Saturday, 27 February 2010

Picturesque villages and gorge-ous roads.

Written 26th february 

Today we have been following the trail of Tom and Katy in search of picturesque villages and pretty gorges.  Its always good to benefit from other people's holiday reseach and experiences and today has been no exception :)

We had an inauspicious start to the day in La Couvertoirade - alternate sun, rain and hail made for a brisk and icy walk from the mandatory carpark (€2 in season) to the village - apparently a typical Templar and Hospitaliere (whoever they are) walled town - which has been designated as one of 'les plus beaux villages de France'

Unfortunately although the town gate was open, the visitor centre and ramparts access weren't and the whole town was deserted. 

Undeterred, we wandered the maze of typical rues (not bored of them yet!), walked up to the keep,

the windmill

and Hospitaliere church and graveyard

before concluding that whilst it was indeed pretty, we were no nearer to enlightenment as to who the Hospitalieres were, nor was it likely that we were going to find out and what's more, we were cold with no prospect of coffee - onwards!

Next on the list was a drive to La Cirque de Navacelles in the Vis gorge - allegedly (from their info board) one of the biggest gorges in Europe.  In preference to the tourist signs, we took the unsigned D142 from Caylar to Blandas - an extremely narrow road with many places which close often enough due to flooding to warrant permanently installed lowerable barriers - and were rewarded with a superb view down into the valley. 

The Cirque de Navacelles is an abandoned meander in the river Vis, left behind when the river cut a new course straight past some 6000 years ago.  It is remarkable for the near-perfect circle of flat grassland which marks the course of the old river bed, and which surrounds a striking triangular hill.  The village clings to the rocks beside the new waterfall and uses the meander as pasture and the hill as olive and vine terraces. 

There isn't much to see in the village itself except the rushing waterfall which is the new river path - although there look to be lovely cafes and walks in season -

and we headed on up to the signed viewing point - La Baume Auriol - where we found a closed restaurant which promised coffee with panoramic views when open.  Although still spectacular, in our opinion the view from the other side was better, if you are prepared to brave the road!

Back on the road to St Giulhem le Desert, another of France's designated pretty villages,o in the Herault valley.  

Willem of Gellone, one-time Count of Toulouse and Duke of Aquitaine, was renowned for his military campaigns against the Saracens and the Seige of Barcelona in 801.  Deciding by this time that he had had enough of war and guided by St Benedict of nearby Aniane (reformer of the Benedictine order), he founded a monastery in an isolated valley and finished his days there, having established a tradition of veneration of a supposed relic of the One True cross, a gift to him from his cousin Charlmagne.  Sometime after his death in 812, a series of epic poems were written about his exploits and he was beatified.  In the 10th century, the monastery of Gellone became a vital stopover on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela - we can't escape the place! - and to cope with the resulting popularity, it was expanded in the 11th century and was renamed Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert in the 12th century.  Things didn't happen quickly back then!

The monastery gradually fell into decline after this time until it was registered by the French Historic Monuments Commission in 1840 and has been undergoing restoration  since the 1960s.  Today it is in part occupied by the Carmelite Order of St Joseph and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sun was shining bright and warm by the time we pulled up in a free street parking spot between two pay carparks and we set off, via the tourist office into the honey coloured old village - no maze of typical streets here, one winding street up the valley to the square, same one back again!

But all the artisan craft and tat shops you would expect... ;)

But it was open, there were people around and in the sunshine, it was all jolly lovely.

We walked to the square,

then followed a path which climbed steadily up the side of the valley

for glorious views over the streets and rooftops of the village. 

Heading back down, we found the church, the cloister,

the relics of St Guilhem and a cross shaped reliquary which we can only believe does indeed hold a portion of the cross - its the church, they wouldn't lie to us...  Would they?

Sadly we weren't able to continue up the valley to explore the gorge further as suggested as we had urgent home matters to deal with which necessitated more Mc'Ds hot chocolate several kms away in Clermont l'Herault - shame but there we go, real life does go on and occasionally encroaches on our little dream world.

Nevertheless, an excellent day out - thanks T&K! - and stuff done, we are now en route to Sete, one of Bill's recommendations, and back on the coast where we are hoping for sunshine.

Bonsoir tout le monde x x

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