October 19, 2010

8| St. Guihem-le-Désert

St. Guihem-le-Désert, a medieval village, is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, snuggled in on the Gorges de l’Hérault. The cycling was beautiful with even less traffic than yesterday, as I started to work my way into the hills. The forest was green and luxurious, with rocky outcroppings above it against the very clear blue sky. Guihem himself was born about 750 AD, was raised with the sons of Pépin the Short, and was the grandson of Charles Martel. A prominent and successful officer of Charlemagne, Guihem was named Prince of Orange; at some point, perhaps on his retirement, Charlemagne gave him a Fragment of the True Cross (I suppose those were the “good-old-days” of retirement gifts: no pens or watches for him!) Alternatively, one source reports that Guihem brought these three relics back from a trip to Rome in 800. With history this old, something is almost always left to the imagination of the modern participant.  In any case, the village, was actually a bourgade (small marketplace town) prospered over the centuries as pilgrims to Compostela passed through it, to see the relics, stop overnight, visit the Abbey Church of Gellone; they brought the prosperity that comes with pilgrims, and that can today be seen throughout their routes.
Guihem had an abbey built in 804 to house these relics, in the village then called Gellen, where he lived until his death. After his death he was canonized, and later the town was renamed St. Guihem and today is extraordinarily beautiful, with its ancient stone houses covered by tile roofs, at least one dating to the 11th century. I rode uphill through the narrow cobblestone streets, passed closed shops (it was early), then walked my loaded bike down a few stone steps and through a covered arcade to the main square, the Place de la Liberté. This square contains a huge, 150-year old plane tree, reminding me of those ancient plane trees that lined mile after mile of the Canal du Midi, which I rode last year. 

The church itself,  which dates from the 11th century, is austere and compelling. It is a serene, calm, simple Romanesque structure, its crypt housing Guilhem’s remains, and with a lovely cloister beneath the cliffs towering over it. While I was in the cloister someone started playing the baroque-era organ, possibly practicing very short sections at a time, nothing that I quite recognized. I hurried back into the church, where it was an extraordinary pleasure to sit and listen, alone, in the dark pews. The medieval, beautifully preserved town (on the official 100 most beautiful towns in France list) was neither crowded nor honky-tonk, though is clearly a big tourist destination that would feel very different crowded. It was early in the day and somewhat ahead of the season. I chose not to eat at one of the restaurants on the square,  Place de la Liberté; I wasn’t hungry and had not yet realized the importance of preemptive eating … the first of many food related mistakes and (Touring Idea #6)


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