A tranquil rural region with landscapes dominated by wheat fields, orchards, vineyards and garrigue, a fragrant ground cover that includes plants such as thyme, rosemary, myrtle and lavender, Gard, in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon, is a delightful place in which to putter along country roads lined with plane trees in order to discover its many charming villages.
Most of these hamlets are lively places, since this area has not suffered from the exodus to the cities that has afflicted other parts of France. Here, invariably you’ll see men playing boules, people sitting on café terraces reading the newspaper, locals walking home from the bakery with freshly baked baguettes and schoolchildren happily and noisily at play.
One particularity of the area is that most villages have a Protestant church as well as a Catholic one, as Gard had a large Protestant population before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious freedom, in 1685. This is why you’ll often see a Rue du Temple in many villages, since the French refer to Protestant churches as temples.
If almost every village rewards idle curiosity and quiet strolling, three of them are especially rich in history and charm, as well as still being rather miraculously free of tourists. Barjac, Montclus and La Roque-sur-Cèze are grouped together in the northeastern corner of Gard, which makes them a great day trip from Uzès, from which they’re about an hour’s drive.
The handsome village of Barjac (pop. 1,500), located on the Ardèche river, is dominated by an 11th-century fortress. It is distinguished by the beautiful Renaissance-era houses that line its narrow lanes and square. Barjac is also a good place to stop for lunch at Le Monteil (reservations essential), an excellent restaurant that serves a well-prepared market-driven menu that includes dishes like mussels in a saffron broth, artichoke terrine, red mullet in rouille, and superb profiteroles. There is a lovely terrace for outdoor dining in good weather.
Just a few miles south of Barjac, tiny Montclus (pop. 205) is surrounded by lavender fields and situated on a horseshoe bend in the Cèze river, which is spanned by a historic medieval bridge. This almost impossibly picturesque village is visible from afar because of its square tower, the only remnant of the 13th-century castle. Also of note is a surviving room of a troglodyte Benedictine monastery built by the Templars. As Montclus is pedestrianized, you will have to park your car and explore the steep narrow streets on foot.
Built on a hilltop dotted with dark green cypresses around the remains of a 12th-century castle, exquisite La Roque-sur-Cèze (pop. 185) is encircled by vineyards. You will have to park beneath the sycamores on the other side of the Pont Charles Martel, because the village is car-free. Street names, such as Rue de la Magnanerie (Silk Farm Street) and Traverse des Mûriers (Mulberry Crossing), reflect the fact that this was once a center of silk-making. Today, the mulberry trees are ornamental, but as recently as the 19th century their leaves were fed to silkworms. At the edge of the village, you will find the dramatic Sautadet Cascades of the Cèze river.
All three villages above are included on the French government list of Les Beaux Villages de France, which came into being in 1981 from a book devoted to the same theme. The Les Beaux Villages de France website (text in French) is a good place to find under-the-radar destinations.