Enchanting St Emilion with its
vineyard-cloaked hills and historical monuments take
Amy Van back in time.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be
transported back to medieval times? A visit to St Emilion
is a lesson in unearthing the past and history surrounding
this picturesque town. The heart of the town itself
is a remarkable cobblestone masterpiece, rich with tradition
and heritage embedded at the turn of every corner. Monuments
and churches steeped in history, undulating narrow cobblestone
streets and quaint houses all weave beautifully into
the fabric of this breathtaking landscape.
Located 35km northeast of Bordeaux, St Emilion stands
atop a hill overlooking the Dordogne Valley. From the
ancient church tower, you will see a stunning panorama
of lush vineyards blanketing most parts of the village.
Sandwiched between the landscapes are houses, all made
from the same ochre limestone with roofs shielded by
It is somehow hard to fathom that this area was the
site of past invasions and battles such as the Hundred
Years War, the Battle of Castillon and the French Revolution.
Despite several bloody wars, most of the architecture
including seven town gates and some battlements has
remained as they were 1000 years ago, while 13th century
remnants of the old fortified wall still stand. The
Château du Roy or King's Castle overlooking the
town is also one of the architectures that has remained
intact over the centuries and is still very much in
use today by the 'Jurade' (a wine society formed in
the 12th century to oversee the local wine industry)
as an annual setting for the proclamation of the year's
harvest. Having retained much of its landscape since
the Middle Ages, UNESCO named St Emilion a world heritage
area in December 1999; the first time that a wine-growing
region has been accorded this special recognition.
St Emilion today sees a different kind of invasion
- busloads of tourists throng this place all year round
- going through the same formidable gates that once
fortified the town. As they stroll along narrow paths,
the warmth and spirit of St Emilion embraces them in
welcome. Despite the aftermath of its gory past, the
unscathed town has emerged with well-preserved architecture
serving as a powerful reminder of its wealthy heritage
against the 21st century.
The lower and upper parts of the town boast two monastic
complexes, but interestingly, the most unique character
of St Emilion lies underneath it. Exploring this 'underworld'
entails a paid guided tour which takes you through more
than 70 hectares of underground galleries as well as
a magnificent monolithic church carved out of solid
limestone; the largest of its kind in Europe.
In the 8th century, it was home to Emilian, the Breton
monk after whom the town is named. Emilian took up holy
orders and later became a hermit, devoting himself to
God. He was purported to have given sight to a blind
woman and performed other such healing miracles.
The monk lived in a small hermitage, unique in Europe
for its size (38m long by 20 m wide and 11m high under
the vault). It is located nearby - in a natural grotto
consecrated by the Benedictine monks. The 11th and 12th
century underground 'catacombs' include a charnel house
and a number of sepulchers which were used to house
a mass grave and tombs. Today it is illuminated with
lights, highlighting the pathways and concave structures.
If you look carefully enough, you will be able to see
angels intricately carved into the domes and ceiling.
The grand finale of the tour brings you to the cavernous
monolithic church, which to the present day, is still
used to hold masses, particularly during the Christmas
season. We were told that the spire of the church, which
was constructed in the 15th century, is slowly sinking
and leaning leading to remedial work being done, including
the addition of cement pillars and metal braces. Several
church altars built in between 15th and 18th century
have also been preserved. During your tour, look out
for the 13th-century Chapelle de la Trinité (Trinity
Chapel) built in honour of Emilian, and now filled with
Moving on up
After 45 minutes of the underground tour, we were back
to the world above. As you step into the 11th century
collegiate church, a sense of peace prevails. Walk around
the convent with its beautiful cloisters - the perfect
place for meditation - and admire magnificent paintings
restored to its former splendour. Nowadays, weddings
are still being held in this Romanesque style church,
which also houses a unique organ built in 1892 by Gabriel
Cavaillé-Coll, son of the famous 19th century
organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Meanwhile, if you would like to get an overview of
the surrounding vineyards, 'Le Train des Grands Vignobles'
- a quaint little train departs from St Emilion's Collegiate
Church to take visitors down winding lanes through nearby
vineyards, most of which are family-owned. Prices are
around 33FF per person, while commentaries are in English
The upclose and personal look at vines is worth the
30-minute trip, where more can be learnt about St Emilion's
wines, renowned since the Gallo-Roman period. This complex
appellation is also known for its outstanding microclimate
and unique soils consisting of stones, sand, gravel,
clay and silt. These days, vineyards produce high quality
wines, made mainly from Merlot and to a lesser extent,
Cabernet. It is interesting to learn that the town and
vineyards together form a coherent unity. St Emilion
and its communes constitute the 'Jurisdiction' (corresponding
with today's controlled appellation area), where the
wines produced in this area are allowed the St Emilion
label attached to them.
After a few hours of sightseeing around the area, you
are whizzed back to modern day where you can stop by
for espresso at a sidewalk café which spills
onto the cobblestoned pathway. Get a breather and bask
in the sun. Today wine shops and al fresco restaurants
line the tiny streets peopled by tourists and locals
all year round. Before you leave (which will be difficult),
munch on some of Saint Emilion's famous feather-light
macaroons (sweet almond cookies) or grab a box of canalés.
Not forgetting a few bottles of wine, as a special keepsake
that will remind you of this town's devotion to maintaining
its rich culture and heritage.