I’m searching for the Abbey which was founded by St Benoit in 782. What remain at the site today are the large, cold, damp and dim church of Saint Sauveur and the badly neglected adjoining buildings. In 2011 money was provided for the restoration of the abbey but it looks as if little has been spent in the last 5 years.
Back in 804 St Benoit greatly influenced Guilhem, cousin of Charlemagne and military campaigner who fought, and defeated, the moors in Barcelona. Wanting to find some peace from the fighting and perhaps atone for his sinful killing, he headed up to the Herault Gorge, close to Aniane, and founded an abbey there in the seclusion of Gelonne. Its remote location is how the village earned its hyphenated name of St Guilhem-le-Desert. After his death and due to a gift of Charlemagne to the Abbey of a piece of the “true cross”, pilgrims began to visit the site and a village soon grew along the Verdus valley to house the pilgrims. It soon became an important stopping place on the route of St James.
Pilgrims and tourists are still welcomed today, but not if they are travelling in a motorhome. Despite there being an empty car park at the base of the village, there is a 2m height barrier and so I am forced to drive a further 2km along the river to a kayak hire spot and then return on foot.
It’s a Friday lunchtime in January and the village is living up to its name and is totally deserted. All the craft shops are closed and only 3 overpriced restaurants selling pancakes and pizzas offer sustenance to the hungry soul.
The abbey church of Gellone is cold and dark but that doesn’t stop a lone pilgrim from sitting on the floor, quietly meditating in front of the main altar. The cloister is disappointing, having been stripped of its architectural beauty during the French Revolution and they are now located in the Cloisters Museum in New York (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Luckily, some religious gems, like the cloister of Fontfroide Abbey, remain in their original location.
Between Aniane and Guilhem is an 11th century stone bridge spanning the end of the Herault Gorge. Nearby is a huge car park (free and empty at this time of year) which offers a park and ride facility in the summer to St Guilhem and the caves along the gorge.
I take a peaceful walk down to the large, pebble beach to look at the bridge and then clamber up the cliff to walk across it. The story goes that when Guilhem was building the bridge (not actually possible given a difference of two centuries – but it’s a good story!) he sought the help of the Devil by offering him the soul of the first creature to walk across it. After 3 days work, the bridge was finished and Guilhem craftily sent across a dog. The Devil was angry at having been deceived and tried to destroy his work, throwing himself into the waters below, creating a black abyss.
Today the Devil still claims souls as a plaque in the centre of the bridge testifies. Between 2010 and 2013 one person died and four were paralyzed after foolishly jumping off the bridge into the river below. Perhaps the sign will dissuade others from the same fate, though I doubt it.