Lazing Around the Limestone Town of Saint-Émilion

Saint-Émilion, about 22 miles northeast of Bordeaux, is fun. Like Bergerac, it is a photographer's delight. It's on a hill so there's some walking, but nobody needed the Nordic walking poles.

Yesterday we had the particular pleasure of Bergerac, a dream of a French Middle Ages town although the end of our day there, at the celebrated Chateau Monbazillac, was a little disappointing. We entered the foyer of the castle to face a velvet rope -- and a rebuff by the attendants with the first frosty faces we’ve seen this trip in France. With our now jaundiced eye we didn’t find them all that enthusiastic either in the tasting room at the end of the driveway. First impressions do tend to linger.

The cows at the Chateau Monbazillac are ceramic; we can’t believe we photographed fake cows but today we’re heading for the town and its church carved out of a limestone cliff: Saint-Émilion.

Saint-Émilion, about 22 miles northeast of Bordeaux, is fun. Like Bergerac, it is a photographer’s delight. It’s on a hill so there’s some walking, but nobody needed the Nordic walking poles. UNESCO paid tribute to this town in 1999 and made it a World Heritage Site: This in the 2nd Century was the first vineyard to be planted by the Romans. The monks who followed town’s namesake, Saint Emilian, continued winemaking and even made it a commercial success.

The town’s population has dropped from 3,000 to 2,000 in the last half-century. Why is not clear. Visitors seemingly come with 2 interests, Bordeaux wine making — interest in wine may be at an all-time high. Others come with little interest in wine but out of personal devotion to or interest in the saint, Emilian. However, guide after guide in Europe remarks how church attendance is the opposite of wine interest – it’s at an all-time low. Those are not just travel guides in Protestant Germany but guides in Catholic France. One told us in Provence that in some areas the only time young people are in church is when they get married! Saint-Émilion, indeed, got headlines in November 2011 when the mayor sold the 14th Century Cordeliers Cloisters for 750,000 euros to a sparkling wine company.

Google Map shows the position of Bordeaux, Libourne (where our Uniworld river boat was tied down) and St. Emilion — all marked with red dots. The Cloisters.

Saint-Émilion has a most involved history. The Benedictine monk Emilian was the financial advisor to a French count. A Breton, he apparently chose to give some of his owner’s bread to hungry poor people and lost his position. Bread was guarded like gold in medieval homes and actually locked up to prevent theft by servants. (That’s maybe why Jean Valjean was considered such a criminal in Les Miserables: he stole bread for his family). Emilian came to this town perched on a limestone hill in the 8th Century and carved space for his home into a cave. Other Benedictine monks joined him and when he died in 787 the group stayed and for 300 years dug into the limestone to create one of the largest monolithic churches in France. We have seen rock churches in Helsinki, Finland and in Cappadocia, Turkey but they were more open to the light; Saint-Émilion was dark and gloomy and photography almost impossible which may be how the town fathers want it to continue.

View of the town from the Monolithic Church. The Church (middle image) and the carved out interior. (bottom image) a breath of sunshine and fresh air after a subterranean exploration.

We had been chagrined to find, at yesterday’s port discussion by our tour director that many passengers on the River Royale seemed to know the hermit monk Emilian story more than we did. However we are health professionals with all the skepticism some enthusiasts bring to events and ideas that don’t stand scientific scrutiny. A Lutheran woman from Ohio and a dour Presbyterian Scot can’t be expected to know the details of the saints, of which apparently there are more than 10,000 in the Catholic Church. US Catholic states 802 saints were canonized May 12, 2013. It also says, in 1983, Pope John Paul II canonized more saints than the popes in the last 500 years combined.

This Aquitaine corner of France has more fun streets to explore even than Provence. Colorful signs, half-timbered houses and, naturally, shops selling wine.

Downtown tribute to wine. On the outskirts the remains of a Dominican convent. The stark wall is the ruin left at the end of the Hundred Years War. The cellars of the Beau Sejour Becot winery.

The cellars of the Beau Sejour Becot ended a great day in Saint-Émilion.

An employee is pleased to show us the new cuves or wine tanks the winery now has. It all looked very high tech and space age!

We photograph workers amongst the vines at the Beau Sejour Becot winery. When we switch to a long lens the smile changes to a frown understandably as the subject’s privacy is violated. Wine tasting.

The end of a pretty perfect day. We return to a favored spot on the Quai des Chartrons for the unexpected Night Tour Uniworld has arranged for us. What a great way to see so lovely a city, one of the most beautiful in France.

Photography by the authors.The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.