The delights of St Emilion await everyone who visits. Situated in the Gironde and famous for its wines, 103 Châteaux, and largest monolithic church in Europe, as well as being a World UNESCO site, St Emilion surveys the surrounding countryside from an elevated position on limestone rock in the shape of an amphitheatre, with 173 acres of catacombs underneath.
A quick history of Saint-Emilion
The town owes its name to Emilian, a Breton monk. Emilian was born in Brittany in the 8th century, to a modest family. The Count who ruled the province chose him to be his financial steward, but jealous rivals accused Emilian of theft to discredit him in the eyes of his master. One day, as he set off to give bread to the poor, the suspicious Count asked him to open his coat. Miraculously, the pieces of bread that he had hidden inside it had changed into old bundles of firewood.
After this unfortunate experience, the pious young man decided to go on a pilgrimage. His path eventually led him to a forest where, captivated by the serenity of the area, he dug out a cave and dedicated his life to God. He settled in the hermitage carved in the rock, and the monks who followed him started up the commercial wine production in the area, which is still famous today.
The region gained wealth and prominence due to wine production and to its strategic position along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. After his death in 767, Emilian the hermit had performed so many miracles and done so much good around him that his name was given to the place where he had lived, which we now know as St. Emilion.
Highlights of a visit
The Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church, constructed in the early 12th century, is partly subterranean; its three naves, with a small catacomb beneath, were dug into the rocky hillside. The 53-metre high church bell tower has 196 steps, allowing 10 people at a time to climb to the top for a fantastic view of the Dordogne valley, and what seems to be hundreds of vineyards.
The steep and narrow streets are lined with restaurants, cafés and shops, and bottles of wine are on display to tempt every taste.
Some of these streets are still covered in the original granite cobblestones that had once served as ballast for the otherwise empty ships returning from Cornwall after they had exported the delicate local wine held in such high esteem by the Crown of England!
Tours are available in many languages, with the historic and underground visits on offer, as well as a tour of the vineyards in the land train. The tours enable you to see where St Emilion is said to have lived underground, and find out what happens should you sit on ‘his’ chair; take a walk around the catacombs; stroll through the cloisters and marvel at the original wall paintings whose colours are still visible; look at the wooden carvings on the oldest house; see the town from a vantage point, and look over at the church and the Jurade tower.
The jurats, or aldermen, of Saint-Émilion, made up of local notables and magistrates, were empowered with the town’s general administration, and can trace their roots back to a royal charter issued in 1199 by John Lackland, King of England. The tower is open in June and September, when members of the Jurade parade through the town in their traditional crimson robes.
St Emilion is also famous for its almond macaroons, which were first made in 1620 by Les Ursulines, a small community of nuns who lived in the village. The recipe was a closely-guarded secret, passed down through generations. In 1930, it passed into the hands of Madame Grandet. With the help of her family she opened the Blanchez Bakery at 9 rue Guadet. Today, the recipe remains unchanged and the preparation and baking is still done by hand. Even the almonds are selected, roasted and powdered on site.
Whilst other bakeries exist in St Emilion none has the right to bear the name St Emilion Macaroon. The famous macaroons are prettily packaged with blue ribbon.
Lastly, if you visit the Cloisters, there is a local custom: take the cork from a bottle of wine, tie the blue ribbon round it, make a wish, and throw it behind you towards the trees. If the cork stays suspended, your wish will come true!