St Guilhem Le Desert is named after a grandson of Charles Martel who became one of the most trusted commanders of the Emperor Charlemagne. After an epic campaign against the Saracens, Guilhem returned home to find his wife had died during his time away. He decided upon a life of solitude and handed over his responsibilities as Prince of Orange to his son. After visiting the Gellone Valley in the Lodeve region, he decided to build a monastery there in 804 and placed in it a relic of the True Cross given to him by Charlemagne. Guilhem retreated to the monastery and died there in 812.
Over the next four centuries, Gellone Monastery became a place of pilgrimage and by the 13th Century it was home to more than 100 monks. At around this time, Gellone was renamed St-Guilhem-le-Desert. These days visitors can still see this relic of the True Cross in the Abbey Church, which is all that remains of the monastery. Close by is the reliquary of St Guilhem. I often wonder whether churches such as this Abbey church should get their “True Cross” carbon-dated so its veracity can be better determined. Some churches don’t want to do this in case the wood is found not to be old enough, but just imagine how many visitors would come if the wood was found to be of sufficient age. Places like St Guilhem would be overwhelmed.
Talking of which, just outside the church door on a stone column is a marker at head level indicating the height the floodwaters have reached in the past. It was a good reminder St Guilhem is surrounded on almost all sides by steep slopes, down which rain must pour into the small stream that was only six-inches deep when I visited. It was hard to believe the entire Place de la Liberte being full of water. This square was full of seats at cafes being shaded by trees and overlooked by medieval house facades. St Guilhem is a wonderful place to wander around as no cars are allowed along the village streets as they are too narrow. The old houses are clean and most are decorated with flowers in pots. By the side of the road taking cars to the car park, a larger stream was pouring over a grassy bank and forming a number of thin waterfalls.
Near St Guilhem is the dolomitic limestone cave of Clamouse. Clamouse means ‘howler’ in local dialect and refers to the spring on the other side of the road from the cave entrance. This spring gurgles noisily as it disgorges water down into the river Herault during wet weather. The caverns were discovered in 1946 and opened in 1964, an indication of how long it takes to make such subterranean places suitable for visitors.
There are many highlights in the cave ranging from the straw stalactites in their hundreds which have grown at roughly 1 centimetre per 100 years to the sound and light show in the Grande Salle at roughly the halfway stage of the 90 minute tour with the stalactites and stalagmites being beautifully lit in various colours, showing off their contours to perfection. The piece-de-resistance is the Meduse, or jellyfish, a glowing representation of the power of nature to astonish – it’s a 10-metre high column comprising a number of merged stalactites and stalagmites with some of the stalactites hanging away from the main structure like tentacles, hence the name of course.
The Cirque de Navacelles is not a glacial feature as would be the case in a mountainous region. The ‘Cirque’ here is a circle and refers to the former ox-bow lake in the River Vis, long since dried up, which can be seen from Belvedere Nord, the viewpoint for the Cirque. The two dozen or so houses in the village of Navacelles are barely discernible from the viewpoint, so vast is the landscape. The road into the cirque is narrow and fairly steep as you would expect. It takes a good 15 minutes to reach the parking area.
The River Vis is still flowing through the village and there’s some lovely shaded walks by the river towards some waterfalls. Up close the houses are quite tall with three or four storeys and the buildings on the rim of the cirque look as though they’re on a mountain ridge. One little river has caused this landscape – talk about persistent. There is one small creperie in Navacelles run by a Dutch mother and daughter, who produce the most delightful sarazin (buckwheat) pancakes and fruit juices, just the things for a warm summer’s day with the temperatures in the low 30s (degrees Centigrade).
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker