Sunday, 29 July 2012

St Emilion, France

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

Many of you may already have heard of Saint-Emilion, the UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval village located in the Bordeaux wine area of France (40 kms from the City of Bordeaux), and in the Province of Aquitaine.

I certainly had, and while I had heard of its beauty, I never expected to fall under it's spell so surely.  It's a true gem, and one that I intend to get to know well. 

I have just spent a week in this glorious region of France and I have another 2  weeks left. Lucky me! 

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Fancy a glass of St Emilion red in the historic Place de l'Eglise, St Emilion?

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Only the smallest of cars could pass along these village streets!
Photo of cars taken at the Ateliers d'anton

The picturesque and narrow cobbled streets of St Emilion are home to so many treasures; medieval buildings as well as ruins, cloisters, towers to climb, a lot of very good wine to sip, taste and or buy, many cafés, restaurants and even a store purely dedicated to selling nothing but delectable macarons. St Emilion has it's very own version of the Macaron, dating back to the 17th Century, click here), they are delicious I assure you.  I bought mine at the Les Macarons de Saint-Emilion.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

The streets are also dotted with many other speciality stores, with some of them concentrating purely on products made in France. 

If finding the quirky, the used and the interesting is your 'thing', then visit Frank at Ateliers d'anton, no 56 rue de Catusseau. It would be easy to spend a couple of hours here.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
St Emilion Street and mannequin from Ateliers d'anton

The most fascinating part of St Emilion is its history....and the fact that it has an underground life as well! There are approximately 200 kms of underground limestone quarries and tunnels under St Emilion and some of this area is used to store and mature wine as well as to grow mushrooms (champignons de Paris). I was told that the Chateau Beauséjour holds some 300,000 bottles of wine in their monolithic cellars.

To experience some of the 'sous terrain' of St Emilion and learn some of the history you should take the St Emilion tourist office  1 hour guided underground tour, (tickets and meeting point at the tourism office), and in fact it is the only way you are able to visit the underground Monolithic Church, the Catacombs and the Hermitage of St Emilion, (only guided visits are allowed entry), it's a really fascinating hour, do not bypass it.

NB- Monolithic (from the Greek word 'mono lithos' meaning one stone). So the Monolithic Church is built not from blocks of stone but entirely carved out of the limestone rock and was done so at the end of the 11th Century. Later, between the 12th and 15th centuries the huge bell tower (weighing 4500 tons) was added.

The history of St Emilion goes back to pre-historic times, but I'm only going to touch on the more recent history dating back to Saint Emilion himself.

Saint Emilion came from Brittany, and it is here that he worked for a certain Earl of Vannes. During this time it is said that he performed a number of miracles, which in turn gave him a level of status and popularity, something that he was not comfortable with, and so he fled to the South of France. Legend says that he stopped at a monastery in Saujon near Royan on his way, and it is here he became a monk.

Arriving in what was then known as Ascumbas  (now St Emilion) in the 8th Century, he settled in one of the many underground galleries and during this time he founded the village of St Emilion with his disciples. Here he lived out his life for the next 17 years and died in 767). 

He has become the village Patron but not the Patron of wine makers, this is Valery, one of Emilion's disciples.

His hermitage is included in the 1 hour underground tour and is quite a spiritual experience; you can see the natural spring that he used as a baptistery as well as his bed carved out from rock, and the meditation chair, (now called the fertility chair). Legend says that when a woman sits on it and prays she will become pregnant in the next few months.  No one in our group tired it!

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
The imposing tower that sits on top of the underground Monolithic Church

It was upon St Emilion's death that the Monolithic underground church was built.  You are not permitted to take any photos (with or without flash) in any underground site. We were informed that this regulation is mainly in place for copyright reasons, so I have no photos of the magnificent church to show you.

It is indescribably gorgeous, with light streaming through windows way above you onto the various alters. Huge limestone pillars dominate the interior. The walls were previously all covered in paintings, draperies and wooden sculptures.  Some faint paintings remain.

The church was abandoned during the French Revolution and the lack of maintenance and humidity led to the development of saltpetre which was essential at the time as a component of gun powder, and as a result of scraping this off the walls most of the paintings were destroyed.

NB: Interestingly, the underground monolithic Church is owned privately and has been since the French Revolution.

Other sites in the underground tour include:

The Catacombes, (probably carved out after St Emilion's death and the tombs appear to be older than the monolithic church (so sometime prior to the 12th century). This was the burial place for three types of people, the wealthy, influential members of the church and children (because they were naturally pure).

The Trinity Chapel, built at the beginning of the 13th century (only the choir remains from that period), the other part being transformed in 1730.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Wine and food are plentiful in St Emilion. I was lucky enough to capture the chefs from the divine Hostellerie de Plaisance carrying in their daily supply of produce from car to kitchen. 

A little note here about the prices, you do not have to spend big dollars in France to get very good wine, you can, but you don't necessarily have to. I would no more walk away with a $5 bottle of wine in Australia than with a cask, however I have bought a 5 euro bottle of wine in France and enjoyed it.

© Copyright Millie Brown


The area of Saint-Emilion is famously known for its excellent red wines and gorgeous wine Chateaux (there are more than 1200 of them).

The soil differs from area to area within the St Emilion jurisdiction, the area closest to the village (2,400 hectares) is mainly limestone and it is in this soil that the Merlot grape performs the best, and 11 out of 13 of the highest rated Chateaux come from this area.

The other 3 main soil types are gravel, alluvial, aeolian (fine and sandy), the gravel soil west of the town is conducive to the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Franc grapes (two of the other two highest rated Chateaux are here, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Figeac).

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

The St Emilion appellation system dates from 1955. The St Emilion classifications are, Grands Crus Classées, Premières Grands Crus Classées A, and Premières Grands Crus Classées B.

Maison du Vin Saint Emilion

Here you will find a wonderful wine shop (goes without saying)!, a fabulous interactive room where you can test your sense of smell for various wine aromas (photo below), as well as some incredibly interesting looking courses  (available for groups or the individual) ranging from 1 hour to a full day.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Test your 'nose' for wine aromas at the Maison du Vin Saint-Emilion

Accommodation St Emilion

Hostellerie de Plaisance.  As far as settings go, it doesn't get much more beautiful (I have seen that with my own eyes).  My parents had a wonderful stay here around 10 years ago and ate what they described as the best pheasant they had ever experienced. I believe through word of mouth that the hotel and dining is just as good now as it was then. So why not seat yourself on the terrace, sip a wine from the grapes at your doorstep and enjoy.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Photo left; the historic Cloitre des Cordeliers

For a stay outside of St Emilion, the beautiful house La Forge is available to rent on a weekly or monthly basis and here you will be welcomed by one of the most gracious and lovely hostesses I have ever met, Carol de Montrichard.  The house itself is gorgeous and the scenery around typical of the beautiful Bordeaux area.  It is only a 15 minute easy drive from here to the village of St Emilion. 
NB: There is also a cottage sleeping 3 people next to La Forge the house, and it can be rented separately or along with the house.


C'est probablement l'endroit le plus secret de Saint-Emilion
(It is probably the most secret place in Saint-Emilion)
NB: Une Librarie in French means a book shop, not a library.

Since the middle Ages people from all over have been coming here to find their printed treasures; from books of magic, to scientific manuscripts and maps.

The address is, 5 rue de Thau, however apparently it is still not easy to locate. It will be my little challenge when I am there next!

Recommended Reading

I came across this gorgeous book in a shop in St Emilion, Saint-Emilion  by Phillippe DuFrenoy and Jean-Marie Laugery

Here is my recommendation......don't miss Saint-Emilion if you are in the South West of France, it would be a real pity if you did!

Millie x
© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

1 comment:

  1. What an absolutely stunning place to be in, Millie! I am very envious but thank-you for showing your beautiful pictures of this amazing village!


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