Saint-Émilion: A Legend Crafted in Stone & Vines
by Marla Norman, Publisher
Long before you reach the village of Saint-Émilion, you’ll notice the enormous spire of the city’s ancient monolithic church towering over a vast limestone plateau – the same stone that flavors the region’s prestigious wine. Upon arriving in the city, you’ll see remnants of the first church, built by Dominican friars and destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Wander the steep cobblestone streets and see more tales of the past – architectural bits and pieces from Romans, Celtic priests, French and English kings. Take a seat in the centuries-old square and feel as if a dream is unfolding before you.
One of France’s most beloved and unspoiled medieval cities, Saint-Émilion is also a UNESCO Heritage site. And as you walk through this charming, provincial village, you might almost forget that some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after wines are produced here. But, like so much in the region, everything begins and ends with wine.
AUSONIUS & ÉMILIAN
Saint-Émilion’s first recorded history began in the 4th century when the Romans controlled Gaul (France). According to popular history, Decimus Magnus Ausonius established a property and planted the first grape vines. Ausonius had been born in Bordeaux, so was familiar with the natural beauty of the area and abundant limestone. His name is now immortalized in the Saint-Émilion winery, Château Ausone.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, much of the region was desolate, until the 8th century, when a Benedictine monk, named Émilian arrived. The good monk and his followers created a massive network of caves and catacombs. Years after Émilian’s death, the celebrated Monolithic Church was finally completed.
Meanwhile, the village of Saint-Émilion grew and prospered with wine trade and stone quarries. Then in 1337, the Hundred Years War commenced, taking a huge toll on the city. By the end of the French Revolution, Saint-Émilion was almost entirely abandoned.
But the city’s fortunes have always turned on wine, and interest in Bordeaux wines fueled a re-birth in the 19th century and, for the most part, the city has prospered ever since.
RAMPARTS, CAVES & MACAROONS
Begin your tour of Saint-Émilion at the Tourism Centre. The helpful staff will provide you with maps, historical information and recommendations for shopping, dining and any special events going on during your stay.
If you’re feeling energetic, make arrangements to visit the Église Monolithe (Monolithic Church). You’ll be given a huge skeleton key – supposedly once used by the Benedictine monks themselves – to unlock the main door of the Tour du Clocher (Bell Tower). From there, you’ll climb 196 steps to the highest point in Saint-Émilion. By the time you reach the top, whatever breath you might have left will be expended immediately on sublime views of the village and the miles and miles of vineyards that surround it.
Continue your tour at the underground level of the church – the labyrinth of caves carved out by Émilian and his followers. The sheer scale of the arches and pillars is astounding. Very little decoration art remains; most of the art was destroyed during the French Revolution. There is, however, a lovely bas-relief at the bottom of the nave depicting two angels, guardians of the gates of Paradise.
An interesting historical note: The legendary stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral were hidden away in the Église Monolithe church during World War II. Since the Nazis were infatuated with Bordeaux wines, Saint-Émilion and its priceless vineyards were left mostly intact during the war and the windows survived untouched.
Back in the sunlight, stop by Fabrique de Macarons at 9 rue Guadet to sample some of the delicious pastries. Macarons were originally created by the Ursuline nuns of Saint-Émilion in the 1600’s. These are not the sweet, multicolored meringue creations you saw in Paris, but rustic sugar and almond cookies baked on parchment paper.
Madame Nadia Fermigier, owner of the Fabrique, claims to have the original Ursuline recipe for Macarons – a highly guarded secret, as you can imagine. These same cookies were a highlight of the 1867 International Exposition – a conclave of Saint-Émilion winemakers. You can judge for yourself, but there’s no doubt that sampling a 400-year old cookie is a unique treat!
If the Macarons have sufficiently revived you, stroll along rue du Couvent to visit the original Ursuline Convent. Only remnants of the 17th century structure remain, but you can peek through the crumbling windows and imagine the interiors.
Across from the convent stands the austere Tour du Roy (King’s Tower). Origins of the tower have been lost and historians are baffled as to why it was built and whether Henry III of England or King Louis VII of France commissioned the structure.
These days, the tower provides the grand finale for two major wine festivals held in spring and fall. During these festivals, members of the Saint-Émilion Jurade (a fraternity of wine professionals, dedicated to the advancement of Saint-Émilion wines) parade through the village and hold extravagant dinners. To close the festivals, the members of the Jurade ascend the tower and release hundreds of balloons – a thrilling site for miles around. The Tour du Roy is open to the public, so you too can climb the tower and enjoy the spectacular views.
ESSENCE OF SAINT-ÉMILION
Saint-Émilion is filled with cute shops selling any number of souvenirs and trinkets. But, for a unique gift or remembrance of the area – aside from a bottle(s) of wine – try Nathalie Boisserie’s Salon, tucked away on a sidestreet at 4 Place du Chapitre des Jacobins. Nathalie has created a completely original fragrance – Les Jardins de Saint-Émilion – using the small flowers that bloom on local grapevines. The flowers appear for just a few days in the spring. During this very brief period, Saint-Émilion is bathed in rapturous aromas. Nathalie has managed to capture this fragrance and bottle it in clear, etched glass, as pretty and appealing as the parfum itself.
Editor’s Note: Nathalie also offers a beautifully furnished two-bedroom flat, located in Saint-Émilion, on the same quiet sidestreet as her salon. See more properties in Hotel Finds.
HOUSE OF WINE
You’ll never truly understand Saint-Émilion until you have at least a cursory grasp of the world-renown wines produced in the area. Maison du Vin is the perfect place to learn more about not only Saint-Émilion wines, but wines in general. Numerous wine appreciation classes are offered. These range from basic courses in detecting elements in the wine nose to in-depth studies (and tastings) of wines from the various sub-appellations in the region.
Maison du Vin also offers hundreds of wines for sale at reasonable prices. Saint-Émilion has more wine shops per capita than perhaps anyplace else in the world, but Maison du Vin is a good place to begin browsing.
You can also sample local wine at Place du Marché – the leafy square in the middle of the village. You’ll find traditional French appetizers or dinner to accompany your favorite bottle.
Another possibility is the terrace bar of L’Hostellerie de Plaisance with its views of rooftops, the soaring bell tower and vine-covered valleys. Sunsets here are especially captivating. From this perch, you can watch the luminous stone walls fade to gray in the twilight and listen to evening chimes mark the end of day. Contemplate the centuries worth of history swirling in your glass and wonder if you’re awake or dreaming.