There are about 32,000 villages in France and just 151 of them are given the accolade of being one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. With its red-tiled roofs, steep cobbled streets and typically French town square lined with linden trees. it's easy to see why Aubeterre-sur-Dronne in the south of the Charente has been designated as one of the most beautiful villages in the country.
But it's not just looks that make it special - the once fortified town saw battles against the English and then the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. And as a stopping point for travellers on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the village also has a significant pilgrim history.
Go for a wander
Aubeterre is a lovely village to wander about in, especially as many of the streets are filled with artisans making and selling pottery and other crafts. At its heart is the tree-fringed Place Ludovic Trarieux, which exudes 'Frenchness' and must have been the catalyst for many a move to Poitou-Charentes.
The square hosts a bustling Sunday morning market and is also a meeting place for the French, Dutch and English community in one corner at the Hotel de France. It is named after the lawyer and famed justice fighter who was born in one of the houses in 1840; he was instrumental in clearing the falsely sentenced French army captain Alfred Dreyfus in the notorious Dreyfus Affair, and in forming the French League of Human Rights.
Other famous names have come from these steep cobbled streets, alleyways and white painted houses: two stars of French operetta are immortalised in Merkes-Merval Square, with its open air washing place and charming balconied houses; French crime writer Pierre Very was born here and fashion designer Roger Vivier lived here for a while. He invented the stiletto heel, using a thin steel rod encased in wood or plastic to support the weight - Queen Elizabeth II wore his shoes at her coronation.
Underground church of Saint-Jean
The village's most amazing site is this church which was carved out of the cliff face by monks back in the 12th century. Twenty-seven metres high, it is said to have taken 100 years to complete and includes a nave, baptismal font, vestibule, octagonal columns and gallery. The necropolis contains 80 or so sarcophagi and the 6m High, carved monument standing in the apse is a replica of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre church. Archaeologists are still trying to understand the mysteries of this extraordinary building.
Church of Saint Jacques
For a touch of Moorish Spain, take a look at the 12th century façade of this church - make sure you see the signs of the zodiac! This is the only part of the original church left- the rest of it was destroyed during the Wars of Religion.
Musee des Marionnettes: run by Englishman Keith Hubbard, he has over 200 shadow, rod and glove puppets as well as marionettes. His shows are in French and English. Open June-September. Place Ludovic-Trarieux; tel 05 45 98 02 71
Musee du Papillon et de I' Art Africain: a mix of collections of more than 12.000 butterflies and insects that owner Albert Petit and his family have collected from Africa. There is also a smaller collection of African artefacts and jewellery. Open Easter to October. Place Ludovic-Trarieu: tel 05 45 98 64 58
Relax on a beach
At a point where the river Dronne widens to resemble a lake is an artificial beach with real sand that is constantly replenished. It is a great place to spend a few hours splashing around.
As you're down this way, it's worth taking a look at the fresco in the chapel at Cressac-Saint-Genis near Blanzac. It tells of the victory of the Crusaders over the Muslims in the 12th century. The mural was hidden for many centuries under a pile of hay! Heading to Chalais you'll pass fields that fill with poppies in the summer months. The town is dominated by the 12th century chateau, whose medieval drawbridge still works, although the majority of what you see now dates from many centuries later.
French poet Alfred de Vigny lived in the 17th century manor house at Champagne-Vigny, where as well as writing he also grew grapes. He also opened a school and library in the village and every summer the Festival Romantique is celebrated in his name. His house is open to the public. Tel 05 45 64 04 49
Place Ludovic-Trarieux; Tel +33 (0)5 45 98 57 18; http://aubeterre surdronne.com
Top photo: Henri Moreau
Photo of St Jean: Shutterstock