A Historical Melting Pot
Medieval towns are everywhere, but their history is rarely clear-cut. After the fall of the Roman Empire, began the now ominously named Dark Ages. During this time, much of Europe went from technologically advanced, to living more primitively once again. The Romans had sewage systems and even underfloor heating, whereas the years following their collapse saw us chucking faeces out of windows and claiming not to know it would cause disease!
From then we moved into the Middle Ages and after, the Renaissance period. The 1500s marked the start of the modern era. Of course, nothing changed overnight. The towns shaped by these periods in history can still be seen all over Europe today. A magical mash-up of cobbled streets, ancient forts, and wooden-beamed houses.
Part History, Part Imagination
Despite (or perhaps because of) the fear, disease and constant threat of knights knocking down your doors, the medieval era has inspired the imaginations of so many of us to this day. I for one, love reading historical fiction, adore castles and fall in love with every old town I see. So I wanted to share some of the best with you!
It’s worth noting these 5 medieval towns are actually all within about 8 hours of each other, from Southern France to Northern Italy, so totally doable if you were looking for medieval road trip holiday inspiration. In fact, let me know if that is something you would like to see and I will work on some road trip itineraries!
Please remember not to take everything I say as fact. I’m sure there wasn’t a constant threat of knights knocking down doors and my idea of medieval history often crosses into other timelines. Ultimately, I am not a historian. Much of what I know comes from eagerly reading tourist leaflets, badly translated signs in miniature museums, Phillipa Gregory novels and regularly falling down the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia.
Medieval towns of Southern France
Castellane in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
Castellane, despite being one of the nicest places ever (Sure, I may be biased), is the least populated area in France. Less than 2,000 people call this medieval town, home. However, numbers climb throughout the summer as the hotels and campsites fill with tourists.
Castellane first appeared in texts as early as 965, then know as Petra Castellana. The name comes from 3 Occitan* words, pèira, Castel and the suffix -ana. Which essentially translates to fortified rock and village. It makes sense, given that the village has a huge limestone rock towering more than 600ft above the town, aptly named, The Roc of Notre-Dame. Seriously, you can’t miss it.
Although it looks inaccessible, you can (and should) climb to the top. There are 2 routes, but unless you are super fit, take the easier one! From behind the old Church of Andrew, you can walk up a mixture of steps and gravel pathways to the little church perched on top. This church, or ‘The Chapel of Our Lady of The Roc’, if you will, is old. Like, 12th century, old. And even if you’re not into history or churches, the views of the town below are bound to impress. From here you can see the Verdon river and admire the mountains surrounding it. (Don’t forget to add your name to the visitor’s book!)
Not just another old town…
Castellane has a really “cool” feel to it. With lots of hippy-ish, water-sportsy-types around, it feels chilled and exciting at the same time. From here you can visit multiple stunning locations, including Lake Castillon and smaller medieval towns, like Trigance. The area has everything to offer nature lovers and adrenaline junkies, from trekking and bird watching to white water rafting and bungee jumping. If you’re looking to relax then the town offers various shops filled with unique clothes, jewelry, and other keepsakes. Restaurants and bars a-plenty and of course typically french markets on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.
Take your time to wander the streets and read the local history on metal silhouettes situated at various points of interest. My personal favourite is the tale of the women who defeated attacking soldiers by dropping boiling hot pans on their heads from the Porte de l’Annonciade. Girl power!
Parts of 12th and 14th-century walls can still be seen, although now in ruin. One tower remains from the original 14 that would have completed the ancient keep. A newer clock tower with its archway into the town, various churches, winding alleyways and buildings baring the marks and architectural styles of every century since the 1200s can be seen too. Castellane is an absolute must-see for anyone traveling to Verdon, Provence or the Riviera.
*In case you have no idea what Occitan is (I didn’t!), it is a Romance Language or a sort-of dialect native to the South of France, Monaco, and parts of Italy.
Ah Entraveaux, the stuff of fairytales. I stumbled across this medieval town, totally by accident and immediately fell in love. While working in the South of France, and driving from Castellane to Nice airport, I passed this ancient fort of a town. I was immediately impressed and desperate to explore, but with someone waiting for me at the airport, I couldn’t stop! I made sure to return as soon as I could, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The entrance alone is something out of a Disney film. With its stone archways and bridge into its castle-like gates, it is unlike anywhere else. From here you can visit the tourist office, just inside the walls, and see some manikins perched inside the old jail cells. Each winding road leads to beautiful views, charming houses, and historical sites. Each of the 3 times I visited Enraveaux, it was very quiet. Very few tourists and only a handful of locals were milling around. Several restaurants and bakeries were open, many with reduced hours, taking long breaks in the day or only opening for a few hours in the morning or evening.
There’s always a hill to climb…
If you’re feeling fit (and believe me, you need to be!) then head up to the citadel at the very top. The path is steep and zigzags up the mountainside. It will cost you €3 to walk up and visit the museum. Because it is a turnstile it only accepts tokens from the machine… which only accepts 50 cents and €1 coins, so come prepared.
Records of this town date from the 11th century, while the ‘Porte royale’ and the bridge we see today were constructed in the 1600s. As well as it’s near-ancient history, the town is better known for another time. During the First World War, the citadel was used as a prison for German officers. You can still see the various cells and officers quarters used during this time.
If, like me, the medieval era is more your thing, be sure to visit the weekend closest to the 15th August, when the town is host to a medieval festival! Also running during the summer is the 19th-century steam train that runs between Annot and Puget-Théniers!
One of the best-preserved and most beautiful medieval towns you will find. Unlike the old towns of Provence and Verdon, Saint Paul-de-Vence is very popular with tourists, with coach trips being dropped off regularly during the summer.
Not unlike much of the Cote d’Azur, this town is full of artwork. Little studios of paintings and sculptures can be found around every corner. Shops filled with the regional favourites of lavender, honey, wooden homeware, and local wines. Cafés, snack bars, Ice cream parlors, and fine restaurants can also be found within the walls of the town.
With its beautiful cobbled streets and stunning views all the way to the coast, you would be forgiven for thinking you had fallen into a fairytale film-set. If you want to learn more about the town’s history, you can visit the tourist office, just inside the arched entrance. As well as this little office of leaflets and maps, there is a museum at the top of the hill, which tells the story of Saint Paul-de-Vence.
I loved this place so much, I kept going back and wrote a post all about it here.
Medieval towns of Northern Italy
While Sanremo is a popular tourist spot in the Italian Riviera, there are sides to it that aren’t talked about as much. Like the medieval towns of La Pigna and Bussana Vecchia.
Sanremo was once a Roman settlement called Matutia, the townspeople moved to higher ground during the medieval era to protect themselves from Saracen raids and pirates. A Castle and walled town were built as further protection, much of which remains intact to this day. While the bustling streets below are filled with tourists shopping and sipping on Aperol Spritz, the hilltop town of La Pigna is eerily quiet. To this day, many of the homes are still occupied. Everyday life can be witnessed as you climb up further into the town.
Get lost in the cobbled streets, wander under stone arches and climb the uneven steps. There are fewer places that will make you feel more like a time-traveller!
Bussana Vecchia – International Artists Village
As well as La Pigna, the town of Bussana was built in the 9th century as a fortified town in the hills, just a short distance from Sanremo. In 1887 the area was struck by an earthquake, killing 2,000 people and destroying the town. While much of the area recovered, The remaining residents of Bussana rebuilt a new town, Bussana Nuova (New Bussana). Bussana became a forgotten ghost town. In 1947 however, things changed. Over the next 20 years, artists from around Europe began settling within the ruins of Bussana Vecchia (Old Bussana). While the town had no working water, electricity or sewage systems, these artists began to rebuild.
Despite tensions with the authorities and various eviction notices, the artist community here has flourished. Together they have partially rebuilt the town, created beautiful artworks and encouraged tourism back to this charming town. Although there seems to have been nothing but improvements made to this otherwise abandoned village, they are still facing eviction and being labeled as illegal squatters. You can read more about the town, view photos and sign the petition to help save it here.
Bergamo is a bustling city just 25 miles from Milan with its own airport. Like many cities as old as this one (Believed to be inhabited since before 49BC) it is made up of the upper and lower towns.
Città Alta Or the Old Town is where the magics at. Easily reached from the lower town by foot or Funicular, the hillside offers beautiful views of the area. Other than a few English accents and a couple of small tour groups, there are relatively few tourists. We visited in August. If it’s quiet in the height of summer, it is probably safe to assume it will be all year round!
Of course, there are numerous churches you can visit, as well as winding streets to explore. Two of the main streets are original roman roads and buildings from every era can be seen around the town. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the surrounding buildings are not to be missed. Construction started here in 1137 and was previously home to a 7th-century religious site. Work was finally completed in the 15th century.
As well as medieval churches, Venetian walls surrounding the city make this town a UNESCO world heritage site!
There are famous medieval towns everywhere in France and Italy. Some more well known than others. Venice, for example, is still home to 800-year-old buildings. Borghetto on the River Mincio, Malcesine on Lake Garda and other neighbouring towns are also steeped in well-preserved history. You can’t go far without bumping into some remains of the way we all once lived, built and ruled in Europe.
It is worth noting though, that many of the best places for history lovers, tend to be the lesser-known ones. This is for various reasons, often larger places suffered more destruction from bombing in the wars. Some towns and cities have grown dramatically over the years, building newer structures in place of ancient homes. Some places are still old and intact but so overrun with tourists and cars, that it’s hard to imagine how life once was there.
These towns were chosen for their character, stories and the way they transport their visitors to another time. I hope you love them as much as I do. Get in touch if you would like to know more or have visited any of the places mentioned! Equally, if you have any favourite historical towns, let me know! Always eager to visit new places!