Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is a stunning little village of narrow streets and courtyards built around an old abbey where the Verdus flows into the Hérault. It is a tranquil place, and its church quite superb. The eponymous Guilhem was born in the mid-8th century and was renowned for his talent in handling weapons as well as his intelligence and piety.
He was brought up with the sons of the Carolingian King, Pepin the Short (715-751-768), and his friendship with one in particular, Charles, the future Charlemagne, was to last until his death. When Charlemagne came to the throne in 768, Guilhem became one of his most valiant officers and won many victories against the Saracens of Spain, but by the time he returned to France his wife, whom he loved dearly, was dead. He renounced war, delegated the government of Orange to his son, and rode to Paris to inform the king of his decision to seek a life of solitude. It was while travelling around the Lodève region that Guilhem discovered the Gellone valley, and set about building a monastery there in which he eventually settled with some monks. When, finally, Guilhem was able to take leave of the king, Charles gave him a relic of the True Cross, which was placed in the abbey church, now all that remains of the original abbey. The entrance is off a large square sheltered by a huge plane tree. From the square, narrow streets wander off, turning this way and that in endless fascination.
Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert is a timeless place; it centres on a huge and ancient plane tree from which narrow streets radiate and disappear into inviting corners. Getting there is not easy, and follows a tortuous route above the riverbed, crossing en route the Devil’s Bridge, the Pont du Diable. The bridge was built at the beginning of the 11th century to link the abbeys of Gellone and Aniane. It is the one of the oldest medieval bridges in France, and is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as one of the features serving the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Today, traffic uses a more modern bridge, although the old one is still very much intact.
Tel: 04 67 57 44 33