In the heart of the Hérault Gorges, in the Val de Gellone, just 40km from Montpellier, you’ll find, wedged into a narrow valley, the tiny medieval village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.
Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is best approached from the winding road of the Grand Chemin Val de Gellone. This approach gives you stupendous views of the town which sits atop a hill. When you leave, I recommend you go via the main street on the far side of the town. This long road is lined with boutiques, bistros and artisan workshops.
Officially one of the prettiest villages in France
Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is a Plus Beaux Village de France (an official classification for the prettiest villages in France). In the centre, the main square is home to an imposing plane tree. At more than 150 years old, it’s said to be the biggest plane tree in France. All around it, tables and chairs sprawl out from the cafés that line the square. It’s the perfect place to sip chilled wine and nibble on olives as you listed to the cicadas sing.
On one edge of the square sits the Abbey of Gellone. It’s one of the oldest Romanesque churches in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) pilgrim route.
The abbey was founded in 804 by Guilhem, Count of Toulouse. When he moved to this remote location, his cousin the great Emperor Charlemagne, gave him what was said to be a relic of the Holy Cross. This made the abbey an important stop for pilgrims. The well-preserved abbey has an air of serenity to it, and there is a small museum behind the cool cloisters.
A village of legends
Guilhem made the town famous by defeating a giant who took up residence in the ruins of the town’s castle, accompanied by a magpie. The terrified locals asked Guilhem to help rid them of the giant. Guilhem dressed as a maid and, hiding his sword, set out to trick the beast. But he was recognised by the magpie who flew off to warn his mate. Sure of his superiority, the giant ignored the magpie (of course). He fought with the ‘maid’ who (of course) won. And Guilhem threw his opponent off a cliff. The locals claim that though many wild birds live in the area – no-one has ever seen a magpie in Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert since that day!
What to see in Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
Around the abbey a warren of narrow cobbled winding alleys spread up and down the hilly town. As you wander, you’ll pass the 12th century Tour des Prisons. Along the streets, water trickles from ancient fountains. Some of them are decorated with scallop shells, the pilgrims emblem and picturesque ancient houses lean against each under their sun-baked tiled roofs.
Despite the name, you won’t see a desert, the name comes from the fact not many people that lived there centuries ago. Today it gets rather more crowded, especially in peak summer months, though it barely has more than 250 permanent residents.
A stone’s throw from the village you’ll find another incredible monument – the medieval Pont du Diable which arches high above a steep gorge. Legend has it that yet again Guilhem was the hero. The bridge was taking so long to build that Guilhem did a deal with the devil. The evil one agreed to get the job done in return for the first soul to cross after completion. Guilhem sent a dog across and the devil, in a fit of pique tried to destroy the bridge. However he fell into the gorge below which became known as the Gouffre Noir (the black abyss). To this day, pilgrims and locals crossing the bridge throw a stone into the gorge – to keep the devil on the bottom!
A giant’s castle
Embedded in the hills are the remains of a Visigoth fortress. Alongside is an old mule path, trod for centuries by pilgrims and today part of a hike that begins at the edge of the village on the rue du Bout-du-Monde – the street of the end of the world. Take a detour to visit the ruins of the Giant’s castle, a very peaceful spot with fabulous views.
Janine Marsh visited Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert whilst on a CroisiEurope Rhone River tour from Sète to Arles, which includes excursions of the most iconic destinations en route.