•Hérault (34150) • Population: 190 • Altitude: 89 m
St-Guilhem-le-Désert is a very picturesque and very popular village in the Hérault river valley, with the added attractions of the St-Guilhem-le-Désert Abbey (Abbaye de Gellonne) in the center and river rafting and water sports on the Hérault river.
St-Guilhem-le-Désert is designated one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (Plus Beaux Villages). The Abbey de Gellone, the Hérault Gorge and the nearby Pont du Diable make up a UNESCO World Heritage Super Site.
The main village square contains some café terrace tables and open space, surrounding a huge Plane tree (1865, 6 m diameter), with the Abbey along one side of the square. In addition to the café-restaurants, a multitude of souvenir/gift shops surround the square.
From the main square, Place de la Liberté, you access the village streets by climbing the stairs that go up beneath the arcade on the north side of the square.
Saint Guilhem-le-Désert village stretched out in a long crescent, following the line of the little Verdus river that flows steeply down to the Hérault. The village is pretty much a single street, climbing up from the river-side main road to the top of the village up past the main square.
This main street, and a couple of short, parallel side streets, is picturesque, but lined with "art" boutiques offering paintings, pottery and other tourist-oriented objects. We found it to be very much like the center of St Paul-de-Vence in the Alpes-Maritimes: too cute but definitely to be visited at least once.
The single, long street through the village has several names, from top to bottom: Rue du Planol, Rue Chapelle des Pénitents, Rue de la Descent du Portal and Rue de la Fontaine du Portal.
All parking is pay only (we paid 4 euros for the morning), either in the village or along the main road beside the river. This is a pretty chaotic place during the summer, so an early arrival is your best bet to reduce to pain. For village parking, turn off the main road that parallels the gorge, and follow the road up to the village, leading directly to the parking area. The parking area directly beside the village center is large and shady, and has some picnic areas as well.
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History of Saint Guilhem-le-Désert
The village dates back to at least the year 804, when Guillaume d'Aquitaine (Guilhèm in langue d'oc), Count of Toulouse and Duke d'Aquitaine, founded an abbey in the isolated little valley of the Gellone, beside the isolated valley of the Hérault.
The suffix dau Desèrt was added because the area was completely stripped through over grazing by sheep, with every bit of vegetation being used for animal feed or heating. This practice endured until the 20th century, and resulted in an exodus of the local population.
For a short time, during the French Revolution, the village was named Verdus-le-Désert.
• GPS: 43.734010, 3.549017
St-Guilhem-le-Désert is in an excellent hiking location. Sitting beside the beautiful Hérault river gorges, there are two GR (Grande Randonnée) hiking trails that pass through the village, as well as other good hiking trails in the surrounding mountains.
The GR653 through St-Guilhem-le-Désert is a part of the GR65 trail system, and a part of Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This is part of the centuries old Pilgrims Way leading to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. This part of the trail originated in Arles and passed through Montpellier to arrive here. To the west, the GR653 goes to the town of Castres, about 150 km away.