Defying time / WINE & DINE February 2001
By Amy Van

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 arched tiles.

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 underworld
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 lovingly-restored frescoes.

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 and French.

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.


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