01 May 2014

Visiting Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France

Looking down on the village of Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux region of France. All photography is the property of EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Looking down on the village of Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux region of France. All photography is the property of EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

While on a wine and chateaux tour in Bordeaux with Viking River Cruises, we stopped for a short visit in a quintessentially French village—Saint-Émilion for a journey back in time. Cobbled streets, quaint cafés, ancient relics and medieval architecture abound here but there's something positively enchanting about this place that captivated me enough to want to spend the day enjoying some real slow travel through this charming village in France's renowned Bordeaux wine country! Follow along on a guided tour through the past and present of Saint-Émilion, France.

History of Saint-Émilion


Chapel of the Holy Trinity to the left and the Monolithic Church's portal at right. This photo only: WikiMedia.org.
Chapel of the Holy Trinity to the left and the Monolithic Church's portal at right. This photo only: WikiMedia.org.

Beyond the banks of the Dordogne River in the Bordeaux region of France, lies the medieval village and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saint-Émilion—a living museum and testament to a tumultuous past, a thriving present and most certainly a promising future. Settled by Romans in the second century, Saint-Émilion's roots can be traced back, incredibly enough, to the Upper Paleolithic or Stone Age—35,000 – 10,000 B.C., but its Pierrefitte menhir, a stone monolith located a couple of miles to the west, stands testament as rock-solid proof of the fact that humans settled here during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.

Quaint hotels line the narrow lanes of Saint-Emilion.
Quaint hotels line the narrow lanes of Saint-Emilion.

But Saint-Émilion's main attraction today is its viticultural heritage which owes its existence to the Romans who established Aquitania in 27 B.C. and began to cultivate the vines. Professor of Rhetoric and poet, Decimus Magnus Ausonius who served under Emperor Valentinian and was given the title of Praetorian Prefect of Gaul (present-day France, Luxemborg and Belgium), had a major influence in viniculture (wine making) in the region and actually, his name lives on in one of only two Premier Grand Cru Classés in the Saint-Émilion Grand Classification of 1955—Chateau Ausone, whose land includes former estates previously owned by Ausonius. If you remember in my Bordeaux chateaux and winery article, I discussed the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855 that designates five vintages as the Premier Grand Cru Classé above all others, however, Saint-Émilion was not included in that classification.

Jump ahead to the seventh century and Christian monasteries began to appear throughout the region because of its ideal location along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), an ancient network of pilgrim routes that stretched across Europe and converged at the tomb of Saint James (Santiago) in Santiago de Compostela located in northwest Spain. However, it's an eighth-century Benedictine monk for whom the city was named—Aemilianus who settled into his grotto hewn from the limestone rock near the Monolithic Church. He established a Christian community in the town of Ascumbas (the ancient Roman name for the Saint-Émilion), and according to legend, his rise to fame was due to the number of miracles he performed—feats that attracted worshipers from faraway lands who settled in the town. It is these worshipers who began the extensive underground sanctuary (church and approximately 173 acres of catacombs) and eventually completed them 300 years after Aemilianus' death in 787. By the 11th century, Aemilianeus' followers had organized themselves into the religious order of Saint-Émilion Benedictine Monks and thus, the monastic village of Saint-Émilion was born!

Portal into the past.
Portal into the past.

In 1199, British King Henry II granted autonomy to the village under the Treaty of Chartres giving residents and churches to right to profit from farming and soon Saint-Émilion was prospering from its own wine production. But the 14th and 15th centuries brought the 100 Year War and so fell Saint-Émilion into disrepair. It wasn't until 18th century that the village recovered and prospered anew, until the French Revolution that is. Despite the scars left behind by the war, the village survived and today, its vintages are among the finest in the world. Furthermore, the Saint-Émilion appellation has grown to be one of the most prolific in all of Bordeaux, and in 1999, the Saint-Émilion vineyards became the first viticultural region to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Église-Monolithe or Monolithic Church


Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church is just one of the relics with its own story to tell. This photo only: WikiMedia.org.
Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church is just one of the relics with its own story to tell. This photo only: WikiMedia.org.

In the heart of the village is the Église-Monolithe or the Monolithic Church, a cavernous structure hewn from a single piece of limestone bedrock circa 1200, the largest of its kind in Europe. Although only part of the cathedral is subterranean, once you're inside, you are completely overwhelmed by darkness. Comprised of three naves, 16th-century windows and a small catacomb beneath; the church was at one time decorated with magnificent frescoes of which very little remains due to the fact that the church was converted into a factory during the French Revolution. Its tower stretches 172 feet (53 meters) into the sky and is the result of a number of construction efforts during the 12th, 14th and 15th centuries. For a nominal fee, you can climb its 196 steps, [not too exhausting compared some of the other church towers I have climbed in my travels], and behold some of the most splendid panoramic views of the town and the pastoral countryside beyond.

Close-up view of the Monolithic Church's portal.
Close-up view of the Monolithic Church's portal.

A small chapel inside the Monolithic Church in Saint-Émilion.
A small chapel inside the Monolithic Church in Saint-Émilion.

Eventually, time had taken its toll on the church and by the end of the 20th century; the weight of the tower had compromised the infrastructure and repairs were desperately needed. Forced to close its doors and undergo a decade of restoration by the World Monuments Fund, the church finally opened to the public in 2006. Improvements included tensile bands placed around the base of the pillars as well an intricate drainage system for the ground water that contributed to the centuries of destabilization. Here's a video tour of the interior and note the metal bands surrounding the pillars inside.




If you go, photography without a flash is next to impossible without your tripod so carry it along, or you can rely on the aforementioned tensile bands which provide a solid support to shoot some of the interiors albeit limited in scope.

Saint-Émilion Collegiate Church and Cloister


Western portal of the 14th-century Collegiate Church in Saint-Emilion.
Western portal of the 14th-century Collegiate Church in Saint-Emilion.

Our tour also led us to the 14th-century Collegiate Church and Cloister, a combination of Gothic and Romanesque architectural elements built upon the site of a former Roman cloister. The church itself dates to the 12th century, the Cloister, the 15th; the former was built by a college of canons or religious order whose mission was to restore order and discipline to the lives of the Saint-Émilion monks.

Close-up detail of the Collegiate Church.
Close-up detail of the Collegiate Church.

Looking out into the Collegiate Cloister in Saint-Émilion.
Looking out into the Collegiate Cloister in Saint-Émilion.

The Monolithic Church tower as seen from the Collegiate Cloisters.
The Monolithic Church tower as seen from the Collegiate Cloisters.

Other Saint-Émilion Sights


View of Saint-Emilion as seen from the square outside the Monolithic Church square. Chapel of the Holy Trinity can be seen to the right.
View of Saint-Emilion as seen from the square outside the Monolithic Church square. Chapel of the Holy Trinity can be seen to the right.

Other sites within Saint-Émilion include the 13th-century Chapel of the Holy Trinity with its 14th-century frescoes; Aemilianus' hermitage, the cave he carved when he arrived in the eighth century; the formidable 13th-century Tour du Roy tower (King's Castle Keep); catacombs adjacent to the Monolithic Church; and the 14th-century Cloître des Cordeliers built upon the site of a former Franciscan friary. Today, that venue serves as a scenic location for tasting the renowned vintages of this region—most notably Chateau Ausone that I mentioned previously, and Chateau Cheval Blanc—both of which are sublime blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc varietals worthy of their Premier Grand Cru Classé classification.

A stroll through Saint-Émilion


Look at the slope of this cobbled hill in Saint-Émilion. Quaint narrow lanes lined with medieval architecture are home to enchanting cafés and shops.
Look at the slope of this cobbled hill in Saint-Émilion. Quaint narrow lanes lined with medieval architecture are home to enchanting cafés and shops.

Restaurant Le Tertre. Who wouldn't want to eat here?
Restaurant Le Tertre. Who wouldn't want to eat here?

Cobblestoned lane leading down to the Monolithic Church and Church of the Holy Trinity in Saint-Emilion.
Cobblestoned lane leading down to the Monolithic Church and Church of the Holy Trinity in Saint-Emilion.

With only a limited amount of time to explore the rest of Saint-Émilion, I set out with my camera to capture the essence and flavor of this medieval village where time seems to have stood still since the 12th century! Cobbled lanes lined with charming restaurants, shops and inns, wind up and down the hills of the town, some of which are quite steep but no worries, there are circuitous routes that may take a little longer but will lead you to where you need to be. And if you ask me, the more time you have to wander through this village, the better to immerse yourself into the culture and savor the moments of time well spent! Live like a local—strike up a conversation, share a cup of coffee, a dinner or just a laugh! After all, why travel if you're only going to be a tourist! One last bit of advice; be sure to indulge in a macaron. Of course I did, in case you're wondering.

Window arches at the left illuminate the interior of the Monolithic Church.
Window arches at the left illuminate the interior of the Monolithic Church.

Know before you go:


Saint-Émilion Underground Tour


The only way to visit the monuments mentioned above is via the Underground Monuments Tour which includes the Monolithic Church, catacombs, hermitage and Chapel of the Holy Trinity. While mine was an abbreviated version of this comprehensive tour, I strongly urge you to sign up for it. Equally, I urge you to allow enough time to meander through the streets, have lunch and dinner, even stay the night because this place demands slow travel through its timeless existence. Visit SaintEmilionTourisme.com for more information.


I hope you enjoyed your visit to Saint-Émilion and if you're planning your own Bordeaux chateaux and wine tour by cruise or slow-travel, be sure to include a stop in your itinerary!


Additional Reading:

Special thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting me on the Bordeaux Chateaux, Rivers and Wine preview cruise. It was an unforgettable journey to new realms and new tastes. Of course all opinions and thoughts reflected are mine and mine alone. Thank you Viking Cruises!

33 comments:

  1. Well done. The tour of the underground church can be reserved in at the Tourist Office which is in the center of the upper town. Most of the tours will be conducted in French only but there is a handout in English which follows the commentary of the guide and it is very easy to follow along. And of course after the guide has finished a segment you are more than welcome to ask questions in English and be answered likewise. Cal Ford

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    1. Thank you so much Cal for adding your tip about the tours. However the tourism link I included in the article does offer tours in English for most of year, much to the relief of many of my readers I am sure. Thanks so much for stopping by and looking forward to following along your journey in a couple of weeks! Bon voyage my friend!

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    2. Just wanted to follow up with the fact that if readers experience Saint-Émilion with the Viking River Cruises "Chateaux, Rivers and Wine" cruise, they won't have to worry about a guide at all, Viking's guides are superior no matter what the destination. Thanks again.

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  2. Jeff,

    I really enjoyed this post - and in particular I love your first photo of the view down to the square. Very, very charming.

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    1. Hi there Troy! Thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words my friend! I really appreciate it!!

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  3. Looks like a gorgeous place, as most of France is! Really awesome photos Jeff. Looking forward to seeing more.

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    1. It was positively enchanting Andrea! Certainly my kind of European village! I only wish that I could have spent more time there! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your comments!! And no worries, lots more to come too!

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  4. I just love the exquisitely carved church portals, Jeff, as well as the beautiful pale gold colour of the stone architecture. It's amazing that Bordeaux's viticulture heritage dates back to Roman times.

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    1. Hi Lesley!! I wish I could have had two days here!! So much to see and not enough time during my short visit but Saint-Émilion and all of Bordeaux beckons for a return visit and soon!!! Such an incredible history throughout this area...the Paleolithic Age...when I learned about that, I was flabbergasted! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your comments!!

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  5. We can't wait to get there in a few more weeks. Thank you Jeff for all of your wonderful tips. Kathy Hall

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    1. Hi there Kathy and thank you so much for stopping by! I can't wait to follow along on your journey in a few weeks!!

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  6. Wow, wow, wow! That is what I kept saying as I scrolled through the amazing photographs of this incredible medieval town. What an interesting history as well. What a great stop along a river tour.

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    1. I am so honored Ted! Thank you so much for all of your kind words. I really fell in love with this place, as if you couldn't tell!!

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  7. Amazing. France is such an incredible place--so much history and beauty everywhere. It's been many, many years (I mean many!) since I visited France but I hope to make it back there in the next couple of years. The underground tour sounds so interesting!

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    1. Hi there Jenna and thank you so much for stopping by! I couldn't agree with you more, this place is Amazing!! I too would love to do the entire underground tour on my next visit!

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  8. Thanks for sharing all this information. Such an amazing place to visit-one of our favourites!

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the article Craig! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences as well!

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  9. Saint-Émilion looks fantastic! The streets are adorable and have that iconic French village charm. And I didn't even realize there were UNESCO World Heritage wine regions! The historic sights look awesome too! I've never been to a subterranean cathedral; how was the experience of exploring the cathedral interior in near darkness? Seems like it would be a lot like exploring catacombs which echo and have that very distinct underground smell.

    How great to wake up in such a lovely town on your river cruise! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi there Christina! Thanks so much for stopping by. I fell in love with this village from the moment I stepped upon its cobbled streets. My only regret is not having enough time to spend a day or two to enjoy some quality slow travel through the town. The church was truly fascinating but oh so difficult to see everything, especially the fragments of frescoes, because of the darkness. Next time, I think I'll bring a flashlight! ;)

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  10. Oh, St Emilion is one of my favourite wines! Should visit it one of these days! Thanks for the lovely write up.

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    1. I too loved the Saint-Émilion wines my friend, especially the vintage I tasted at the Chateau Siaurac. Sublime! Thank you Marlys for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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    1. It sure is Charu!! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  12. What a beautiful place, I would love to walk around there and do a wine tour.
    Great article and photos, thanks for giving me some inspiration for my next trip.

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    1. Greetings Freye! Totally agree with you on that my friend. It's a wonderful place to spend the day, possibly even two! Thank you for your kind compliments too!!

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  13. France is just so freaking cute! I know that tons of people say that Paris is the most romantic place in the world, but no, it is the smallest towns that get the prize.

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    1. I couldn't agree with you more Suki!! Saint-Émilion delighted on all levels! Thank you so much for stopping by.

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  14. You did a wonderful job capturing the charm & beauty of Saint Emilion. I love this village! Every time I go, I see something new and/or charming! This post is wonderful- love all the history! (Glad you loved your Viking guide!) I adore giving tours in Saint Emilion! Thx for sharing !

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    1. Thank you so much Jennifer for your kind words and am thrilled you enjoyed this article so much. I feel honored by your praise!! You know, I loved my visit and my only regret is not having had the time to spend the entire day there. Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  15. What a charming town- just the type of place I love to explore! Great photos of the cobblestone streets!

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    1. I couldn't agree with you more Rhonda! I could have easily spent two days here!! Thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words too!

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  16. Hi Jeff, your post comes at a perfect time since we're headed to Bordeaux in the coming days. We're now in Spanish wine country (Rioja) but your piece just confirms that Saint-Émilion is worth an extended visit.

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    1. Hi there Tricia! You journey sounds wonderful and so happy that you saved time for Saint-Émilion! You're going to LOVE it!! Stop back and share your journey.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!