A Retreat for the Weary

Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9IMG_1386th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.

Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries thIMG_1370e abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station alongIMG_1374 one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.

In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecrIMG_1344ation and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the  vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved aIMG_1335nd the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– woundIMG_1359 up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several  columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.

Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly IMG_1349beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. IMG_1354 IMG_1346In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.

It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat.  The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a IMG_1387stuIMG_1357nning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small riveIMG_1310r that runs by the town, providing a series  of picturesque  waterfalls, as well as from the numIMG_1392erous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.

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36 Hours in Barcelona

Barcelona is way too big and too crammed full of interesting stuff to spend just a day and a half there. Still, the long train trip from Valencia to Montpellier, France (my next home base) meant either getting up way too early in the morning for my taste or arriving too late in the evening for my landlady’s convenience. So, I broke the trip with a short stop along the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona. IMG_1134I had dinner with friends visiting from the U.S., toured Antoni Gaudi’s as-yet unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, walked for miles and took a sightseeing tour bus for an overview.

Forthwith: Some random observations, which I’m  looking forward to confirming or refuting in a future visit.

1). Motorcycles are to Barcelona what bicycles are to Amsterdam.  Well, there may not be quite as many, but it sure feels like it!. They run the gamut from big powerful hogs to cute little Vespas, with a smattering of those speedy and colorful Japanese bikes that look like they should be ridden by mutant Ninja turtles or some kind of spiky-haired anime character with a bandana around hiIMG_1126s or her head. Oh, and skateboarders abound, too!

2) The food is great. Terrific tapas. Fabulous fish and fresh fruit. And wonderful wines, of course. And sometimes, it’s  very colorful, too!

3) It’s a truly lovely city, with the high green spaces of Mont Juic, the wide streets of Eixample, the yachts and sailboats IMG_1140at the port and gorgeous architecture everywhere. One small thing I noticed: in much of the city, the corners where streets intersect are clipped off, creating wider, diamond-shaped spaces, and buildings located there usually have a diagonal face looking out on to the intersection. It makes for much lighter living spaces and wider vistas, I’m sure, and it gives the city a more open lighter feel than the density of the population would suggest.

4.) As for Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia? I’m not usually a fan of more outré  architecture, preferring the quiet grace of Gothic arches and classical columns. . (Yes, I know, they were all probably originallIMG_0905y painted, but I love the natural stone.)  In the case of GaIMG_0898udi, however, all I can say is OMG. Just OMG.

Barcelona, I’ll be back!