Leaving Clermont-l'Hérault was difficult. We could not find the small road, so we ended up walking on a major road as far as the Ceyras turnoff. Most unpleasant. Ceyras had plenty of trees, new houses, and innumerable traffic signs. We saw no reason to stop there and hoofed it, eyeing the sky. To the north, the hills were disappearing under thick clouds and mist; to the southeast, the sun could be seen occasionally.
At Saint-André-de-Sangonis, we asked directions and were told to follow a narrow path and then turn left at the next village. In no time at all, we were lost in the middle of vineyards and equidistant between two villages. Which one? It began to rain lightly. A solid, round little man came peddling by on a bicycle and agreed sadly that we were lost. He suggested the village to the left, Lagamas. From Lagamas to Saint-Jean-de-Fos, we were again in the absolute solitude of the walker. We saw nothing but vineyards on all sides.
After three hours or so, the drizzle lessened, the hills became steeper, vineyards gave way to olive groves. The road veered north and suddenly, there was the Hérault River. Wide and fast, it was the colour of jade, slicing deep into the jagged rock of the hills. For the next four kilometers, we followed the river, which roared so loudly that we heard no other sounds. In spite of the returning raindrops, we stopped often to admire it.
At Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, we took a room and, just as we were handed the key, the rain began to pour out of the sky. Pleased to have beat the downpour, we showered and went down to the dining room. It was early afternoon; the place was deserted and all of the waiters were drunk. They sat at a long table, still wearing their long, white aprons, and bellowed out opera arias.
Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert was pure magic. It was tiny, so small that the telephone number of our hotel was simply 1. It seemed to be built almost within the river. The houses, of a dark stone and with red tile roofs, ran along two parallel curving streets at the bottom of a ravine formed in the hillside by the river. Gutters, pipes and a small canal were everywhere, pouring, gushing, dripping with water. They diverted and controlled the water so that the town sat just over the river. In the middle of the streets' curve was the abbey, like the body of a bird whose spread wings are the houses stringing out on either side. Squat and romanesque, with rounded apse and arches, it was not visible from the hotel down the hill, but began to swell in glimpses caught between the houses.
Its beauty and power were its exterior and history, the interior being dark and barren. This was the monastery to which Guillaume d'Orange retired after a life of fighting Saracens with Charlemagne, which helped it to then become a main stop for pilgrims from Toulouse on their way to Santiago de Compostela (the über-goal for all walkers). This was the monastery whose cloisters were ripped out and taken to New York to be reassembled as a museum, an orphan of history.
We stayed in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, climbing the pine-covered hills around the town to see the ancient megaliths perched on the peaks. The town was so sheltered and remote that it had an almost ethereal silence within the river's thunder. It is because this silence was thought to be like that of the desert that the word was attached to the town's name.
Thus our introduction to the Hérault region, a memory brought back by the discovery of the fine work of the folks in the Cercle Généalogique de Languedoc who have created a large database of Hérault marriages, the Base des Mariages Héraultais. It is an indexing of names and details from parish and civil registrations and marriage contracts. The database can be accessed by becoming a member of the cercle (here is the membership form) or via GeneaBank. If you have the good fortune to be descended from people of Hérault, perhaps you will find your ancestors in this quite thorough index. And perhaps you will be able to visit and walk that beautiful land.
©2011 Anne Morddel