Let's talk about Saint Giles! by Janice Lert

Let s talk about Saint Giles

Philippe BrunelAn interview with Philippe Brunel, director of the Saint-Gilles Tourist Office.



Who was Saint Giles?

Saint Giles (one "l" in English, two in French) was a person of Greek origin, Aegidius, who left Greece to lead the life of a hermit in the South of France. Living in a forest he was befriended by a deer who was being hunted by the Gothic king Wamba.


Wamba’s arrow wounded Giles instead of killing the deer, and Wamba was so upset that he offered Giles land to build a monastery. That is at least the legend, but apparently there is no doubt that Giles really existed.


Tell me about the origins of the abbey.

On the spot where the Abbey church of St. Gilles is located today were originally three churches: one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Notre Dame, another dedicated to Saint Peter built by Giles, and a third built for the monks who occupied the site in the 7th century.


A book called The Miracles of St. Giles was published in the 11th century and the abbey rapidly became a popular spot for pilgrimages. We talk a lot about the pilgrimages to Compostela today, but St. Gilles was an extremely popular destination in the Middle Ages, the fourth after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. And in 2018 we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the inscription of Saint- Gilles on the UNESCO heritage Compostela trail. For the occasion the Abbey church will be rehabilitated in 2017.


Why was the position of the town of Saint- Gilles important for pilgrims?

The town is located at a crossroads: on the Via Tolosana, the pilgrimage route from Arles to Santiago de Compostela across the south of France, but also on the Via Regordane which is actually today the GR700 trail from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Gilles, crossing the Cévennes mountains. This is still a very popular route today for hikers. And if we add to this the position of the town near the Petit Rhône River, it was also accessible by boat, making it an important commercial hub. Today we still organize a pilgrimage on St. Giles’Day, September 1st, celebrated the Saturday before, where pilgrims leave five different towns and walk for a day (25-30 km) to reach Saint-Gilles. This year there were 900 pilgrims. We also regularly organize exhibitions about the Saint-Gilles pilgrimages.


What other periods were important in the history of the abbey?

During the crusades, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, the count of Toulouse, led the knights from Southern France to the Holy Land from the port of Saint-Gilles which, at one time, was the easternmost Mediterranean port in the realm of France. At that time Saint-Gilles was also home to the Knights Templar and Hospitaliers, religious orders who defended and assisted pilgrims and crusaders in the Middle East, and built priories here. But after the Albigensian crusade, the period of the religious wars in the 16th century put a stop to the pilgrimages. The abbey was occupied by the Protestants, then retaken by the Catholics. The grand pilgrimage church built during the Romanesque period was partially demolished, and the pilgrimage choir was destroyed. The carved portal was saved and later a new smaller church was built occupying only the nave of the former building. This is the church we can visit today. During the French Revolution, many of the faces on the statues of the west façade were hammered off. Fortunately there are enough left to allow us to imagine the beauty of the original portal, which was also apparently painted in bright colours.


Who manages the site today?

Today it is the property of the city of Saint-Gilles. It is still a working parish church, the only one in Saint-Gilles with mass every Sunday and sometimes on weekdays. And it inspires numerous cultural events in the city. 2016 is a special year in the history of the building: its 900th anniversary, as determined by an inscription on a stone in the outer north wall of the church. Thus the town has organized activities all year long: story-telling, lectures, concerts, a costumed re-enacting of the construction of the church with medieval machines in July, and an exhibition about the pilgrimage route at the library.


Other than tourism, what is the basis of the economy of the town today?

Agriculture: and we mix agriculture and tourism by giving guided tours on our farms — olive groves, cattle raising (Camargue manades), vineyards, rice fields. We even have an organic rice farm where ducks are used to replace weed-killers! Two dishes are typical of Saint-Gilles: the aigrillade saint-gilloise, a beef stew with anchovies and capers, and the fougasse de St. Gilles, a sweet pastry.


Why do English-speaking tourists come to Saint-Gilles?

About 25% of our visitors every year are foreigners. So we have plenty of information in English at the Tourism Office. St. Giles is very popular in Great Britain, second only to St. George! Giles is the subject of many paintings found in museums around the world, including a 16th-century painting in the National Gallery by the Master of St. Giles. Many churches in Anglo-Saxon countries are dedicated to St. Giles, and our abbey church has inspired the façades of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal church in Manhattan or at the Pittsburgh Hall of Architecture for example.


So come and see us! We promise you won’t regret it!