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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-Guilhemle-Désert. Janine Marsh visits the fairy tale pretty town… SPOTLIGHT ON: Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is best approached from the winding road of the Grand Chemin Val de Gellone which gives you stupendous views of the town which sits atop a hill, and leave via the main street on the far side of the town, lined with boutiques, bistros and artisan workshops. 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. Over 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, the perfect place to sip chilled wine and nibble on olives as you listen to the cicadas sing. On one edge of the square sits the Abbey of Gellone, 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 which made the abbey an important stop for pilgrims. The wellpreserved abbey has an air of serenity to it, and there is a small museum behind the cool cloisters. 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 and 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! 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 50 | The Good Life France The Good Life France | 51
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