find plenty of shops and cafes and be sure to keep an eye out for the Town Hall.  It was built in 1125 and is the earliest example of civil architecture in France.  It now houses a museum. 

St Antonin Noble Val street St Antonin Noble Val offers a good range of shops, cafes and restaurants.

The town is also home to a wide variety of galleries and artisan studios. 

Like the other villages we had already visited, Saint-Antonin Noble Val was just like a postcard.  The streets were immaculately clean, the flower boxes lovingly tended and there was a real sense that the residents take a great deal of pride in their village. 

The Aveyron river is popular with fisherman and canoeists, whilst the beautiful natural surrounds of the Aveyron Gorge offer plenty in the way of outdoor activities.  Hiking, mountain biking and horse riding are just some of the outdoor pursuits that draw visitors to Saint-Antonin Noble Val. 

With a larger range of shops and services than either Bruniquel or Puycelsi, Saint-Antonin Noble Val would make a great base for a longer stay in the region.  If you do decide to make this town your base, make sure you’re there on a Sunday morning as I’m told people come from near and far to visit the market. 

St Antonin Noble Val The entrance to St Antonin Noble Val across the River Aveyron.

Click here to find accommodation in St-Antonin Noble Val 

Cordes sur Ciel, Tarn 

Our final destination for the day was one I had read a lot about.  Originally called Cordes, this hilltop town is said to float in the sky on days of low fog or cloud, so in 1993 it was officially renamed Cordes sur Ciel which means Cordes in the sky.   

This beautiful town is one of the Tarn region’s most visited and we weren’t surprised that it was the busiest of all the towns and villages we visited. 

Arriving at the edge of town we parked our car and began the very steep walk to the centre of town.  As we climbed the cobblestone streets, we passed centuries-old buildings, many now housing artisan galleries, and entered the fortifications of the 13th century town. 

TIP: If you’re not up for the steep walk into town, during the summer months a tourist train departs from just inside the new town boundary at Place de la Bouteillerie.  It does a circular loop of the town and drops off by the entrance gate to the citadel. 

Cordes sur Ciel street One of the many beautiful streets in Cordes sur Ciel.

The walk to the top of town, as lovely as it was, still hadn’t prepared us for the beauty that was to greet us at the top.  Cordes sur Ciel really does epitomise a beautifully preserved medieval village.  If you’ve ever wanted to visit a fairy tale town, this is it. 

At Place de la Bride the views over the surrounding plains are superb, whilst the nearby Halle (covered market hall) takes pride of place.  It is surrounded by lots of cafes and restaurants whose tables are placed under the Halle, and it makes a great spot to enjoy a drink or something to eat. 

As well as the many interesting shops, galleries and craft studios (at least 30 craftsmen and artists are said to reside in the town year-round), there are plenty of impressive architectural sites to seek out including numerous medieval gateways remaining from the original fortifications, and some lovely Gothic buildings.  

Strung between the buildings on either side of the narrow streets were brightly coloured medieval banners which added an air of festivity to the town. 

For me, the best part of visiting Cordes was just wandering the medieval alleys, peaking through a ‘window’ of an ancient stone wall and turning a corner to be confronted by a scene even more idyllic than the previous one.   

It’s no surprise to me that Cordes sur Ciel was voted France’s favourite village in 2014.  

Atelier in Cordes sur Ciel Breathtaking scenes greet you around every corner in Cordes sur Ciel.

Where to stay in Cordes sur Ciel :  Two properties in Cordes sur Ciel that rate highly on online sites are Hotel Raymond VII (click here to check prices) and Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes (check prices here). 

After an exceptional day of exploring some of France’s finest villages, we returned to Montricoux to our lovely accommodation where we enjoyed a swim in the pool before dinner. 

Day 3 – Montricoux – Albi – Toulouse 

Distance: Montricoux – Albi 65km – Toulouse 77km (Alternatively, continue your exploration of the south of France with a visit to Carcassonne, which is just 110km to the south.) 

Sadly, it was time to move on however another treat was in store for us.  I had long wanted to visit the Episcopal city of Albi, the capital of the Tarn region, so that’s where we were headed. 

After a short drive past more fields of sunflowers, we arrived at Albi anxious to explore the city’s major sites, before heading further south to the small town of Olonzac, close to the Canal du Midi and Carcassonne.  You can read my tips for spending a day in Albi HERE

Sunflower fields in Tarn France Travelling in July, we were fortunate to pass field after field of blooming sunflowers.

Where are the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne departments of France?

The Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne departments of France are located in the Occitanie region of southern France.   

Occitanie map Image courtesy Wikipedia / author Jfblanc

How to get to Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne 

Major towns and cities in the area include Toulouse, Montauban and Albi, which can all be reached by train from other destinations in. France.  Public transport to the smaller towns and villages of the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne is limited so your best bet is to hire a car. 

Find more info here: Tourism Tarn website | Tourism Tarn-et-Garonne website 


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