Who or what is St Emilion? A well-known red wine; a village in western France; a revered hermit from the 8th century? Actually it is all of these.
I last visited St Emilion in 2000 and, to be honest, all I remember is a lot of tourists and pretentious wine shops selling overpriced wine that I didn’t even like. Well not much has changed. There are fewer tourists, but then it is November. Most are French and a few Japanese taking photos of everything that moves and nodding in unison. The wine is even more expensive and still doesn’t taste that nice and although the salespeople are younger they are still as pretentious as the wine. However, this time I’m determined not to let first impressions sway my opinion of St Emilion.
It’s raining again so I duck into a handy church. This one has a beautiful cloister attached to it and as I exit the other side I find myself in the Tourist Information. They offer lots of different tours to vineyards but also a few historical tours of the village. One catches my eye – a visit to subterranean St Emilion at 2pm. It’s still early so I get my exercise for the day by climbing the 196 steps up the bell tower. It’s the highest point in the village and despite the weather, offers amazing views of the surrounding vineyards.
The village of St Emilion is like an island surrounded by a sea of vines. It is no wonder that the area has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape. I come back down to earth and then I find myself under it, with Lydia, the enthusiastic guide for the 2pm tour. First stop is a small cave where the hermit St Emilion spent 17 years of his life and above this is the Trinity Chapel. It was built in the 13th century and dedicated to St Emilion, but following the French Revolution it was used as a grocery store and then later by a barrel maker. Now it has been restored to its former, if somewhat simple, glory.
Next we go even deeper underground to the catacombs, a graveyard for the nobility and important members of the church. Luckily there are no bodies remaining but the stone carved holes that were once their graves are clearly visible and strange symbols are carved into the walls. It is an eerie place and I’m happy when we move on.
Lydia has saved the best for last though. Hidden in the rock, under the clock tower where I was stood only a few hours ago, is the largest monolithic church in Europe. Carved from the limestone rock it measures 38m by 20m and is 11m high. It seems undecorated but when I look closer I can see carvings in the rock. On the rear wall is a man fighting a beast, above are two seraphim and atop the pillars are astrological symbols of Sagittarius and Gemini.
As we resurface into daylight I realise that there is much more to St Emilion than the overpriced wine and I’m glad that I took the time to scratch the surface.