Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Left my Heart with St. Guilhem

Mercredi, 4 septembre.

So I know it's been a little while since Sunday, but time absolutely flies here. We've been crazy busy this week, between choosing classes and giving oral presentations and going out to bars for trivia night (before preparing for said oral presentations ... whoooooops). Still, even though I'm absolutely exhausted by the time I fall asleep each night, I wouldn't trade the adventures we've been having for the world!

I couldn't possibly fit all my pictures from Saturday in one post, so here are some photos and fun facts about MY NEW FAVORITE PLACE IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD, aka the town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

It's a tiny commune about 45 minutes away from Montpellier (but still in the same department) and it looks like it just stepped out of a Paramount picture. Molly and I wandered through the streets in an absolute daze, snapping photos of every doorway and winding side street because everything we passed was more incredible than the next. Because our first stop (at la Grotte de Camouse) hadn't taken very long, we had a few hours to explore the town and eat lunch.

Molly and I, per the ushe, decided to split a sandwich for lunch. It's a formula that's working out really well for us -- although perhaps not so well for our belts, which are having to work extra hard to hold up our pants now that meals are coming in smaller doses. But hey, we typically end up spending the money we saved on sandwiches to buy ice cream later in the day, so I'm sure it balances out!

It was easy for us to find a little street corner on which to eat because, even on the last weekend of summer vacation, the tiny village was pretty empty. Need I mention that this street corner was, obviously, the most adorable and picturesque street corner I've ever seen?

We still had plenty of time after lunch to wander around the town before meeting back up with our group for a tour and, like I said, it is a small town. We ended up at the top of the hill at the church, formerly an abbey for cloistered monks called l'Abbaye de Gellone (learn more about it here in French or here in English).

Like many of the churches we've seen, the abbey, built over a thousand years ago, is an example of Romanesque architecture. It's characterized by round arches, big towers, and very thick walls -- so thick that, in times of war, villagers often just moved inside their churches! It's a sturdier style of architecture and, in comparison to the flying buttresses, massive stained glass windows, and intricate gargoyles of the Gothic cathedrals that followed (examples: St. John the Divine in NYC and, of course, Notre Dame de Paris), Romanesque churches can seem a little bit ... basic.

But although Gothic churches and cathedrals are absolutely breathtaking, I'm developing an increased appreciation for these "basic" churches. (Of course, given the period in which they were constructed, there's nothing basic about them!) They're, in a word, massive. With stone walls several feet thick at points, it's no wonder that these churches were used for protection as well as prayer. Although thinner walls are considered architectural progress, I think I might prefer the thick stone walls of churches like the one in St. Guilhem. They make the church feel at once ancient and timeless, as if it has become a part of the landscape. And as they've been standing for over a thousand years, I guess that in a sense, they have.

There's something incredibly powerful about walking into a building that makes you feel so utterly insignificant. I can't really explain the emotion, but as I wandered around the church on Sunday, it almost brought me to tears. I guess it was the feeling of being a part of something, if only for a few moments, that is so much incredibly bigger than myself. Millions have people, from the medieval monks who first inhabited it to the pilgrims who now stop by on their way to Spain -- have visited, prayed, and attended Mass in this church. I may be the central player in my own life, but I'm not even a blip on the radar of l'Abbaye de Gellone.

Because this church used to be an abbey for cloistered monks, there's quite a bit more to it than just a church and a chapel or two. We got to walk around the garden at the center of the cloisters -- can you say WOW?

Fun fact -- throughout history (particularly, I think, after the French Revolution), many stones from the cloisters were sold or stolen by villagers. According to our guide, Christophe, you can walk around the town and identify homes with stones from the cloisters! Even more interestingly, many of these stones were collected and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which used them to recreate a bit of l'Abbaye de Gellone in their Cloisters Museum. WHERE MY BEST FRIEND ZOE WORKED ALL SUMMER LONG. I couldn't handle the coincidence and naturally freaked out and told everyone around me.

Now it's time for more pictures of the village itself, because I honestly can't handle how perfect it is.

Couldn't help but sneak a picture of our guide, Christophe!

I really can't put into words how glad I am to have had the opportunity to come to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Delicious coffee ice cream and fascinating history aside, the village is just breathtaking -- everything that I could ever wish for southern France to be! After spending several weeks sweating it out in the sprawling urban jungle that is Montpellier (which, although it has many redeeming qualities, is not going to be making the list of Most Beautiful Villages in France any time soon), it was so inspiring and refreshing to spend time in a place that was just so genuinely perfect.

I don't think I'll be going back to Saint Guilhem this trip -- there are just too many other incredible places to visit and with which to fall in love! But maybe I'll be able to come back later and introduce somebody else to this beautiful wonderful place. And in the meantime, I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it.


  1. Oh my goodness! It is unbelievably picturesque! I can see why you fell in love with it. Thank you for sharing it with us in such wonderful detail!

  2. Your words are breathtaking. Your enthusiasm is contagious. I am so jealous of your adventures. I hope we are the ones you take back to visit this glorious place.

    Merci bien!! Je t'aime... ton papa

  3. Merci, merci, merci! En te lisant on y est presque...