Saint-Émilion – the little town with a big reputation

Saint-Émilion – the little town with a big reputation

Saint-Émilion – the little town with a big reputation


Wine glass in hand, Jo Walmesley stepped back in time in Bordeaux when she visited the famous town of Saint-Émilion. She found its cobbled streets and shady squares are brimming with history, and its centuries-old vineyards are also brimming with a certain delectable liquid…

In 1999, the town and region of Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux was awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage site. The award was regarded as something of a milestone in the history of UNESCO citations – it was the first time that a wine region had been cited as “a landscape which has preserved intact the traces of its remarkable history”.

The medieval town and the surrounding region of Saint-Émilion are full of Romanesque churches, caves and ancient windmills. One of the great advantages of a UNESCO listing is that the buildings are protected, so this delightful town will remain one of the few wine producing centres in France virtually untouched by modernity. Although renovated in the 19th century, its winding, narrow streets are very much as they were five hundred years ago.

Saint-Émilion is often referred to as a town, but I like to think of it as a large village. Its pristine, golden houses nestle comfortably on a steep hillside amidst the “noble” vineyards of Bordeaux.

Small town or large village, there is no mistaking its affluence. And, from every viewpoint on its ancient walls, the source of its wealth is impossible to miss. Serried ranks of vines, producing world-class wines, stretch as far as the eye can see. The name draws visitors from all over the world; wine lovers, obviously, but anyone who wants to soak up the history of Bordeaux also makes the modern day pilgrimage to stroll Saint-Émilion’s cobbled streets and linger in the shady squares over a coffee or a glass of the town’s famous namesake.

Situated in the Gironde départementof South-West France, the village dates back to the 8th century when a Breton monk, Aerrilanus, wandered into a cave overlooking a little unnamed hamlet, set up home and started to perform miracles. The porous limestone on which the village sits provided him with a perfect medium from which to fashion a grotto. Even without such aids as Facebook and Twitter, word of his miraculous healings quickly spread through France and beyond. Saint Émilion had arrived.

The grotto soon became a place of pilgrimage, and after Aerrilanus’ death, his followers carved out immense underground catacombs beneath the church, now known as the Église Monolithe. The church itself was carved from a single block of limestone. It took almost three hundred years to complete and still stands today in the centre of the village. The 198 steps to the top of the tower reward visitors with a spectacular view of the Saint-Émilion vineyards, stretching as far as the eye can see.

For a mere “village” Saint-Émilion has a ridiculous wealth of ancient buildings – thanks to the popularity of Bordeaux wines through the centuries. Yet this beautiful, seemingly untouched, town has had more than its fair share of dramatic history. From the 9th century, the Bordeaux area was plagued with wars, notably between the French and their old enemy, the English. Saint-Émilion changed hands several times between the 13th and 16th centuries. Looting took place each time, and for several centuries the prosperity of Saint-Émilion declined drastically. At one point, after the French revolution, the town was uninhabited for nearly a hundred years.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, the wine trade was booming, and leading the field were the wines of Bordeaux. Saint-Émilion prospered once more. Buildings were restored and life returned to the town as people flocked to take advantage of the great commercial opportunities that were springing up all over the vineyards of the Gironde.

A visit to Saint-Émilion is a must for anyone touring the Bordeaux area, whether you are on a wine trip, or just a voyage of discovery. The Saint-Émilion tourist office arranges a variety of wine tasting opportunities, but even if you have no taste for wine, the town is delightful to explore for its wealth of history. Just make sure you are wearing “sensible” shoes though. As I discovered, the steep cobbled streets were not made for six inch heels.

 

 

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