Within a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea lets look for unique natural sites. Part one. – Meanderings through France n° 151
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Hérault is a French area well known for its sandy beaches on the Mediterranean coast such as La Grande Motte or Cap d’Agde, where millions of tourists go each year to enjoy their never-ending sunshine. But if you have a natural curiosity for more outstanding and less crowded places, Hérault can offer you three sites classified “Grand Sites of France”, a label presently rewarding only 43 remarkable natural monuments and sites throughout France. Forget the beach and your parasol for a few hours to discover these wonderful places!
The Grand Sites of France Network was created in 2000 to pursue one ambition: preserve the uniqueness of each site in order to unsure that nowadays or future visitors can enjoy the site as it was described by Scottish poet and founder of the International Institute of Geopoetics, Kenneth White, who was the guest of honour at the founding of the Grand Sites network. A demand for quality that still is the number-one concern of the label today.
In Herault three sites meet these demanding criteria: the Navacelles Cirque, the Herault River Gorges and the Salagou-Moureze area. Being Grand Sites of France the three sites are conserved and managed following sustainable development principles, which combine the conservation of the landscape, the “spirit” of the site and the quality of visitors’ experience. Even if these unique yet fragile sites are very popular and attract many visitors, the label nevertheless guarantees that you will always enjoy them in a well-maintained environment.
The Herault River Gorges and stunning Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
It will take you a whole day to explore the deep and picturesque gorges and the three different sites that must be visited on the way. Whether driving from Montpellier, Sète or Beziers the best way to visit the gorges is to leave your car or motor home at the park open next to the “Maison du Grand Site”, a vast building where you will find a shop filled with local products, a restaurant of Mediterranean cuisine and an information desk. The road that goes along the river is very narrow and quickly saturated. That car park is the only place to leave cars for those who would have access to the lake and the beaches just down below, a few steps away. A free shuttle service will take you all the way from the car park to Saint-Guilhem-du-Desert and using it you will help taking care of this protected area. (Parking fee is only five Euros for one day).
The Devil’s bridge and the gorges
First the shuttle stops at “Le pont du Diable”, (Devil’s Bridge), an ancient bridge of Romanesque style built at the beginning of the 11th century. It was meant to link the Aniane and Gellone Abbeys that were both on the Saint James Way to Santiago de Compostela. It is one of the oldest French bridges still standing today and still in very good conditions. The story goes that its founder, Saint Guilhem, who found it hard to build the bridge, made a pact with the devil. If the devil were able to build the bridge within 3 days, Saint Guilhem would offer him the soul of the first creature that would cross the bridge. Indeed the devil built the bridge in three days but Saint Guilhem let his dog cross the bridge first! Understanding that he had been tricked the infuriated devil tried to destroy the bridge. But he had made a very good job and the bridge resisted his attacks. Mad with rage he dived into the river bellow and ever since pilgrims crossing the bridge on their way to Santiago throw stones into the river to prevent the devil to come out of the deep waters.
Located at the outlet of the Herault Gorges, the “Pont du Diable” is surrounded by an impressive and typically Mediterranean landscape. For millenniums the Herault River has dug a deep canyon in the limestone of the Seranne Massif. In some places it is 300 metres deep and offers spectacular rocky landscape in the middle of the fragrant Provencal scrubland. Looking at the quiet river where people canoe, swim or dive from high rocky spurs, it’s hard to believe that it sometimes goes wild and flood the valley threatening to submerge the “Pont du Diable”. There are several sandy beaches bellow the bridge with supervised swimming in July and August, where many families go to relax and swim in the cool waters of the river enjoying the view over the bridge and the high white cliffs of the canyon in the background. Quite unique!
It just feels wonderful to enjoy the coolness of a cave on a hot summer day, especially if this cave is one of the most beautiful ones in Europe. It also is one of the largest underground networks, stretching out on more than 17km. A guided tour will take you for one hour and twenty minutes through the upper level of the cave where the most beautiful halls are, (audio-guides are available in English).
Apart from the usual stalactites and stalagmite of impressive sizes and colours, you will see thousands of crystalline concretions, several metres high mineral draperies, cave pearls, calcite crystals funnily called “pig’s teeth”, aragonite concretions creating flower-like sculptures and the rare “eccentric” concretions that grow in changing directions making them look like pin cushions. For an original and sporting experience you can also explore the cave, including parts that were until recently closed to the public, using monkey bridges, ziplines or easy climbing. Called Speleopark this visit is real fun! www.clamouse.com/en/home/
St Guilhem and Gellone Abbey
The next shuttle stop will take you to Saint-Guilhem-du-Desert, one of France most beautiful villages. As there are only two streets in this lovely medieval village, you will easily find your way to the Gellone Abbey. This abbey was founded by Guilhem one of Charlemagne’s cousins, and the village grew around it. The village has kept its whole yesterday charm with typical medieval houses adorned with geminated windows and Romanesque frontage, the prisons tower, the 12th century Parish church and the magnificent main square with its huge plane tree planted in 1855 and its lovely fountain.
Although there still are nuns and monks living in the abbey, it is open to the public. It’s a pure jewel of Romanesque art and has been beautifully restored after the terrible acts of vandalism committed during the French Revolution. Unfortunately the exceptional cloister was sold, dismantled piece by pieced and shipped to the USA. It is now one of the masterpieces of the “Cloisters Museum” in New York.
If you continue the way beyond the village you will get to “Le Bout du Monde”, the End of the World! A path will take you to the spring of the “Verdus”, the small river that goes across the village before flowing into the Herault River. Thirsty on the way back? Stop at the Lasarde Brewery for a tasty and thirst-quenching beer. Julien and Delphine created this microbrewery in the heart of the village a few months ago and are proud to serve two of their creations, a lager and a dark beer. A delightful stop! “Brasserie Lasarde”, 20 rue du Bout du Monde in Saint Guilhem du Desert. www.saintguilhem-valleeherault.fr/en/
Join us next week to discover the next two Grand Sites of France in Hérault: Navacelles Cirque, Salagou and Moureze.
More about Herault: http://www.destination-languedoc.co.uk/index-1-2.html
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes