One of the most astonishing is Cordes-sur-Ciel, a handful of miles north of the Episcopal City of Albi, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The history books and Wikipedia will tell you that the Cordes-sur-Ciel sits atop a hill in the northeast corner of France’s hidden gem that is the Tarn department. They will tell you that it is a well-preserved fortified town that was built in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse, who, though not a Cathar, tolerated what other Catholics considered a heresy.
They may even tell you that it has something of a bohemian air. They will definitely say that it is a popular tourist destination.
What they won’t say is that – for some time after you first see Cordes (as it was known until 1993, when its name was changed in a nod to its height above the clouds that can form in low-lying areas of the surrounding valley) none of these historical facts will matter a damn as you will be too busy nursing a very sore chin after it hit the floor the moment you stepped out of the car.
Cordes really is that impressive. In a part of the world that boasts places that are unfairly overstuffed with history such as Toulouse, Montauban and Carcassonne, the picturesque little town on a hill in the Tarn punches way above its touristy weight.
I know this, because I took my mum, daughter, and eldest son there recently.
Three of us have been before, so we knew what to expect, and had our chins firmly held in place. My mum, however, had no idea.
She was unusually silent for the first 20 minutes or so after we disembarked the petit train that took us from the bottom of the hill to the top. It’s easy to understand why. And it’s not just because her chin was hurting.
It’s less touristy than Carcassonne, less full of its own self-importance than Toulouse, less desperately keen to please than Montauban – and all the better for it. There’s an air of calm confidence about the place that is infectious and impossible to ignore.
As you walk along cobbled streets that have been there for nearly 800 years, gazing at buildings that have stood for almost as long, looking out over a landscape that has been there for aeons, you’ll realise, as pain in your chin subsides, that you’re somewhere truly special.
What makes it better still is that, unlike many larger places, you’ll feel that you will have been able to do it justice in one visit – but you’ll also want to come back again and again.
Just make sure you get there early. We drove the length of the town and back again four times before we found a place to park. Damn tourists…