CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? For over 18 years, France at Leisure has been designing itineraries for its clients using The Most Beautiful Villages in France Association. You cannot go wrong with this method
The story of the Plus Beaux Villages de France began with an encounter, in 1981, between a man and a book. The book was an album going by that same name published by Sélection du Reader’s Digest, and the man was Charles Ceyrac, Mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge. Through that book, the elected representative of Corrèze found a way to serve a cause he felt very strongly about: uniting energies and passions to protect and promote the outstanding heritage of these exceptional villages and thereby provide them with an alternative to rural exodus. 66 mayors were to follow Charles Ceyrac in an adventure that was made official on 6 March 1982.
Today, the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. We aim to avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, "theme parks". Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.
Quality, Reputation and Development
Since its inception, the association "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" has firmly established its strategy around these three points: to preserve and enhance the quality of the heritage in the villages so as to increase their reputation while controlling the number of visitors and consequently fostering the development of economic activity linked to tourism.
This is central to the concept developed by the association and can be found both in the chart of 30 criteria used as a basis for on-site evaluation of villages applying for membership and in the Quality Charter, signature of which makes the village’s listing official and commits the village to continuing its efforts to protect and enhance the heritage. Quality is also evident in the many exemplary experiences initiated then shared by the villages in a "quality data bank".
The reputation of the villages is sustained by the high quality image of the network, which is identified and vouched for by a registered trademark. Awareness is achieved by means of a diverse promotion strategy: sale of products to aid discovery – Michelin road map, tourist guidebook, Album and DVD published by Sélection du Reader’s Digest -, national campaignsand relations with the media, all developed when meetings of the association take place, when a new village is listed or when theme-based subjects are dealt with in connection with the national and international press.
This is the final stage in the procedure. A village’s development is based on stimulating the people involved in its economy and establishing new service suppliers. The task of activating tourism, carried out in conjunction with the tour operator Come to Paris / Come to France, involves offering French and foreign customers tailor-made short breaks that moreover foster more respectful tourism than tourism catering for passing trade and encourage professionals to raise the standard of their service. This dynamic also involves the creation of events such as the wine market known as the Marché aux Vins des Plus Beaux Villages de France in Rodemack.
The selection of villages takes place in 4 stages.
1- Evaluation on the basis of a village’s application
The application form, submitted by the village itself or by an inter-village structure if one has been so authorised, must guarantee that the village (or in rarer cases the hamlet) covered by the application meets the following 3 disqualifying criteria:
- is of rural size, in other words it has a maximum population of 2,000 inhabitants,
- has, in its area, at least 2 protected sites or monuments (either listed or registered on the supplementary list of historical monuments),
- gives proof of mass support for the planned application for membershipby furnishing the decision voted by the Town Council.
The council can add any documents to the application that it thinks might be helpful.
When the head office of the association receives the application form, the association tells the village whether its application is admissible or not.
The association does not approach any village with a view to its becoming a listed member.
2- On-site evaluation
When the application has been approved, a visit is paid to the village to carry out an evaluation at a date agreed on between the Mayor and the person responsible for the association’s Quality policy.
This appraisal is based on a chart of 27 objective criteria to measure the extent and value of the village heritage, its architectural, urban and environmental quality and also the suitability of municipal initiatives in terms of managing and showing off its area (town planning tools, controlling visitor flow, aesthetic developments, etc.)
An interview takes place with the Mayor of the village beforehand (assisted by any persons of his/her choice), during which the association will be given a number of documents needed for the evaluation, and the visit ends with an illustrated report of more technical nature.
3- Quality Committee
The Quality Committee is made up of elected members of the association and also qualified key figures or "experts". It is in session twice a year. It has supreme power to decide on the action to be taken further to an evaluation report that has been submitted by the person responsible for the association’s Quality policy.
There are 4 possible decisions:
- unreserved listing (not ruling out any comments or advice that may be given for the purpose of improving quality),
- listing with reservations, mentioned in the appraisal report and also in the quality charter and that the village shall endeavour to lift through future initiatives,
- temporary non-listing, enabling the village, which has recognised potential, to renew its application for listing at a date it considers to be more appropriate once its quality has been improved,
- definitive non-listing ruling out any possibility of renewing its application (unless there is a duly justified exception).
4- Quality Charter
This makes a new village’s admission into the association official. It must be signed by the Mayor of the village in question (and where appropriate by the President of the inter-village structure authorised to take care of the membership project) and the President of the association; signature must take place within a year as from the date the Quality Committee gave its decision. It provides the village with its first opportunity to make known and to promote its classification as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France among the inhabitants, local authorities and the media.
The Quality Charter implies a number of commitments for both the association and the village. The association grants the village (and its attendant structures: Tourist Office, etc.) the right and indeed the duty to use the symbols featuring its trademark (logo), and lets it enjoy the initiatives and services it carries through to improve the quality, reputation and development of all the villages in its network. For its part, the village undertakes, on pain of removal from the list, to get actively involved, in accordance with the principles enacted by the association, in implementing its strategy, not only by paying a subscription but also by taking part in the association’s work sessions. It must also continue its efforts to improve its overall quality (heritage, welcome, development, etc.) by drawing on the prestige of its classification.
Although this selection method is really stringent (only about 1 application in 5 ends in success), it is nevertheless necessary in order that both the villages and the network be credible in the eyes of the general public as far as the promise of excellence is concerned.
The quality of villages listed prior to 1991, the date when the multi-criteria evaluation chart was introduced, is checked using this chart and the Quality Committee can question the listing of these villages.