You may not be too familiar with Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, but this small town — 20 km from Nîmes and with a population of 13,500 — is celebrating this summer, with activities including the 20th anniversary of the inclusion of its Abbatiale, or abbey church, as part of the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James), the completion of the Abbatiale’s renovation, new tourism initiatives and a series of festivals and concerts.
Dating from the 12th century, the Abbaye de Saint-Gilles was one of the four key destinations for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, together with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. A masterpiece of Norman architecture, the façade of the church is famous for its spectacular ensemble of sculptures dating from 1120-1160, featuring the Passion of Christ, the apostles, Cain and Abel and more. Unfortunately much of this decoration was mutilated during the religious wars of the 16th century, and also hidden under a thick layer of grime that had built up over the centuries.
Since March 2017, a team of master craftsmen from local company Atelier Jean-Loup Bouvier (who also restored Nîmes’ Maison Carrée and Arènes) have been meticulously renovating the famous façade, and have discovered vestiges of the original coloured paintwork, dating from the 12th and 14th centuries.
The robes of the Three Kings are particularly fine examples, displaying green, blue, pale grey and brown hues among others, created from various coloured rocks and chalks and using methods dating from the Roman era.
Appearing in the first List of Historic Monuments drawn up by Prosper Mérimée in 1840 as part of the French government’s efforts to record and restore the country’s monuments and sites, the Abbatiale’s façade has since inspired copies around the world, including St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, and the Carnegie Museum of Arts in Pittsburgh.
Guided tours of the Abbatiale are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10.30am (except 3 & 5 July and 14 & 16 August) for €7 pp in French. English-language tours are planned, so check with the Tourist Office.
Tourism is looking up too, with plenty to do and see in and around Saint-Gilles, including visits to local ranches or manades raising Camargue bulls and horses, tasting local Costières de Nîmes wines in nearby vineyards, watching flocks of ducks helping local farmers “weed” the rice terraces, exploring how olive oil is made, and of course discovering the Camargue’s extensive flora, fauna and bird life at La Scamandre nature reserve.
If you prefer to take to the water, the Canal du Rhône à Sète — informally titled the Canal de Camargue and less well-known than the Canal du Midi — is one of the easiest and most relaxing stretches of water to navigate. Saint-Gilles is now home to Le Boat, a self-hire river boat rental company, with a fleet of 49 boats. Relax on the sundeck and drift past lagoons, reed beds, horses, bulls and the famous pink flamingos, or discover the rich heritage of the Camargue’s port towns.
Of course, summer in France means festivals and music, and Saint-Gilles serves up a series of both. The Fête du Port takes place on Saturday 7 July and features music, a street fishing competition, a craft market and water jousting, a Languedoc tradition dating from the 18th century.
The Feria de le Pêche et de l’Abricot on 16-19 August celebrates the peach and apricot — two key local fruits — with a Spanish-themed festival. The Pélerinage de la Saint Gilles on Saturday 1 September is dedicated to the arrival of pilgrims travelling the Way of St Giles — at its height between the 11th and 13th centuries, seven different routes from around the region converged on Saint-Gilles, the most easterly port for pilgrims setting off to Rome and the Holy Land. Today there is one route from Bouillargues (visit cheminstgilles.fr if you’re interested in taking part), and the festival celebrates the arrival of the pilgrims with a procession through the town, a Mass and traditional local folk dancing.
Meanwhile, music lovers are well-served this summer too, with a series of concerts coming up in July. In addition to free concerts by two English schools (see sidebar), Viva Verdi takes place on Saturday 21 July in the garden at the Château de l’Espeyran, and the Abbatiale plays host to the French Army Male Voice Choir on Wednesday 25 July.
Classics to contemporary - English-style
Two top English schools are touring France this summer, with both making stops for free concerts in Saint-Gilles.
Weds 4 July at 8.30pm : The Abbatiale Nottingham Girls’ High School choir and flute ensemble present a programme of classical and modern works by composers including Rutter, Chilcott, Mozart, Bach and Debussy.
Tues 10 July at 8.30pm : Château de l’Espeyran gardens
Consisting of students aged 11-18, the award-winning Sandbach High School touring choir, jazz and orchestral groups' repertoire ranges from hits by Adele and popular movie themes to classical orchestral pieces.