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A Yankee Notebook

November 5, 2012


ST.-GUILHEM-LE-DÉSERT – I was about halfway up the trail that climbs a sheer canyon wall, when the cliffs across the cirque exploded with a roar. My head jerked up, and I lost my balance. I jabbed my cane into the ground behind me to get steady. Then a dark, triangular shape, moving so fast that I couldn’t follow it, flashed past overhead, crossed the patch of sky, and disappeared over the hills on the other side. The entire valley reverberated, and just as quickly fell silent again. Wow! – French Air Force Mirage jet. I remembered that a couple of them, in tandem with some drones, had smashed Muammar Gaddafi’s escape column into bits. What an awful way to go! I turned again to the climb ahead and trudged up toward the horizon.

I don’t remember exactly how Mother and I found this village tucked away in the mouth of a limestone canyon in southern France. Friends’ recommendation, maybe. In any case, we’ve made an effort ever since to get here whenever we can. I suppose only archeologists can tell how long there’ve been people here. A little stream, the Verdus, flows through the whole length of the village, whose shape is dictated by the sides of the valley, and was no doubt the reason for settling here. At the foot of the village, the Verdus falls into the Herault River, a drop that would have gladdened the heart of any medieval miller.

Whatever its precedents, the little valley entered modern history in 804, when William of Orange (Guilhem in the southern France Occitane dialect), after helping his cousin Charlemagne defeat the Moors in Barcelona, decided to retire and devote the remainder of his life to prayer and reflection. Guided by Saint Benoit of Aniane and armed with a piece of the True Cross given him by Charlemagne, he retreated here and began building his abbey church and monastery, which have stood here ever since. They suffered a great deal during the French Revolution, and in later years from neglect and penury – part of the sculpture was sold to the Cloisters Museum in New York City – but the village has lately been restored to better, perhaps, than its original charm and glory. Steel plates in the narrow, cobbled streets attest to utilities buried beneath. A plaque beside the street leading westward uphill to the abbey proclaims that you are following a bit of the ancient pilgrim trail of Chemin St.-Jacques de Compostella, which ends eventually in western Spain.

In front of the abbey, in the Place de la Liberté (obviously not a medieval name), a monster plane tree shades chairs and tables of various bistros surrounding the rest of the plaza. The main street continues west beyond the plaza, along the stream, and into mouth of the canyon, the Cirque of the Inferno. Place names here – the Castle of the Giant, the Bridge of the Devil – hint at the blending of old superstitions and the sudden irruption of Christianity thirteen centuries ago.

I tackled the cirque the first time we were here, following a trail that crossed and recrossed the tiny Verdus, past olive groves and athletic fields, toward the head of the canyon, where I assumed I’d find a trail climbing up and out to the cliffs above. Wrong. I contented myself with hiking to the Giant’s Castle, a stark ruin at the very tip of a crag overlooking the village, where I shared a tin of biscuits (cookies, we call ‘em) with a Scottish family, who asked me if I kenned the Dallas Cowboys and Emmitt Smith, and to give him their best when I saw him next.

Second time we came, I wasn’t walking too well, so I stayed in the plaza writing in my journal while Mother, unbeknownst to me, tackled the Castle trail in a long skirt and Mary Janes, eliciting the disapproval of properly togged German hikers coming back down.

This time, however, armed with information from Google, I was ready. I focused on two loop trails leading up, out of, and back down into the cirque. I stopped at the tourist information office across from our hotel and for four euros got a couple of annotated maps. They were in French; but I could muddle through and figure out that the route up the face of the cliffs was built by monks from the abbey in the 18th century as a trail for their sheep to the plateau above.

It’s hard to credit the amount of work that went into building that trail. Les Fenestrettes, it’s called, for the huge masonry buttresses the workers built up against the foot of a great cliff to support the trail crossing it on windowlike Roman arches. They even paved the trail with cobblestones for about half a mile. I’ve got to believe that not all their conversations were monkly while they were laying those stones and waterbars on their hands and knees, but three centuries later they’re as sound as they were when they were built. The government, building on St.-Guilhem’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has marked the trails well to encourage hikers.

I met only a few that day: a couple of serious mountain trail runners who barely nodded at the old man toiling uphill; two young couples shooting photos of the cirque below; and on the way back down, a delightful German couple from Frankfurt, who talked and talked as if they had no care at all for the kilometers of climbing ahead of them. Back in the valley, I sat on a stone wall beside the Verdus, finished my second bottle of water, and fed bits of a protein power bar to a pool full of large rainbow trout. Then I ambled on aching knees down to the plaza and sat there beneath the plane tree in front of the abbey, sipping a glass of delightful local beer. Tomorrow I’d tackle the second loop, a trail climbing to a 14th-century hermitage (still occupied), then up onto the plateau, along the ridge, and home again to our little hotel beside the river. The second trail was labeled more ardu than the first – it would take an hour more to cover the same distance – but the pine-shaded solitude of the hermitage, built into a cave in the cliff, and the spectacular views would make it more than worth it. I sighed, and stirred stiffly. At the moment, at least, life was good.

Photo by Willem lange