Originally founded by Saint Gilles in the 7th century, the abbey went through periods of destruction and restoration thorough the Middle Ages, and what remains is the impressive 12th-century Romanesque church sitting above the 11th-century crypt.
This plan of the Saint Gilles Abbey church (L'Abbatiale de Saint-Gilles), with the current 50-meter long church, which used to be only the nave, and the ruins of the adjacent choir, which was part of the original 98-meter long church.
The original Giles was a local hermit in the 7th century, living in a forest cave near the banks of the Rhône. According to legend, Giles was nourished by the milk of a Hind. During a stag hunt, Giles was accidentally wounded by an arrow while protecting the hind. As a result, the Visigoth King Wamba gave the lands there to Giles, and the monastery was built, and in the 9th century it was dedicated to Saint Gilles, the ex hermit.
The Saint Gilles Abbey was attached to the Cluny Abbey (north of Lyon) in the 11th century, and was enlarged and decorated from the 12th to 15th centuries. The abbey went through a series of being damaged and restored during the Wars of Religion, and damaged even more in the 19th century during the French Revolution.
The entrance portico on the west end of the abbey, facing the town's Place de la République, was built in the 12th century in the Romanesque style of Southern France. It has three portals, Corinthian columns and extensive sculptured medieval decorations. The brochure you get when you visit the abbey, and some online websites, document many details of the portico sculptures.
The Abbey is still an active church and there's no charge to enter. There is a charge (and opening times and hours) to visit the Crypt or the old Choir.
The 11th-century crypt is a complete lower church, the same size as the entire upper nave.
To access the crypt, you purchase a ticket (€3) at the small office inside church, then descend from the center of the church down the Pilgrims steps.
The crypt has beautiful arched ceilings, and several ancient stone sepultures. In one part of the crypt is a separated area with the tomb of Saint Giles.