A perfect summer day in the Herault valley – Meanderings through France
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
There are actually few places concentrating in such a small area so many things to see, do, taste and enjoy, as you will find in Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert. This heritage village can boast of being a concentrate of what holidays should be to meet everybody’s expectations: history, water sports and hiking, gastronomy and wines, breathtaking sites, underworld beauties…
Located in Hérault French department in southern France Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert does everything possible to offer you an easy and entertaining day. It is only 35 km away from Montpellier and a picturesque road going through the Provencal garrigue will take you up to the Seranne Mountain where the Herault River and the Verdus River have dug deep majestic gorges.
Since parking in the village is an impossible mission, the best thing to do is to leave your car in the large car park located at the gorge entrance, 4 kilometres away from St Guilhem. It’s only 5 Euros a day and a free shuttle service will take you to the different sites of interest along the Verdus gorge (the shuttle bus leaves every 15 minutes).
First the bus will take you to the “Pont du Diable”, (Devil’s bridge). This old Roman bridge was built in the beginning of the 13th century and is one of the oldest medieval bridges in France. Hung in between the two high cliffs of the Herault gorge it was built to link two close by abbeys that thus intended to keep control over the valley’s access. If normally the river flows under the main arch, 3 other arches were built to stem the river flow during flood periods. Looking at them you can only imagine the raging force of the torrent after one of the severe storms that hit the region in springtime.
Fortunately it is most of the time a peaceful place where a sandy beach welcomes many tourists in summertime. It provides supervised swimming in the summer months, as well as canoes. The ideal place for a picnic with the song of the cicadas!
Next, the shuttle bus will take you to the Clamouse cave. This huge cave was only discovered in 1945 but it took millions of years to mother nature to build huge mineral concretions, metres high stalactites and stalagmites that are enhanced by sophisticated sets of lights. A one-hour visit tour will take you to this underworld where a natural “air conditioning” (it’s only 60°F down there) provides an enjoyable cooling during a hot summer day. This summer, music concerts with harps, drums, organ and singers will take place in the main cave called the “Cathedral of Time”. Magic moments are expected!
As you continue your way along the gorge you get to Saint-Jean-de-Fos where craftsmen make pottery since the Middle Ages. A 19th century workshop is open to the public and a potter will show you the different stages of pot making. If you feel like touching clay, learn everything about terracotta or have an introductory quick course on a potter’s wheel you came to the right place. Children usually love it. A museum and a shop complete your visit.
Finally the shuttle will take you to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert. This medieval village was rightfully awarded as one of the most beautiful villages in France. It was built next to an abbey on one of the Roads to Santiago de Compostela from the 9th century on. Its two pedestrian streets lined with beautiful Roman and Renaissance stone houses will take you up to a peaceful square shaded by a huge160 years old plane tree.
Take time to have a drink sitting on the terraces of a café before visiting the beautiful Gellone Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The pre-roman crypt, the 18th century organ, the Saint Guilhem altar are not to be missed, but most of all go to the cloister. The original cloister was dismantled and sold after the French revolution and it is now a splendid gem of “The Cloisters” this unique New York museum. Today the cloister has been rebuilt next to the abbey and you can admire it just the way it was centuries ago.
To promote the local products the Maison du Grand Site (Site House), is open every day in summertime: olives, honeys, truffles, wines… are available for sale or for tasting on the spot. You can also attend free wine tasting sessions during summer months. For 45 minutes these bilingual courses (French and English) will introduce you to the specificities of the local wines such as Terrasses du Larzac, Clairette du Languedoc, St Guilhem… among many other renowned local wines. These sessions will take place on few Wednesdays in July, August, September and October Access is free of charge but reservation is required by phone only: 00 33 4 67 56 41 97.
Local wine makers will also meet tourists at the Maison du Grand Site all summer long from 4 to 7 pm for free tasting and direct selling. A good opportunity to meet passionate people and to discover new wines! The sales schedule is not completed yet, but will be available on the website by the end of June.
To get to St Guilhem-le-Désert, Montpellier International is the closest airport with several weekly EasyJet flights from UK.
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Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny