Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages in France), this tiny exquisite village is well worth a day trip from Montpellier. Fewer than 300 people live in the medieval houses that tumble down cobble-stoned lanes encircled by a wooded ravine within the dramatic Gorges de l'Hérault. The central square, place de la Liberté, has one of the largest and widest plane trees in France, which shelter several cafe tables.
The main attraction, in addition to the general beauty of the village, is the 11th-century abbey that sits on the site of the 9th-century monastery founded by Guilhem, Charlemagne's counselor. Guilhem returned from Rome in 800 with three pieces of wood believed to be relics of the Cross, which were stored in the abbey. Soon the abbey became a place of pilgrimage as well as a stopping point for pilgrims on the route of Santiago de Compostela. Today, the abbey contains Guilhem's tomb. After exploring the beautiful abbey, with its seven large arches over the vaulted apse, stop in the tranquil cloisters. Some of the sculptures from the cloisters are on display in the Cloisters Museum in New York. The cultivated plots within the gardens beyond the cloisters are a testament to the work done by the monks over the centuries. Admission is free. The abbey is opening daily from 8am to 6pm (until 6:30pm July-Aug). The cloisters are closed from noon to 2pm weekdays and 11am to 2:30pm Sunday.
The Musée du Village, at 15 rue Chapelle des Pénitents (tel. 04-67-57-77-07; www.museestguilhem.fr), is an enchanting little place located in the owners' 12th-century house. The museum recreates 19th-century provincial life with some of its exhibits, including an incredible scale model of the village populated entirely by santons, tiny ceramic figurines made by the proprietor. A salon de thé (tea room) at the back of the house has glorious views over the village and the gorge. Admission is 4€, free for children.
If you choose to spend the night here, the best place to stay is Le Guilhaume d'Orange, 2 av. Guilhaume d'Orange (tel. 04-67-57-24-53; www.guilhaumedorange.com). Its 10 rooms are prettily furnished with antiques, and cost from 66€ to 99€ a night. Its restaurant serves local seasonal dishes on its panoramic terrace; menus start from 20€.
The Office de Tourisme is at the foot of the village at 2 rue Font du Portal (tel. 04-67-57-44-33; www.saint-guilhem-le-desert.com).