E has relatives visiting this week, and in preparation, I helped him devise a day-trip from Montpellier that'd wow them. It's the one I, ideally, use on my visitors when we can get our hands on a car. He'd already done bits of it, but for the record, it goes like this:
Drive to Sommières, then take the road that leads to St. Martin-de-Londres. This takes you between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, and makes your visitors' eyes pop out. If you've left at the right time, and depending on how hungry you are, you can break in St. Martin for either a tasty snack from the excellent bakery there in the square, or a pizza -- also quite good -- from the place serving food. Sit out under the trees, enjoy the fountain/horse trough, and afterwards climb up the hill to check out the tiny Romanesque church. Back into the car, and head to St. Guilhem-le-Désert, either by via the road to Caisse and thence to the D4, or down the D32, better maintained, but less scenic, to Aniane, but not going into town and turning towards St. Guilhem via the signs there. Ideally, you do St. Guilhem via the visitors' center at the Pont du Diable, which, during high season, provides a little shuttle bus to get you there and back, and also has trilingual displays about the area's history, terroir, and ecosystems. When you've done that, get back in the car, drive to Aniane, take a wine-tasting at the local cave cooperative to get a sense of the amazing terroir of the Terrasses de Larzac, and maybe visit a winery or two. There's a great wine map of the area available at the Pont du Diable visitors' center. Then you drive back to Montpellier for a fine dinner. At the end of the evening, your visitors say "Okay, now I know why you like it here." So that's my routine. Or my ideal routine; I've never done the whole thing.
Last time we tried this, it was a Monday, and we got distracted after St. Martin, which was okay, but this week, E really needed to see the big sights, so we decided to head straight to St. Guilhelm and really do the place. Even I hadn't done this, because six years ago when I was there it was high tourist season, and the Big Attraction, the UNESCO-listed Abbey of Gellone, was holding church services. The nerve! So this time we decided to do it on a Tuesday, so that we could be sure that everything would be open. Sounded like a plan.
It got off to a rocky start. My first royalties from my Kindle article (you have bought a copy, haven't you?) were due in, plus someone had deposited another small check in my account which was supposed to clear that morning. I set off to the market in a jaunty mood, figuring to buy some nice stuff, then meet E at 1:30 for the trip. I got to the cash machine and it said I didn't have a cent. I stormed back down the hill, and sure enough, the check hadn't cleared and the Amazon dough hadn't shown up. Well, at least I had the trip to look forward to.
And it was a good day for one, even if we did get mildly lost getting out of town (I swear, one thing Montpellier is is drivers' hell) and onto the wrong road. No problem: instead of heading due north, like we wanted to, we were going west, and just got off the highway at Aniane and grabbed the road north instead of going into town. We got to the Pont du Diable, and I realized that the parking lot there was deserted, so I suggested we press on to St. Guilhem. As the road rose above the Hérault River, I noticed crumbling stone towers, which, I later learned, were the ruins of mills. We parked the car (note for tourists: do not park at the canoing place -- the rates are exorbitant -- but either drive straight on, or, better, turn left towards a parking lot that has actual shade. Rates in both are the same, neither will have space in high season, so use the shuttle) and walked into town.
St. Guilhem-le-Désert has one of those Plus Beau Villages de France signs as you drive in, and for those of you who don't speak French, that means "fully equipped to separate tourists from their money." You got your glass-blower, your potteries, your local honey-dealers, your ice cream shop, your knights-of-old shop for the boys, your doll shop for the girls, and your obvious ripoff lunch joints offering a "Menu Médievale" that should, by rights, be a hunk of meat and some bread, but isn't. It's also got your ready-for-photographing shots, like this one:
That's a thistle there on the door, something you see a lot in this village, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on. You not only see the real thing, like here, but it's also carved out of stone, painted on souvenir pottery, and the like.
We walked uphill, and I began to wonder where the dang Abbey was. It seemed to me the last time I'd been here it was right in my face, and although we'd seen its backside, I didn't see a way in.
A narrow street, though, announced that it led to the plaza, and once we got there, I realized that six years ago, when I'd been here last, we'd parked in the shaded lot and had been right there. The Abbey does, in fact, face onto the main square, where people were eating lunch, and some intrepid butcher had set up his trailer and was selling meat, cheese, and charcuterie to the locals.
I must say that, for all the historical importance of this place, its interior isn't so interesting. That said, the story is quite something. Guilhem (William in Occitan) was a friend of Charlemagne's, and when he decided to set up a monastery in the middle of nowhere and make it a major stop on the pilgrim road to Compostella, Charlemagne helped him out by giving him a chunk of the True Cross to use as a magnet for the pilgrims. He apparently had quite a good community going there, and was buried (and sanctified) in due time. The place did well enough that four or five centuries after Guilhem's death, they knocked down a lot of the old church and built the one you see today, with a nice big cloister for the monks to walk around and plant medicinal herbs in the center of so they could use them on sick pilgrims.
I wasn't actually focusing so much on the cloister here as I was on two of the other attractions of St. Guilhem. If you look at that mountain off there in the distance more closely, you'll see two ruins. The one to the right, which is just to the left of part of the monastery's roof, is called the Giant's Castle, and was used as a place the people of the village could go in case of attack. It's way the hell up the mountain, about 30 minutes by arduous foot journey. But above that is the remains of a structure, a ruin known as the little windows (les fenestrettes). I have no idea what this was, but I do know that recruiting the labor to build these two buildings couldn't have been easy. It got mighty hot in the summer then, as now, and those two things are way the hell up there.
The cloister is a reconstructed ruin: most of it is, improbably, in New York and is one of the cloisters around which the Metropolitan Museum's famed branch museum The Cloisters is arranged. This guy must've been astonished when George Grey Barnard walked in and opened his wallet to buy it.
At any rate, there just isn't much to see except for the crypt, which has remains of the original 9th century church, and a museum just off the cloister, from which I was shooed because despite the signs, it costs €2.50 to see and that was currently beyond my means. Didn't look like there was much in there anyway.
We took a turn around the square, and then headed back down the hill to the car. Our next stop was the Pont du Diable, the bridge made to connect the abbey in Aniane with the one we'd just seen, so that the pilgrims could stop in both places and spend money. Oh, and do religious stuff, too, of course. The legend from which the bridge gets its name is that the monks worked on the bridge all day and then woke up the next morning to see all their work undone. St. Guilhem, of course, knew what was going on: the Devil was trying to keep the faithful from doing their thing. So he had a meeting with ol' Satan (and, if you think about it, this brings up all kinds of questions, but anyway...) and got him to agree to a deal: Old Nick would let the monks finish the bridge, and then he could have the first soul which crossed it. The monks finished the job, the Devil awaited his payment, and St. Guilhem took a dog, slapped it on the rump, and sent it across. Happy ending for dog-lovers: Satan was so unhappy that he'd been outwitted that he jumped off the bridge.
Nowadays, it's a major swimming hole, and you can walk across the old bridge or drive across the new one, and there's some village you can walk to where they -- surprise! -- make pottery. Betcha they also blow glass.
Anyway, it was past 4 by the time we'd admired the bridge and the visitors' center, so it was time to press on to Aniane to investigate the wine scene. I'd seen a wine shop on our way out of town, and I was also curious about the local olives, since I've been buying olive oil from there ever since I've lived here, and it's cheap and wonderful. In fact, I just bought some today, and noted that it's had its name changed from La Colombe to Le Jardin de Saint-Benoît. Benoît, or Benedict, was Guilhem's chief competitor in the region in days gone by, but Aniane doesn't rely on him for tourism. Instead, it seems to be an agricultural hub, with the wine and olive buisnesses front and center. We followed a sign to the olive factory (I'd thought -- and still do -- that there's a retail outlet/tourist trap called L'Olivier, but we didn't find it and I thought this was it) and wound up nearly colliding with a semi-truck being loaded with enough olive oil to last me at least six months. The courtyard was filled with black plastic barrels of olives, but this was an industrial site -- the one that produces the oil I use, though -- and not for visits. Okay, on to the wine. We managed to find a place to park, walked over to the wine shop, and it was closed...on Tuesday! Arrrggggh! Looked like some good stuff in there, too. (Note: it's open on Monday, and also Sunday morning until 1pm). We then went to the cave cooperative and looked around, but the tasting room was much smaller than I remembered from six years ago, and since we were both broke, we decided against doing a dégustation. There weren't as many wines on offer as last time, either.
By now I was obsessed. I wanted to figure out something about this place! We wandered around the tiny, winding streets of the village, which looked nice enough, although very disorienting because the streets were so narrow and the buildings were so close together and the main square seemed to be outside the village proper. I'd seen a sign, though, and it was still fairly early: we were near Mas de la Serrane, my favorite winery in this region (that I've discovered so far). I wanted to see it. This turned out to be on the road to St. Martin, conveniently enough, so we drove out of Aniane, onto this road, and soon we were bumping up a long driveway.
This ended at a farm building, overlooking the fields from which some of the greatest wine I've ever drunk was ripening in the late afternoon sunshine.
There were grapes just growing underfoot.
And there was a cellar, an actual bunker dug into the hillside, where there were tastings available. All we had to do was ring the bell. The sign said that English and German both were spoken. But...
"We don't have any money to buy the wine if we like it," E reminded me. And he was right. "We can come back!" I thought for a minute about a day that would have started with me buying fresh food at the market and ended with my buying a nice bottle of my favorite wine right at the winery. This was not that day.
We got back in the car, drove to St. Martin, and soon enough we were crawling back into Montpellier. I checked my bank account right away, and of course all the money had cleared.
Just a warning, Aniane: I'll be back.