A Most Beautiful Village – Camon, SW France
What is beauty? As a photographer I find the question most intriguing.
Beauty in nature is easy. It’s something that I believe is perpetual and absolute.
Who would argue the beauty of a desert sunset? Or the magnificence of the wild Oregon coast? These are intrinsic splendors which capture my attention completely, and feed my soul. I am never more at peace than when I’m walking alone in nature, or photographing it.
Beauty in humans is something else.
Physically it’s a subjective and moving target that changes through age and time. The voluptuous ladies of the renaissance went out of fashion in our modern world, and men no longer wear heels, although both are perhaps coming back into mode again in their own way again? Our conception of physical beauty is such a fickle and cyclical thing.
The internal part is IMO much more interesting. I’ve always been far more curious about what lies beneath, the stories that make a person who they are rather than what they look like from the outside. I guess it’s why I always delve into the deeper stuff, both in real life and the blog. And possibly why I’ve never cared about fashion LOL.
Stories Captivate Me
What about buildings? Cities and towns? What makes those beautiful? It’s an interesting question where I often find myself torn.
There are places we’ve been where I’ve truly appreciated the forms and beauty of modern buildings (New York City comes to mind), whereas others I’ve found definitively ugly (sorry Houston). And of course I’m crazy about lighthouses, which you could say are some of the simplest buildings of all.
If I think back through those experiences, it’s always the stories that bring the place alive for me.
I love New York City, not just because of it’s location and engineering marvels, but also because of all the human history, endurance, innovation & culture that has passed through there. And I love lighthouses for the families that have lived in those remote areas, the lives that they saved, the astounding beauty of their locations, and the fascinating physics of the Fresnel lens.
In truth I could probably find beauty in a rock, if there was a good story behind it, which I guess is also why I like to write and the very reason I love to travel. The search for stories is what captivates me, whether they’re natural or man-made.
The Most Beautiful Villages of France
I came across “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (The Most Beautiful Villages of France) a few months ago as I was browsing the internet during confinement, planning and dreaming as I often do in my free time. I was immediately intrigued.
Being a French thing, it’s of course an official designation rather than just a subjective idea.
In 1982 a list was created of ~66 villages that represented “un patrimoine remarquable” (a remarkable heritage). It was highly curated, containing only small villages of historical interest with no more than 2000 inhabitants, a teeny portion of the approximate 32,000 villages in France. Over time the list grew, and today it stands at 159 villages, each of which must fulfill 30 specific historical, architectural, cultural and “mise en valeur” (basically how well the beauty of the village is “presented”) criteria.
All of them clearly have a good story to tell.
For the towns who managed to meet the criteria they get to plant a “Plus Beaux Villages” sign at their entrance, and are featured on the main internet site, as well as in the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France” guidebook (Amazon affiliate link) If you’re coming to France and simply don’t know where to start, or you’ve been here a while and are looking for something different, Les Plus Beaux Villages are a fun project to dream and plan around.
Note/ For travel buffs it’s worth noting that France is not the only country to have this kind of thing. Italy, Japan, Spain, Quebec, Russia, Switzerland and Wallonie all have similar associations, to name a few. There’s even a new association called “Les Plus Beaux Villages de la Terre” (The Most Beautiful Villages on Earth) that aims to collect them all under one grand umbrella.
We Had An “In-Between” Lull
Outings have been in short supply for us recently mostly because of the weather. It’s been crazy in SW France these past few weeks with wild and stormy days and buckets of rain, so much so that the ground all around our house is soft and muddy. It’s been miserable all round really.
But then we had a break.
Tuesday morning I woke up to sun shining through the window, and a forecast that amazingly, said it would last all day. In the spirit of 2021, I knew this was one of those rare “in-between” times, a lull in the general craziness of the world that I had to take advantage of. It’s my New Years motto….”have tons plans in mind, and then be ready to execute them at a moments notice”. IMO it’s the only way to see or do anything in these pandemic times.
So I pounced on the moment.
I rounded up all willing troops (which turned out to be just dad and I this time around), and we motored the hour or so from our house to the most intriguing “beautiful village” of Camon.
The Village Of Camon
The only thing I really knew about Camon before we visited was that it’s famous for its roses.
Often nicknamed “le village aux cent rosiers” (the village of 100 roses), the town blooms in a blanket of flowers every year, culminating in the “Fête des Roses”, typically celebrated on the 3rd weekend of May. Interestingly enough this also gives Camon a double designation. Not only is it part of Les Plus Beaux Villages, but it is also part of “Villes et Villages Fleuris“, yet another organization that covers ~4,471 communes in France. Clearly, accolades abound.
In size it’s just a teeny thing, with a history that dates way back to 778.
Legend has it that Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, commanded a monastery to be built at Camon after the return of his defeated army from the battle of Roncesvalles in Spain. A fortified abbey was subsequently built, which then became a priory surrounded by a thriving village. A series of disasters and rebuilds followed, typical of the very tumultuous history of this area.
In 1279 it’s said that the natural barricade of Lac du Privet broke and flooded the plains, destroying the entire village (a legendary story in and of itself, that apparently erased multiple villages of the time). Between 1280 and 1316 everything was re-built, followed by another great destruction in 1494, this time in a bloody clash with looters. Finally in the 16th century it was all rebuilt again by Philippe de Lévis-Mirepoix. Further fortifications and embellishments were done thereafter, but the core of the buildings and ramparts that you see today are from that era.
In essence the town is a fortified village with a church & monastery at its center surrounded by heavy walls and narrow, meandering internal paths. It’s a mini-fortress, a wonderful replica of its era, so much so that another of its nicknames is “Le petit Carcassonne”. Is there no end to what Camon offers?
Roses, fortresses and lots of history. As you can imagine I was dying to see it for myself.
Everything Was Closed Of Course
Dad and I motored the hour or so to Camon in the early morning. It was a beautiful drive with no-one around, through rolling landscape into the deep foothills of the Pyrenees. Such a gorgeous, natural area.
Camon itself was lovely, a perfect picture of stone set along a meandering river, with a church tower at it’s center, towering walls and a nice walk around the perimeter.
Of course everything was closed. Not only is this winter season (where pretty much all tourist attractions shut down), but the pandemic has closed all restaurants and cafes too. So places which might normally bustling with locals are completely dead. Very sad to see, but of course as “safe” visits go, you really can’t get much better than a town with no-one around. Strange times, these….
Dad and I wandered around the village for an hour or so, admiring the architecture and reading the historic panels that were sprinkled along the outer perimeter. The visitor center was closed of course, as well as the old church and abbey, now privately-owned (the latter is only visitable by tour in summer) There was also a restaurant on-site which in normal times would offer a gourmet 5-course meal sourced from local ingredients. It looked like the perfect spot for a romantic dinner.
Having been to Carcassonne I can certainly see the similarities, although I’d say that Camon is more like a mini-micro-version of its much grander cousin. It’s quaint and pretty like all historic French villages, but will likely be even more “beautiful” a few months from now when the roses (which are literally everywhere!) spring into bloom. A good time to come back and revisit I think, and perhaps hike some of the trails in the surrounding area (the GR7 runs through here, amongst others).
All in all we had a wonderful little outing dad and I, a lovely change of scenery from our usual day-to-day pandemic lives. Camon was a picturesque little town with lots of history and interest. A fine example of Les Plus Beaux Villages, and a wonderful specimen of man-made beauty in the heart of nature’s own. We’ll certainly be back to explore again.
Beauty is such an interesting question. I’d love to hear what it means to you? When you think of beauty do you think of nature? Or a place? Or a specific person? What’s the most beautiful spot or experience you’ve ever had? DO share and comment below!