There can be few historic villages in France that attract the same affection and inspire such passion and romanticism as St-Emilion (Saint Émilion). Arguably the most famous viticultural center in France outside the city of Bordeaux itself, this small village is a powerful advertisement for the pleasures of making wine. It is hardly surprising then, that tens of thousands of visitors from all over the globe are drawn to St-Emilion – a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its unspoiled character and its medieval monuments. Boutiques, restaurants, wine shops, and hotels continue to fill its medieval streets, enticing the thirsty visitors with their wares.
A brief history
St Emilion’s history stretches back to Roman times, when the Roman ruler Decimus Magnus Ausonius founded a small property here in the 4th century when the Romans controlled Gaul (France). Ausonius was born in Bordeaux in the early 4th century and after a long career as a city administrator, he retired to what we today know as St-Emilion in AD 383. He was the village’s first officially recorded resident and the first of many to fall in love with the region’s charms and serenity. His name has been immortalized in the famous St-Emilion winery, Chateau Ausone, and today’s vineyards can trace their history back to Roman viticulture in the 4th century.
Gaul had remained under Roman control for several centuries during which time it had become an important territory for the Roman Empire. However, the vandal and Visigoth tribes arrived in the 5th century and the Roman’s control over western Europe collapsed. History makes little mention of this settlement along the Dordogne River until St Emilion is officially founded as a religious center, in the 8th century.
St Emilion’s founding father was, appropriately enough, a Benedictine Monk called Emilian who arrived in the area after swearing loyalty to a local count to manage his finances. Legend has it that Emilian, a bread maker, gave some of his master’s bread to the poor and was ousted from the count’s service as punishment. Dedicating the remainder of his life to worship, Emilian choose the now famous large piece of limestone in the village to begin carving out an entire subterranean monolithic church, a process that would take successive generations of monks over 300 years!
Emilian spent the last decades of his life creating a large cave in which he lived until his death in 787. His work was taken over by the Monks who continued to create a vast network of caves, catacombs and eventually the Church that stands today. During this time, the village was renowned as a major religious center, pilgrims flocked to visit the old dwellings of Emilian and his followers.
Today, the legacy of St Emilion’s subterranean past survives and is a major draw for visitors! As you walk along the village’s quaint medieval alleyways, remember that these limestone streets form the very heart and soul of St-Emilion, having been quarried centuries ago beneath your feet. The Jurade, a center for tourism, organizes tours every day in the summer through the miles of underground passageways and wine cellars that make St-Emilion such a fascinating and distinctive wine town to visit.
After Emilian’s death, the settlement continued to prosper and grew into an important outpost of the Aquitaine province in the 12th century. As the population grew, so did the need for protection and the area’s rulers fortified St-Emilion with a moat, iron gates and a King’s Tower. Far cry indeed from the original religious settlement founded by the Benedictine Monks.
Hundred Years War
St Emilion’s peaceful existence was shattered during the Hundred Years War, a conflict between England and France for control of the French throne and control of her territories. The conflict engulfed France from the mid-14th century right through until the 16th century and St Emilion was captured, fought over and lost by both sides more than once! At the end of the 16th century, the village was in a sorry state indeed with little evidence of its former prosperity. Many of its key monuments and buildings were damaged and the population had declined significantly.
After the conflict with England and other nations ended, St Emilion enjoyed a relatively stable and peaceful existence in the 1600s, a peace which would last until internal social and political tensions erupted into the French Revolution in 1789. This period of great social upheaval and class struggle saw countless members of the aristocracy executed, the working classes rose up against their rulers and scores were settled on both sides. During this turbulent period, the residents of St-Emilion actually vacated the village, leaving it to the mercy of revolutionaries who defaced and pillaged the center. It remained almost completely unoccupied for the next century.
The 19th century would herald better times for the village and slowly but surely, its population returned to these fine limestone streets, encouraged by the growth of the wine trade. The 1800s were a great time for Bordeaux’s winemakers, as their produce was finding massive favor across Europe fueling a newfound era of prosperity for St Emilion’s many Chateaux. The village reaped the benefits of this ‘wine boom’ with unprecedented numbers of tourists and merchants visiting each year. The residents of the area started restoring the town to accommodate the wine trade and to take advantage of the traffic it created.
The winemaking village enjoyed a stable and prosperous existence until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. St-Emilion escaped reasonably unscathed from the conflict and the French government actually relocated from Paris to Bordeaux during the beginning of the War. History repeated itself after the outbreak of World War II, in 1939 and Bordeaux and the surrounding regions were occupied by the Nazis for several years, the Nazi Commander-in-Chief Herman Goring was a big fan of Bordeaux wines.
St Emilion emerged from the conflict undamaged, although perhaps emotionally scarred and has continued to prosper through to the late 20th and 21st century. With the global renown of its wines at an all-time high, this village has never known such good times. Today, it is a “must see” for travelers to the Bordeaux Wine Region. It is a living history lesson, its cellars, and underground passages have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. And yet for all its architectural beauty and rich cultural life, St Emilion is first and foremost a wine town, as evidenced by the never-ending line of vineyards, which stretch in all directions from the old historic center. The quality of these wines has sustained the prosperity of this beautiful village for centuries. Simply put, few places in France can do it better!
Gastronomy & Wine
Two things that the French take very seriously indeed and the citizens of St-Emilion are no exception. French cuisine derives from many varying influences, with a traditional emphasis on fresh, local produce and rich sauces, butter and cream featuring heavily.
St-Emilion, like every French city, has its abundance of typical Bistros, serving the staples of confit of duck and rib eye steaks accompanied of course by the legendary Frites! In fact, the village is famed for its numerous restaurants and local delicacies. Lampreys cooked in red wine and served with a bottle of the region’s finest offering is heavenly! The best district for restaurants seems to be near the old historic center, where several top class eateries are to be found. In the spring and summer months, St-Emilion has a weekly open-air market to explore, selling first-class local produce including cheese, bread, wine, olives, and meat.
Local cuisine is largely based around lamb, beef and an abundance of fresh seafood and shellfish washed down of course with a glass or two of St Emilion. Bordeaux is the world’s largest fine wine region, and for its red wines, the most famous outside France. St Emilion is classified as a Right Bank region, its historic vineyards that lie close to the banks of the Dordogne that have been producing wine since Roman times. Merlot is the dominant variety here, producing structured, complex and sweet smelling wines that are the epitome of elegance. St Emilion’s restaurants and wine shops are well stocked with local offerings and wines from other regions in Bordeaux. The problem is that you are spoilt for choice!
St Emilion monolithic church
This fascinating and beautiful subterranean church was conceived by a Benedictine monk, Emilian, after which the village was named. Legend has it that Emilian and his successors took over 300 years to construct the vast network of underground passages, where Emilian was laid to rest. Highlights include the paintings in the Chapelle de la Trinite and the catacombs. Before you leave, you must climb the 196 steps to the top of the Church’s Bell tower for unparalleled views of this charming medieval village.
St Emilion’s wine and tourism center has been serving visitors an impressive selection of local wines for many years. There is no better way to sample a wide variety of the region’s superb wines in a relaxed, inviting setting. The center offers different tutored tastings and will organize trips further afield, not to mention a veritable treasure trove of information about the area’s history and vineyards.