North of the Dordogne, near Brantome, lies Le Plus Beau Village Saint-Jean-de Côle — one of the prettiest villages in France. Within its tiny confines, the town of about 300 people features everything you’d wish for in a beaux village: a château, a Romano-Byzantine Church, a Priory (Abbey), a village square, and a combination of ochre-colored and half-timbered houses with tiled roofs.
Le Plus Beau Village: Saint-Jean-de-Côle
This time last year, I was wandering the cobblestone streets of Saint-Jean-de-Côle while visiting a friend in nearby Villars. Because most tourists visit later in the season or in the summer, the place is pretty deserted. Nevertheless the charming town, named for Saint John the Baptist and the river Côle, was worth a stop and a walk-around.
The village square of Saint-Jean-de-Côle, with its covered market, is reminiscent of many town centers throughout France. This marketplace, Place de Saint-Jean, is flanked by a handsome stone castle, Château de la Marthonie, and the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste, formerly a critical Priory.
Château de la Marthonie
The stone castle first existed in Saint-Jean-de-Côle around 1250 as a fortress to defend the border between Limousin and Périgord and to protect the level of the ford on the Côle that led from Thiviers to Nontron and from Limoges to Brantôme. Named “The Old Château”– with towers, battlements, and vertical windows — the castle ensured the safety of the Priory (Abbey)and the village built up around it. The château was virtually destroyed when English troops seized and occupied the town during the Hundred Years’ War (1394 – 1404.)
Jean de La Marthonie, the chateau’s current namesake, purchased the estate near Saint-Jean-de-Côle in the second half of the 15th century. His son, Mondot, was well known as a member of the French court who had a particularly close relationship with Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I. Mondot de la Marthonie purchased an estate in nearby Villars, where he built the impressive Château de Puyguilhem.
What you see now of Château de la Marthonie dates from the 15th-century reconstruction, completed in the 16th. In the 17th century, a lower wing with apartments was added in the Renaissance style, along with a huge multi-story staircase.
The chateau is open for visits in July, August, and early September. Only then can you explore the monumental staircase and the ground-floor rooms.
Church of Saint Jean Baptist
Next to the castle is the Church of Saint-Jean-de-Côle, built in the 11th century in a unique design to Périgord. The church, constructed under the order of Reynaud de Thiviers, Bishop of Périgueux, was originally the church of the Priory. In 1801, it became the worship place for the villagers and was named for Saint John the Baptist. The church was designed in a semicircle around the altar and featured a domed roof. The dome was replaced by a more modern roof in 1860 after collapsing numerous times throughout the centuries.
The arrival of the railway in the 19th century brought economic recovery to Saint-Jean-de-Côle. Since then, businesses, visitors, and new residents seeking second homes in France have enriched the town.
When to Visit Le Plus Beau Village: Saint-Jean-de-Côle
As mentioned above, my visit to Saint-Jean-de-Côle was off-season. It was still a delightful time to see the highlights of the village. The weekend in May, when they hold the annual flower show, is probably your best choice for seeing the beautiful town in all its glory. More than a hundred exhibitors are there displaying and selling their products, plants, and flowers. In June, a music festival brings throngs of guests to town.
Where to Eat
Whether visiting the village or just in the area, you should stop for your midday meal with Rachel and Patrick at Les Temps des Mets. The meal, the service, and their hospitality are hard to match. The only problem was deciding which of their unique dishes to try.
More about Les Plus Beaux Villages de France
There are 156 communities in France with the distinction of Les Plus Beaux Village de France. Most are in the Dordogne and Aveyron departments. Vaucluse and Lot are next with seven and six beaux villages, respectively. So far, I’ve seen only a few of some 156 “authentic” Les Plus Beaux Villages. I have a lot of traveling to do.
Come along with me as I continue my quest..read on .... “There’s a new obsession running around in my head: “Visit as many of France’s ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages as I possibly can.”