La Garde Guérin is a REAL “Most Beautiful Village”
It’s no secret that I think some of the places on France’s official list of “Most Beautiful Villages” are not necessarily “most beautiful”. In the case of La Garde Guérin, though… I knew right away that it was the real thing. The combination of a rich medieval history and a spectacular natural setting in the Gorges of Chassezac make this a great day trip from Le Puy en Velay.
“La Garde” means “fortress” or fortified tower, and Guérin is an old family name in parts of France. Why did they need a fortress here in such an isolated corner of the country? Because this was a crossroads on an ancient path, once used for the annual process of “transhumance” (moving animal herds from their grazing grounds in the mountains back down to the meadows), then developed as part of the old Roman road that connected Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes. This “Régordane Way” carried thousands of travelers every year by the 9th century A.D.
And where there are traveling merchants and nobles…there are likely highwaymen and con artists waiting to profit from their passage. Since there was no central power capable of policing the Régordane road, local barons and the Bishop of Mende set up their own fortified outposts to help protect the traffic. By the 12th or 13th century, La Garde Guérin was already well known as one of those places.
A Unique Form of Self-Government
One of the things that struck me as a I walked through the cobblestone streets of La Garde Guérin was the space between many of the houses – there are not nearly as many shared walls as you would expect in a medieval cluster like this. Even more interesting, though, is the explanation: These houses were built by a particular order of knights knowns as “Chevaliers Pariers” – or “Peer Knights”. These men considered themselves equals in every way – equal in rights and responsibilities.
In return for their service, each of them got a house in this village, but to make the point that each was master of his own domain, 30 centimeters of open space was left between houses. At least a dozen of these spaces (called the Pan du Roi, or “the King’s part”) remain. These spaces were purely symbolic, not at all functional; the idea was that among equals there should never be any discussion of “who owns what”.
These Knights of La Garde Guérin had a particular job: protection of travelers along a stretch of the Régordane road from Villefort to La Bastide – the “most difficult, the most desolate, the most dangerous” part of the route, according to locals. For their work, they were compensated by fees they charged to guide travelers through this territory and by taxes collected on grain and on the herds passing through their domains in transhumance.
It’s profoundly interesting to imagine such a tiny town occupied by great knights, all equal in wealth and power, and their retenues of horses, valets, and household help. Signs of the Chevaliers Pariers are everywhere, in the coats of arms painted above the altar in the little Romanesque church and in carvings of the letters P.G. (for “Parier La Garde”) on mantel posts and gates around town.
Home of a 600-year-old Fair
Like many of France’s “plus beaux villages”, La Garde Guérin is strictly a pedestrian town, so you have to park in the broad meadow just below its main gate. There’s no visible sign that this parking lot is also the source of the town’s fame: its great annual medieval fair, licensed by King Charles V (“the Wise”) in 1367.
This fair must have been a great economic engine for such an isolated town. People would come in days before it began (around this time of year, in November), day laborers would hire themselves out to harvest chestnuts, and homeowners would rent every available space to lodgers. And this fair went on and on, setting up shop in the meadows outside town until 1938!
End of the Line
As in many medieval French towns, the history of La Garde Guérin came to a sudden and violent point of no return during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) – although I have to say I was a little surprised that the effects of this conflict extended so far to the southeast of France, since most of the activity seemed concentrated in the western half of the country.
In any case, when the English armies came here they burned the town and took over what remained for themselves. There was still a chateau here, next to the guard tower, but it too was burned in 1722 when the Wars of Religion came to La Garde Guérin and Protestant forces laid siege to the village. After that destruction, the population dropped off to around 150, although at least one source I've seen says there are only a dozen or so "year-round residents" who actually live there today.
Living on the Edge
So why come to La Garde Guérin today? The village itself is beautifully restored and interesting for all the history that unfolded there … but this is also a spectacular natural reason. The medieval walls only protect three sides of the town – because the fourth is a sharp drop down a cliff into the Gorges of Chassezac! These incredible formations, cut from the sedimentary limestone and granite by the Chassezac river, make this an ideal site for outdoor adventures.
While I was there, I saw hikers icing down their feet after long randonnées around the 30 km of paths. Other groups were unloading kayaks to put in the river at the base of the cliffs, and several people on VTT bikes were coming back from their rides.
For the most adventurous, there are 142 places where rock-climbing can be practiced on the granite face (“in an extremely wild environment”, according to the signs, which also warn this is not a “typical” rock-climbing site and that the danger for anyone “not initiated” in the sport is extreme). There’s also a via corda, a rope walk attached to the side of the cliff – and, for the LESS adventurous, a golf course nearby.
La Garde Guérin – a “most beautiful village” that’s worth the detour
Like many of the other “plus beaux villages” in France, this one is covered with visitors during the peak vacation season – but relatively quiet at other times of the year. It’s easy to walk the streets and see all the main historical sites in 2 or 3 hours, and you can spend the rest of the day engaged in your favorite physical activity as you take in the beauty of the surrounding Gorges. Given its interesting past and its spectacular natural setting, I’d say La Garde Guérin is well worth a day trip when you’re in this corner of the deep heart of France!
What about you – have you visited La Garde Guérin or any of the other towns on the list of France’s “most beautiful villages”? Please tell us about what you’ve seen in the comments space below. I’d be grateful, too, if you’d take a second to share this post with your friends who might also be interested in traveling around France!