Rèunion is strongly influenced by the French culture, especially along the coastal towns. But if you reach the most remote territories of the Hauts, you will discover a reality made up of villages, in which the geographical isolation has made it possible to preserve the traditions of the past. The Creole culture of the last century, characterized by an eco-sustainable and quality development style, today represents a strength for the island and it is what visitors are looking for. To enhance the villages that have kept the traditions of the past alive, the Creole villages circuit (or Le Villages Créoles) was established. This brand brings together 16 villages, scattered throughout the island. In this article we will tell you about those we have visited: Petite France, Hell-Bourg, Bourg Murat.
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The Creole villages are divided by “atmosphere”, or distinctive characteristics that unite them and make them worth a visit. In some of them you could admire the typical Creole houses, or their flower gardens, or you could buy local products made with environmentally sustainable craft methods, and so on. As soon as you understand what is the characteristic of the village you are heading to, you will have a clear idea of what to focus your attention on. Here is a representative map of all the villages and how they are located in the area, but for any further information we suggest you to visit the Villages Créoles website.
The village of Petite France is located on the road to the Maïdo, on Route Forestière 8, in the Hauts area of Saint Paul; we suggest you visit it on your return from the viewpoint. Its name derives from the fact that the climate similar to France meant that the same plantations could be found, just like a “little France”.
The village, in particular, is famous for the cultivation of geranium, from which distillates and essential oils are obtained. Most growers have their own distillery and if you are interested you could ask to visit it.
Among the attractions in the surrounding area we point out:
- the Maïdo viewpoint, an enchanting balcony overlooking the circus of Mafate (more info and images here);
- the Chapelle de la Petite France, a chapel built in 1955 by the colonial Lougnon family, to which the territories of this area belonged;
- the Bambusaie, a bamboo garden with species from all over the world, which can be visited by appointment (the guided tour lasts about 2 hours, the cost is € 8 per person, more info).
Along the main road you can find typical restaurants and several shops where you can buy local products:
- Maison du Geranium, demonstrations, geranium tea tasting, handicraft and souvenir shop, possibility of a guided tour of the botanical garden by reservation (website),
- La distillerie du Maïdo, demonstrations, handicraft shop, aromatherapy products, online shop available (website),
- Alambic Bègue, demonstrations, product tasting, sale of essential oils (website).
There is no real center to walk around, the village runs along the winding and steep Maïdo forest road and it is here that you will find all the activities related to tourism. For this reason, the village can also be visited in passing by car, stopping only in front of the shops/restaurants of your interest.
Not only it is included in the Creole Villages circuit, but it is also part of the list of the “Most beautiful villages in France”: we are talking about Hell-Bourg, a rare example of a perfectly preserved Creole town in the heart of the green circus of Salazie.
This legacy derives from a prosperous past which, from 1850 to 1948, saw it as a coveted spa resort. It has thus been enriched with beautiful wooden Creole houses, with guétalis (the public or private kiosks that overlook the streets) and verandas. The perfectly preserved houses are colorful and decorated with geometric patterns that contrast with the white lambrequins. Hell-bourg is today a picturesque and very touristic village, full of services for tourists and souvenir shops. There are many attractions to visit both within the town and nearby, let’s see them together.
The circuit of Creole houses
It can be followed independently by looking for the numbered signs next to the buildings of interest, or you can rely on the experience of a guide. The stages cover the most significant historical buildings of the village. To give some examples, number 1 corresponds to the Hôtel des Salazes, former military thermal hospital in Salazie, number 2 to the Case Bardeàux, old bakery, number 8 to Gite Madeleine, the first thermal hotel in Hell-bourg (dated 1850), number 16 to the Maison “Folio”, a typical example of a 19th century Creole villa, and so on. Guided tours are organized by Les Aventuriers de l’Est every day at 10 am and 2 pm, the price is 10€ per person (Sunday by reservation, more info and contacts here).
The ancient baths
Today only the ruins remain, testimony of their glorious past, which led Hell-Bourg to become a renowned spa, frequented by high society. They can be easily reached from the center of Hell-Bourg by descending along a tiled path in the middle of the vegetation; after a few minutes of walking you will reach a green and peaceful site on the banks of the river. Their story begins in 1831, when they were discovered by 2 goat hunters. The proven therapeutic properties of the spring were soon recognized and many wealthy owners decided to invest in facilities for the increasing visitors, making Hell-Bourg a thriving village in the Salazie circus. In the first decades of the 19th century the spas began to lose popularity due to the bad conditions in which they raged and in 1948 the passage of a cyclone officially decreed their end. Thus Hell-Bourg quickly lost popularity and its buildings were gradually abandoned.
Together with the kiosks, they are the expression of Creole architecture and lifestyle of the past. They are raised constructions placed on the corners of the main roads or in other strategic points, where the rich and good society people (attracted to the locality by the thermal activity) met to observe and listen to what was happening on the streets. The facades of the guétalis could be open or closed, covered with decorative panels of perforated wood, the lambrequins were present on the spans and the roof was in flat sheet metal, all in a delicate white livery. The Guétalis of Villa Lucilly and Villa Barau along the main street (rue du Général-de-Gaulle) are the best preserved.
The Maison Folio
A perfectly preserved 19th century Creole residence in colonial style and still inhabited by the family, who organize guided tours inside. The house can also be visited independently, the opening hours to the public range from 9 to 11.30 and from 14 to 17. The architecture, furnishings, garden full of tropical plants and flowers and the intimate and cozy wooden kiosk are amazing. You should be able to see the kiosk also from the street, at the end of an alley paved with cut stones. The lambrequins decorations and the geometric patterned finishes perfectly reflect the refined taste of that period. Admission fee 6€, duration of the visit: approximately 1 hour.
The landscaped cemetery
Located at the end of Rue Amiral Lacaze, it is worth a stop. The view of the mountains of the circus of Salazie that you can enjoy from here is magnificent. In addition, the cemeteries in Réunion are anything but gloomy places: the inhabitants of the island in fact have the habit of adorning the graves of their loved ones with tropical flowers…but be careful because these are not cut and placed in pots, they are planted in the ground! The final effect is a wonderful, colorful and fragrant garden, which, thanks to the excellent climate, remains in bloom all year round.
The Forêt de Bélouve and the Trou de Fer waterfalls
The trails for exploring these natural beauties start from Hell-Bourg. The Bélouve forest is famous for its tamarinds and for the great variety and richness of its vegetation. Hiking trails are many and well signposted, including the one that leads to Trou de Fer. This is a huge inaccessible gorge, in which the Bras de Caverne River creates a series of spectacular waterfalls, 725m high and divided into 4 jumps. The hike, which is not an easy one, to Gite Bélouve takes about 2 hours of walking and from there to the viewpoint on the Trou de Fer still takes about 1 and a half hours. In the rainy season the route may be impractical due to the mud, we always suggest you check the road conditions on the map of the hiking routes of la Réunion. Alternatively you could visit the site via a helicopter tour.
The walk to the Trois Cascades
Short but intense. The trail starts from Hell-Bourg, taking the Chemin des 3 Cascades from Route Departementale D48. It starts with a very steep stretch and then softens in the undergrowth, between guava trees and bamboo. It will lead you in about 30 minutes to the 3 waterfalls, less oustanding than the most famous and spectacular on the island.
A rural village is what you discover when you come to Bourg Murat, between pastures and woods. It rises at an altitude of 1600 m and is located at the feet of the Piton de la Fournaise, which is why it is considered the gateway to the volcano. Don’t be surprised to find it often in fog. It houses the Cité du Volcan, that is the museum dedicated to volcanology, and there are many receptive structures to welcome tourists and hikers. Several hiking trails start from here, as well as the road that leads directly to Plaine des Sables and Pas de Bellecombe (find our article here). In the village there is also a tourism office and an art gallery which often hosts events. Among the typical products of the area you can buy the meat, cheese and honey of the Plaine des Cafres: we recommend a stop at the Palais du Fromage, where you can buy local cheeses, but also taste homemade desserts. We suggest to visit to the village in combination with the excursion to the volcano.
If we had discovered the Creole village circuit earlier, we would surely have included more in our itinerary. What distinguishes a traveler from a tourist is precisely that desire to break away from the most popular itineraries, in search of something more authentic and true. If you want to discover the true soul of Réunion too, just let you be inspired from this article and plan your visit by choosing the villages that interest you most. Then don’t forget to let us know how it went.
See you soon