Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert

One of the Plus Beaux Villages of France, but not just another pretty face. Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert has a rich spiritual history as a major stop on the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and is one of the best places in France to visit.

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In the shadow of an ancient Visigoth castle, Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert is a charming medieval French village whose only street meanders up the hillside, flanked on both sides by beautiful yellow stone houses, to end in a pretty square shaded by a magnificent ancient plain tree.

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At the top of the village is where you’ll find the Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, founded in 804 by Guilhem of Orange, a close friend of Charlemagne’s from his crusading and pillaging days. Guilhem endowed the Abbey with a relic of the Cross, and the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims flocked to the place, as it became an important stop on the pilgrimage’s Arles Route.  Today there is evidence of their presence everywhere, right down to the scallop shells that became an enduring symbol of the pilgrimage. Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, the monks made sure the Abbey prospered financially from all that attention. By the 11th Century, there was enough money to reno the monastery in grand style. That’s the church building you can wander through today, though it still has an ancient crypt underneath. The cross is still there, and is trotted out once a year to be paraded through the village on Saint Guilhem’s feast day, May 3. The abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Outside the abbey walls, there’s plenty more to see. The village is tiny, but it seems that half its population is artists, whose high quality wares are displayed in studios lining the street. There are plenty of cafes to pass the time in, and while some of them are more touristy than yummy, there are enough good ones to let you while away the hours in epicurean joy in the picturesque square.

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If you prefer picnics, walk to the top of the village, where you can access a hiking trail that takes you up close and personal to the ancient Visigoth ruins, and gives you a spectacular view of the valley below.

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The sights on the way into the village, in the valley below, are no less gorgeous. Here,  the Herault river cuts a deep gorge through the hills, and runs under a thousand-year-old Pont du Diable. Below the bridge, the river forms a wide, clear pool with a very popular beach, before carrying on to shallow rapids that are great fun for kids and grownups alike to splash around in.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert is about a half hour drive from Maison Rose-Clair, north on the A75.

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