Charming historic Saint Guilhem France

Saint Guilhem: A place caught between fact and legend

Like some giant's crown enigmatic castle-ruins rest wind-blown above Saint Guilhem au Desert, France. Their historical silence poses questions as to just what of the legend of Saint Guilhem may be true.

The Legendary History

The story goes that Guilhem of Orange, renowned general of heroic proportions, one day in battle suddenly laid down his weapons and turned to God. Guilhem of Orange, cousin of Emperor Charlemagne and variously known as William of Aquitaine, Guillaume d'Orange and William of Gellone, made his way here in 804 after coming to the aid of the local population being terrorized by a giant who owned the castle high atop the overlooking mountain. Sword in hand he slayed the giant, brought peace to the land and established the monastery of Gellone in the Gellone Valley.

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To this day its walls lay claim to holding the bones of the saint and a sliver of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. By the 11th century the present day village had grown up around the Verdus River and monastery, itself a stop on the famed Santiago de Compostela Way pilgrimage trail. The Abbey Church was, in 1998, classified a UNESCO world heritage site.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the monastery declined in prominence and power but was saved by the Benedictine congregation of Saint-Maur who lived there until 1790. Little known, the Mauristes were an intellectual order dedicated to rehabilitating monuments. It took until 1840 for the value of the abbey to be appreciated and its care taken over by the Historic Monuments Commission.

Exploring the medieval village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert

Turning off route D4 at the confluence of the Verdus and Herault Rivers to follow the Verdus, we wound our way along the narrow roads to the tree shaded parking lot atop the village of 270 souls, where there was paid parking, washrooms and a short walk to the main village square, Place de la Liberte. From there the tan-brown dusky village winds down spine-like beside the seasonally-tempermental Verdus; wending past shops, residences, churches, parks, municipal buildings, two guard towers which once served as prisons, museums (musee du village d'Antan) and fountains; all watched over by the giant's crown (access not permitted) high above on its lonely mountain top. Streets rise and fall steeply with close corners withholding new views to the last. Stone stairways dive and climb through archways and past upper floor apartments, replete with ornate caste iron railings. Arcades offer shelter from rain and sun. All of solid stone and capped with terra-cotta roofs. Ambience extrordinaire!

The main square, Place de la Liberte, is right out of a post card with its aged buildings crowded about the dominating plane tree, planted in 1855; itself closely surrounded by shops and restaurants. Taking sun-shelter under the tree in the open air seating for cafe Vent de Soliel we dug into delicious crepes and savoured our cafe a L'onge. About us mingled knots of locals and tourists casually going about their business free from the press of the greater numbers favouring the site in the heat of the high season. Amid the shops and cafes was the tourist information centre providing multi lingual and very helpful service.

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Dominating the square rose the steeple of the Abbey. Its welcoming doors gave way to floors polished by the trundle of millions of feet over the many centuries it has stood. Inlaid in the stone are names and dates hearkening back to a world as mysterious to us as ours would be inconceivable to them. Inside rose the ecclesiastical features of statuary, window and wall capable of instilling emotions ranging through awe and peacefulness to fear and reverence. If so capable today how much more so for those previously of modest education, means and material comforts!

A side door gave access to the open air cloister still rich in its arcaded encirclement even though many of its artifacts now reside in the Cloisters Museum at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Off-leading doorways gave view to high-lighted art pieces such as the glass "crown of thorns" and a museum room with relics of the abbey and historical plaques telling the abbey's story.

Twisting down the main street we passed small shops featuring everything from art to refreshment with little of the tourist press experienced in the high season. The religious and historical aura of the place is witnessed in the street names like Rue du Cabinet de Geant, Rue des Penitents, Tour des Prisons and further places of worship such as ancienne Eglise St. Laurent. Inviting side streets climb and descend through archways and around corners with the promise of the perfect photo moment or a tantalizing discovery in this living museum. There too, under the cool shade of a spreading tree, is peaceful Square Jean-Moulin honouring the famed French Resistance fighter of World War II who lost his life to the Gestapo in 1943.

Going Beyond the Town

Should you wish to extend your visit to Saint Guilhem, leading off from the upper parking lot are extensive hiking trails which should only be ventured in their entirety when one is prepared with maps, water, food and allowance for the heat or damp of the day. Hikes range from 1 hour allowance for return to 3.5 hours and link with the famed pilgrim trail.

At the bottom of the village the Verdus enters the greater Herault which has carved its way through steep limestone canyons and splays out nearby for water sports; allowing visitors to relax on its shores, swim or take passage upon the waters. Beside the bridge crossing of the Herault rises the historic Pont du Diable, a medieval river crossing now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dramatic as it is enigmatic Saint Guilhem au Desert is worth the extra effort it takes to find your way here.

If You Go

Getting There - by car - From Gignac you take route D32 to route D27 at Aniane and then route D4 which gets you to the bottom of the village at the mouth of the Verdus at the Herault River. by bus - take the 308 from Montepelier. Tourism web site - provides information on getting there, accommodations, dining and a wealth of things to see and do.

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Glen Cowley Since 1994 Glen Cowley has parlayed his interest in sports, travel and history into both books and articles. The author of two books on hockey and over sixty published articles ( including sports, biographies and travel) he continues to explore perspectives in time and place wherever his travels take him. From the varied landscapes of British Columbia to Eastern Canada and the USA, the British Isles, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and France he has found ample fodder for features. His latest book, Amber River, a guide to unique pubs of Vancouver island and the Salish Sea.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: January 23rd, 2015

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