a garden full of greenery and pink flowers in France

It’s been a grueling week in the snail-shell-shaped medieval winemaking town of Sancerre in the Eden-esque Loire Valley. As students at Coeur de France, an intimate language immersion program, my mother, daughter, and I have stumbled through conversations for days, testing our French with patient residents as we amble among the half-timbered houses, turreted rooftops, tiny shops, outdoor cafes, and cobblestoned streets of the hilltop village. Our task isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s humiliating. Mostly it’s fun — and certainly infinitely laughable. 

We persevere day after day, attending classes at the school’s headquarters, a Renaissance mansion, where we’ve also rented a dreamy apartment upstairs, perched atop an ancient spiral staircase. All we need to do to practice our verbs and grind through our grammar is float down the stairs each morning for lessons. After school, we go to lunch in the village (French only, no cheating), then we set off to pursue individual activities, falling into a domestic rhythm of sorts. My mother nestles into the comfort of women her age in Sancerre’s unpretentious beauty shop, where she receives an array of hair-dos from day to day. As her vocabulary improves so does her hair. My daughter and I explore the hiking trails that wind around Sancerre’s hilly streets like ribbons around a maypole. We buy art supplies and sketch the vista, make friends at the playground, and buy groceries — all in labored, but ultimately effective French. A chic elderly woman who wears purple shoes befriends us — and applauds our daily progress. 

Bien sur, my mother and I sample vast amounts of Sancerre’s eponymous wine, sometimes finding it very helpful to our French. We eat exceedingly well, partaking of local fare, including fresh vegetables from nearby farms, perfect baguettes, crottin de chavignol — Sancerre’s famous goat cheese — on nutty crackers, pate, fish in beurre blanc sauce, and tarte tatin, among other delights. When our course ends, we’ve improved — against all odds. They send us on our way with certificates, congratulatory kisses, and — the piece de resistance — bottles of Sancerre wine. 

More on Sancerre (population approximately 1,300)

maison des sancerre building in sancerre france
Image by C. Mouton – CRT Centre-Val de Loire

Chateaux, vineyards, and gardens surround Sancerre, a medieval town rife with wine domains, farms, and cheese makers. Its magical church, Notre Dame de Sancerre, lies near local shops and eateries, many owned for generations by the same families. High above the Loire River Valley, an overlook in town allows visitors to stand where  Caesar purportedly did to keep track of his enemies.

Where to Stay: Sleep amid the vineyards at Hôtel Restaurant Famille Bourgeois in the adjacent sister village of Chavignol (home to the cheese ) at Hotel Restaurant Famille Bourgeois, a gastronomic haven with a Michelin Plate, casual bistro, and 12 tranquil rooms. 

Saint-Paul de Vence (population approximately 3,000) 

stone buildings with vines and flowers in saint paul de vence france
Image by Emmanuel Martin via Unsplash

Art lovers flock to the Riviera’s hilltop marvel St-Paul-de-Vence, one of the region’s oldest and most riveting medieval towns — once a  fortress. In essence, it served as a living room for the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, and other artists during their heyday. The smart village continues to attract the art savvy who take deep dives though its outstanding galleries and various museums — including the stunning Fondation Maeght. Views from Saint-Paul-de-Vence frame the mountains and sea, while its ramparts edge the village with a peppering of olive and orange groves. 

Where To Stay: Follow in the footsteps of notable artists and post-war art personalities (like Picasso) who traded their sketches for a night at La Colombe d’ Or, which offers 13 characteristic rooms. Brimming with museum-quality masterworks, full of history, the affable inn stands like a beacon on the city’s verges. Don’t miss a meal at its equally famous restaurant. 

Kaiserberg (population approximately 4500)

A haven of half-timbered painted houses in Alsace, this picture-postcard perfect village near Colmar embodies the storybook essence of the region. It lords over the Weiss River. Composed of centuries-old buildings, ancient ramparts, and a castle atop a hill, picturesque Kaiserberg sits on the Alsace Wine Route. 

Where to Stay: Chef and family-run Le Chambard, a Relais & Chateaux hotel, occupies a renovated 18th-century residence with 32 plush guest rooms, a spa, and 2 restaurants  Edged by a vineyard, with village, garden, and mountain views, the atmospheric hotel features crisp interiors that accentuate — in contrast — the building’s classic bones, the village, and its history.  Allow enough time to eat at both of Chef Olivier Nasti’s in-house restaurants: the acclaimed two-Michelin star Chambard, a gourmet treatise on Alsatian gastronomy, as well as his more casual traditional Winstub — both bearers of art d ‘vivre.

Conques (population around 1600)

a dining table outside surrounded by pink flowers and greenery in France
Courtesy of Le Jardin de Marie

While considered off the beaten path nowadays, Conques once welcomed throngs of pilgrims in the Middle Ages who passed through town on the St. Jacques (or Santiago Compostela) trail. One of France’s most spellbinding villages in mountainous southwestern France, this UNESCO World Heritage site claims a much-heralded abbey, renowned for the relics of St. Foy and Lost Judgement, an exquisite tympanum, and other artful treasures. With steep, winding cobbled streets and thatched houses, it sets an otherworldly tone. 

Where to Stay: In a restored ancient mill built with local flagstone on the banks of a river, Moulin de Cambelong has eight atmospheric rooms, complete with exposed rafters and other authentic architectural elements. Enjoyed mostly by culinary travelers who’ve come to Conques to eat at the hotel’s One Michelin-starred restaurant, the rooms, though delightful, play second fiddle to the eatery — Émilie & Thomas — helmed by dynamic chef duo Émilie and Thomas Roussey. You’ll eat well and sleep well here. 

Port-Lesney (population approximately 500)

In the heart of eastern France’s Jura, near Besançon, Port-Lesney draws travelers with a penchant for fine wine and cheesemaking. A fortuitous spot to base for a gastronomic tasting binge, the region is also profuse in castles, Gothic cathedrals, and exemplar Romanesque architecture — not to mention sites such as the Royal Saltworks. Port-Lesney, which straddles the River Loue, exudes timeless bygone appeal. 

Where to Stay: A former hunting lodge, magnificently festooned by globally touted interior designers Roland and Véréna Schön Château de Germigney, Relais & Châteaux evokes the consummate country estate. Renew amid lavish interiors, suites with romantic flourishes — such as four-poster beds — and in the therapeutic Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa, which bases its treatments on the healing power of wine. The hotel also treats guests to two restaurants, including the acclaimed Maison Rosella. 

Deauville (population, approximately 3,700)

greenery and hills surrounding a small town in france
Image by Yohann Hervet

Sometimes called the Parisian Riviera, swanky Deauville — a seaside destination on the upscale Côte Fleurie just two hours from Paris — reigns as a Belle Epoque fantasyland, woven among half-timbered buildings. With a generous sandy beach, buzzy atmosphere, and old-school entertainment such as a 1920s boardwalk, a grand casino, and golf courses, it has a sober side, too, as a launching point for visits to France’s Normandy region and its war monuments, memorials, and battle sites. 

Where to Stay: Capturing the vibe of grandeur and extravagance that has made this Anglo-Norman beach town a vacation oasis since the 1820s, Hotel Barrière Le Normandy oozes opulence and coddling. With a green-timbered facade, posh common rooms, impeccable service, and pampering everything, the hotel remains a French grand dame.

Featured image courtesy of Le Jardin de Marie