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Saint-Émilion – the gem of the Bordeaux region

Saint-Émilion – the gem of the Bordeaux region

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-09-22

Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac… All legendary names that have, over the last 20 years, made Saint-Émilion one of the most popular French towns among wine connoisseurs the world over… But this mediaeval town – a World Heritage Site since 1999 – also has a fascinating magnetism that emanates from every stone!

An exceptional panorama
Overlooking the Dordogne from atop its rocky hillock, 5 miles from Libourne, Saint-Émilion watches over the vast vineyards that surround it on all sides. There is no better view to grasp the beauty of the landscape than the one that meets the eyes from the Tour du Roy, the last vestige of a 13th century castle. This keep is, moreover, where the grape harvest is traditionally proclaimed on the third Sunday in September by the Jurade of Saint-Émilion, a brotherhood founded in 1199. From here, the whole village can be seen, with its golden houses with roofs of dusty pink tiles, its sloping, meandering alleys and, beyond, the countryside scattered with prestigious chateaux.
 
 
70 hectares of underground galleries
It was here, in a cave containing a spring, that the Breton hermit Émilion came to find refuge in the 8th century. On his death, the Benedictine monks began to worship him and applied themselves to building a monastery. They dug catacombs around the cave, carved out into a cross by the saint. Gradually, a thriving town was born, built using the stones extracted from 700,000 square metres of underground galleries. Most of these galleries, which make Saint-Émilion a real Swiss cheese, are now devoted to the maturing and keeping of wine.
 
Europe’s biggest troglodyte church
 
Before wine, Saint-Émilion’s soul is in its church, around which the village grew up. Hollowed out between the 8th and 12th centuries by several generations of monks, this church carved out of a single rock (hence the name “monolithic church”) is the biggest in Europe with its three immense aisles, its Romanesque tympanum and tall bell tower. Extensive restoration work had to be implemented from 1995 to save this monument – classed by UNESCO among the 100 most threatened buildings in the world (alongside notably the Taj Mahal in India, the Domus Aurea in Rome and the royal garden in Budapest) – from collapse. As you pass through the entrance, adorned with a Last Judgment and a Resurrection of the Dead, you have the strange feeling of entering a timeless place, full of mystery. Here, at the heart of the rock, with a small trickle of water flowing at the far end of the cave, the Christianity of the Benedictine monks seems to have revived some kind of cult of Mother Earth.
 
Macaroons
 
Ah, the macaroons of Saint-Émilion! There’s nothing like it to end your tour on a high note. Dipped in red wine or Sauternes at aperitif time, or served with coffee, these moist and delicately crisp little marvels have been around since 1620, when they were invented by the town’s nuns. The very detailed recipe was recorded after the Revolution then notified by a certain Widow Goudichaud, before falling more or less into oblivion.

In 1930, the Blanchez family found the recipe by chance while rummaging through an attic... and quickly put it in a safe! These macaroons, entirely handmade using fresh almonds, are an institution – watch out for imitations!
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Tourist Office
Place des Créneaux
Tel: + 33 (0)5 57 55 28 28
www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com

Monolithic Church
Open until October, from 9.30am-12.30pm, 1.45-6.30pm
For guided tours, enquire at the Tourist Office.
 
Macaroons
Mme Blanchet
9, rue Guadet
33330 Saint-Émilion
Tel: + 33 (0)5 57 24 72 33
 
A little extravagance: a meal at the Hostellerie de Plaisance
Place du Clocher
Tel: 05 57 55 07 55

Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac… All legendary names that have, over the last 20 years, made Saint-Émilion one of the most popular French towns among wine connoisseurs the world over… But this mediaeval town – a World Heritage Site since 1999 – also has a fascinating magnetism that emanates from every stone!

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