A town named after a saint that was never canonized. A church carved in to one large rock. Wine stores on every corner and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Wow! Saint-Émilion!
The next morning we continued exploring areas outside of Bordeaux and this time we took a one-hour local bus ride to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remarkable little town of Saint-Émilion. Saint-Émilion’s history reaches back to prehistoric times. In relation to the history of wine we know the Romans planted vineyards in the area as early as the 2nd century. The town was named after the hermit Émilion, an 8th century monk who lived in a natural cave. Monks who were followers of St. Émilion began the first commercial wine production in the area. The primary grape varieties grown are Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. Saint-Émilion, population ~2,000, has many churches, cafes, shops and ruins stretching all along the steep and narrow streets. We were surprised to learn this tiny population hosts more than 200,000 tourists and visitors each year.
The Great Wall (La Grande Muraille)
When the bus turned the final corner into Saint-Émilion, the first thing we saw was a beautiful stand-alone wall. This solitary wall is an elegant remnant of a great Dominican monastery from the 12th century. The monastery was located outside the walls of the village and was torn down during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France. The remaining walls, gates and defensive towers surrounding the village were destroyed in the 16th century.
Église Monolithe de Saint-Émilion
The word monolithic comes from the Greek word «mono» meaning «single» and «lithos», meaning «stone». There is a wonderful underground monolithic Church in Saint-Émilion. The church was carved out of one single stone! It is easy for visitors to find as a 68-meter-high bell tower sits above it. The Monolithic church was carved from this stone in the 12th century, the inside painted in the 14th, devastated in the 18th during the Revolution and restored in the 20th! If you want to visit you must sign up for a guided tour. During the summer months, the cool underground church offers a welcome respite from the rising temperatures on the streets above.
We were not allowed to take pictures inside the monolithic church but they sell a great book “Saint-Emilion – A Journey toward the Unknown” that documents the church well.
We next chose to climb the 196 steps of the separate bell tower which was built on top of the Monolithic church. While bell towers almost exclusively sit beside the church, in this case, it sits above the church; a very unusual placement. We paid our 2€ each and were handed a key to the 12th century locked tower. The small town is surrounded by vibrant green vineyards and the climb is absolutely worth the views from the top.
Eglise Collégiale et le Cloitre de Saint-Émilion
Built between the 12th and 16th century this church continues to be the parish church of the local community today. Prior to Eglise Collëgiale’s build, the huge underground monolithic church was the most important structure. However as the town expanded plans were drawn up to build a new church and cloister, a convent, numerous shops and buildings, a chapel and a private cemetery on the terraces around the bell tower. Upon its completion, Eglise Collëgiale became the new domain of spiritual, political and economic power. This church was classified as a historical monument on the French historical site list in 1840.
Restaurant Le Tertre
We stopped for lunch at Restaurant Le Tertre choosing the menu du jour. We were seated outside at a shady and secluded table out of the midday heat. The food was superb and the wine deliciously chilled.
Grande Fontaine and Fuente Pequeña
The town of Saint-Émilion is blessed with plenty of fresh water. Fresh water springs provided clear water for the “laundries” built in the 19th century to the Grande Fontaine and Fuente Pequeña. These laundries or fountains were used by the women not to wash their laundry but to rinse the clothes after they had been washed. The Grande Fontaine or King’s Fountain is the larger of the two wash houses. It had a cover and the wealthier women used it. The Fuente Pequeña, the smaller of the two laundries initially was without a roof and therefore used by poorer districts. These former wash-houses today provide a flowery and refreshing place to rest.
The inhabitants of Saint-Émilion built a wall enclosing more than 18 hectares and running 1.5 km around the village. This wall originally had six gates, the Brunet, the only remaining, was the east gate and faced the vineyards. This wall would have been used more to show the power of the village than to protect it. It was necessary to pay a tax to enter the village, thus creating another source of wealth. Today we found a handful of docile sheep peacefully grazing around Porte Brunet.
Le Cloître des Cordeliers
We loved the beautiful shapes of these cloisters. The Cordeliers cloister is located at the heart of this medieval town of Saint-Emilion and named after its first occupants, the Cordeliers, Franciscan monks who followed the practices of St. Francis of Assisi. Before occupying the current cloister the monks lived in a place called ‘Les Menuts’ outside the town walls. The remnants of the old Cordeliers church is now occupied by Clos des Menuts winery.
Clos des Menuts
The Clos des Menuts winery is located in the village of Saint-Émilion. The current owner, since 1875, operates in total, 25 hectares of vineyards outside the village. Clos des Menuts today is considered a unique 480+ year old wine-producing institution. 1538 is the date of the first written record attesting to the sale of a barrel of wine by the Fray Menuts also called Cordeliers. It is amazing to think that these Cordelier monks began this winery, in the same place it is today.
The winery has a medieval monolithic cellar, 30 feet underground, with a constant temperature of 12°C where their wine is aged in oak barrels. We certainly enjoyed our visit of the winery and cellar and found this an interesting attraction. After our self guided tour, we were invited to taste three of their current delicious wines.
La Tour du Chateau du Roy
Saint-Émilion must be formed atop a number of gigantic boulders. The monolithic church was built within one, the impressive square stone keep, the Tour du Roy, was built upon one and the monolithic wine caves beneath Clos des Menuts winery carved from one. The rock that the Tour du Roy rests upon is isolated on all sides and hollowed out with natural caves and quarries. It is thought to have been built by Henry III, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine in 1237 when Saint-Émilion fell under English control.
Today the tower is used as a meeting place for a group called The Jurade, who meet to promote the wines of Saint-Emilion to the world. It is possible to climb the 118 steps of this tower to access the rooftop views but we ran out of time and had to catch the last bus of the day returning to Bordeaux.
— Ted & Julia