Vineyards glow in the morning light, surrounded by ancient walls decorated with moss. Crumbling ruins dot the fields, testament to the beauty of past architecture. In steep, cobbled streets of the town, we imagine occupation of the region stretching back to Neolithic times, the many caves making perfect homes for primitive tribes.
Situated on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the village name was inspired by a monk from Brittany. Interestingly, after Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, in 1152, it was ruled by the Angevin King of England, Henry 11.
In the 8th C, Emilion, a Breton monk fleeing persecution from the Benedictine order, took up residence in one of the many grottoes carved into rocks. He lived there for the last seventeen years of his life, performing miracles and attracting a big following.
It is said Romans planted the first grapes at St Emilion in the 2nd C, shortly before the end of their occupation. Many monks joined Emilion. They recognized the quality of the wine being produced, and its commercial possibilities. Since then, St Emilion has grown into one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, which is the largest wine growing area in France. Most of the best wines are blended, typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Monolithic Church was built in the 12th C, after St Emilion’s death, and is on three levels. First a pilgrim site and now World Heritage, I was surprised at the vast space and high, vaulted ceilings cut out of the limestone beneath the medieval town. Most of the church pictures and treasures were sold during the French Revolution, and many of the frescoes have been destroyed.
By the 18th C, the church suffered severe structural weakness and risked collapse, due to constant infiltration of water into supporting stone columns. Initial attempts at a solution only exacerbated the problems.
A team of European geologists, engineers, architects and international experts conferred, eventually developing measures which have rendered the building safe. Two rows of columns, surrounded by protective metal bars are part of the solution, which also includes restored drainage, part of the original concept.
In the dim light we took care walking on the uneven dirt floor. Gazing at Emilion’s bed we noted he was a man of small stature. And there was his chair, carved into the wall. Women who wish to conceive sit there now, and the miracle happens…A nearby spring is also said to possess magical powers. Anyway, miracles or not, we decide Emilion deserved to become a saint, spending so much of his lifetime underground, and in dim candle light. A few clusters of ferns grow there now, beneath electric lights.
Outside in glaring sun, we glimpsed the tower of the Monolithic church against a brassy sky. I felt ravenous, more than ready enjoy our luncheon of Fromage de Chevre in puff pastry, Coq Au Vin and Soup au Fruit. As for le vin rouge, it was the finest of our trip – we were still talking of it days later. There’s only one word for it: superbe!