Saint-Guilhem le Désert, an incredibly well-preserved town established over 1200 years ago, retains its medieval charm just a few kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea.
Just 35 kilometers from the metropolitan French city of Montpellier stands an untouched monument to days long gone by. Wind through chalky limestone mountains dotted with low shrubs and cross an ever more impressive series of stone bridges. The 500-year-old Pont du Diable bridges a steep rocky gorge on the Herault river. The air buzzes with the constant drone of cicadas, the hum of traffic long forgotten. A cloudless sky warms the desiccated pebbly soil and fills the air with the dusty scent of hardy greenery. Ahead lies the centuries-old town of Saint-Guilhem le Désert, silent but for the cicadas and the church bells.
Nestled in the narrow valley of the Hérault Gorges, the medieval village of Saint-Guilhem le Désert attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists per year, yet still feels secluded even in the height of summer. Gnarled stone alleyways welcome you into the resilient town and guide you towards the Abbey of Gellone. The Abbey, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is remarkably well-preserved both inside and out. The apse serves as the focal point of the town, both literally and figuratively. The eye is immediately drawn to the carved scallops and deep-cut stone windows overlooking the town that was built up around it.
William of Gellone, a Benedictine knight and aristocrat set down his sword to devote his final years to the church. Both a cousin and chosen knight of Charlemagne, William of Gellone was endowed with a fragment of the True Cross when he turned to God. In 804, a deserted valley in the Herault region along a narrow bend of Verdus river became the site of the iconic Abbey and home of the relic. William of Gellone ended his days in his solitary monastery just eight years later and was canonized in 1066. The saint’s body is buried below the Abbey of Gellone and this site, along with the jeweled reliquary of the True Cross, have remained an important location for religious pilgrims travelling along The Way of Saint James for over a thousand years.
On one steep and desolate mountaintop, the ruins of the Chateau de Géant overlook the town. According to legend, the castle was the home of the giant Don Juan, who Gellone himself slew in a single battle. Below, the Verdus river cuts through the gorge and towards the Abbey. It diminishes into little more than a stream as it meanders through the center of town. At some points, the river is narrow enough to jump across. Exploring the banks of the river, tiny stone bridges allow travellers to explore. Intricately carved Romanesque sculptures frown upon centuries-old graffiti on the undersides of the bridges. The verdant riverbeds inspire a profusion of colorful flowers, plants, and scrub bushes shaded by ancient stone houses. The tightly-fitted stone houses were originally built around the abbey to house workers and settlers of the town. Although modern people live there, the original structures remain untouched. Like the inviting river, the houses boast exuberant blooms to welcome you to the city’s center square.
Today, less than 300 people call Saint-Guilhem le Désert their home, but the town center thrives. Unique shops identified by little more than their doors and signage keep the town bustling. The largest plane tree in France stands in the city center, shading the Place de la Liberté. A stone fountain topped with Liberty inspires visitors to rest and enjoy a light meal of olives, bread, and local wine. The rectangular bell tower of the Abbey, built only 600 years ago, still chimes today.
After more than a millennium, the still-prospering stone city of Saint-Guilhem le Désert remains a treasure hidden in the Languedoc countryside — an oasis for both tourists and religious pilgrims alike. The unchanging beauty of the hard, arid landscape is accentuated by the severity of the medieval Abbey. The true centerpiece, however, is the unforgiving Hérault gorge cleaved by the delicate Verdus river, forever breathing life into a town frozen in time.