The medieval village of Saint Emilion is located 40km north-east of Bordeaux in South-West France.
UNESCO added the village and its iconic vineyard on the World Heritage Site list on December 2, 1999.
The first reference to Saint Emilion goes back to the 8th century.
Emilian, a Benedictine monk from Brittany, retreated to a grotto located on the top of a hill overlooking the Dordogne Valley.
The many miracles he performed soon gained him fame.
Indeed, people traveled from far away in order to come and seek advice from the old hermit.
After his death, Benedictine monks built their monastery on the site.
They enlarged the grotto out of the rock in order to built a sanctuary to shelter the holy man’s ashes (current Eglise Monolithe).
Saint Emilion’s gates
Saint Emilion is without any doubt one of these unique sites that you must visit when in France.
The village clings on the hillside and overlooks its vineyard.
Steep and uneven cobbled lanes, locally known as tertres, crisscross the village.
Saint Emilion boasts a wealth of architectural and historical features.
The houses were built with the ocher limestone extracted from the kilometers of local underground galleries.
This results in a subtle harmony of warm colours that evolve with the daylight.
Saint Emilion was built in a natural amphitheatre, at the junction of two hills.
Its medieval ramparts are still standing and quite well preserved.
Five gateways access it: Porte Bourgeoise, Porte Brunet, Porte Bouqueyre, Porte St-Martin and Porte du Chapitre.
Saint Emilion – Porte and Maison de la Cadène
The Rue Gadet leads into Saint Emilion from the valley.
There are two large car parks at the bottom of the hill, however, you can still find some parking spaces along that street.
The picturesque Rue Cadène leads to Place de l’Eglise Monolithe.
The Porte Cadène, a superb Gothic arched gate, spans the lane.
It was built long after the ramparts and is located inside the fortified village.
A superb 15th century timbered-frame house, known as Maison de la Cadène, flanks the gate.
The present house dates ‘only’ from the early 16th century.
It indeed replaces the previous house built in the late 13th century by Guillaume Renaud de la Cadène.
The name Cadène apparently evolved from the Latin Cadena meaning chain.
This suggests that the gate was equipped with a chain in order to control the traffic between the upper town and lower town.
Saint Emilion – Place de l’Eglise Monolithe
The Place de l’Eglise Monolithe is the heart of the village.
It is surrounded by shops, restaurants and cafes and the superb covered market.
Les Halles were once used for the storage and sale of wheat (not wine!).
The beautifully well restored building housed the village hall from the late 18th century until 1902.
The major attraction in Saint Emilion is without any doubt the stunning Eglise Monolithe.
The impressive belfry peaks 133m above the roofs of Saint Emilion and the church square.
The interior of the church was patiently carved out of a single block of limestone.
The monks indeed enlarged the natural caves and galleries between the 8th and the 12th century.
The Eglise Monolithe is the largest monolithic church in Europe and is almost unique!
The interior strikes by the symmetry of its architecture and square pillars that support the belfry.
Hundred and ninety eight steps take to the top of the belfry that boasts magnificent views of the village, surrounding vineyards and countryside.
Ermitage – Catacombres and Chapelle de la Trinité
The Benedictine monks enlarged also the adjacent grottoes in order to create the Ermitage.
The troglodyte chapel is the oldest building in Saint Emilion!
It was shaped as a Greek Cross and contains St-Emilian’s Bed.
The hermit’s armchair was carved from the rock next to the spring where Saint Emilian lived.
A statue of the holy man stands above the altar.
The monks enlarges more underground galleries in order to create an ossuary – Catacombes.
The entrance is located in the cliff by the Ermitage.
The monks erected the Chapelle de la Trinité during the 13th century.
The small sanctuary is a superb illustration of Gothic style.
Saint Emilion – Place du Clocher and Cloister
The Tertre de la Tente, a picturesque but steep and uneven cobbled lane, links Place de l’Eglise Monolithe to the Rue du Clocher.
You’ll find the entrance to the belfry of the Monolith Church on the Place du Clocher.
The square boasts superb views over the village and is a prime site for lunch and a glass of Saint Emilion!
The Tourist office overlooks the square.
It is located in a large building that flanks the cloisters.
The Doyenné (Deanery) was most likely the monks’ refectory.
The entrance to the cloister – Cloître de la Collégiale is to the right of the Doyenné.
Traces of the Romanesque cloister can still be seen in the northern and western galleries.
The Gothic cloister strikes by its architectural elegance.
It was built in the 13th and 14th centuries, but was remodeled during the 15th and 16th.
It has been beautifully restored.
It is still adorned with splendid sculptures and the walls still bear traces of medieval murals.
The impressive Romanesque Collegiate Church is considered one of the most impressive in the department of Gironde.
Both the nave and the main porch (on Place Pierre Meyrat) have retained their original Romanesque features.
The nave is adorned with beautifully restored 12th century paintings, and the porch is still topped with the original tower.
A superb 14th century porch marks the Collegiate entrance on Place Pioceau, on the northern side of the 14th century chancel.
The church contains a magnificent listed organ built in 1892 by Gabriel Cavaillé-Colle and 15th century carved stalls.
Saint Emilion – Palais Cardinal
The Rue de l’Abbe Bergey and Rue Gadet lead to the Porte Bourgeoise.
The gate opens onto the north.
It was also erected next to the vestiges of the Palais Cardinal.
The episcopal palace was built during the 12th century and flanks the ramparts.
Saint Emilion – Tour du Roy
The Tour du Roy – Castel Daou Rey – King’s Tower is another major feature of Saint Emilion.
The square tower peaks above the roofs on the western side of the village.
It is the only intact remaining keep in the Gironde department.
The massive tower was part of the 13th century Château du Roy.
The polemic still goes about who built the ‘castel’.
Indeed, some believe it was the French King Louis XIII.
Others say it was the English Henri II Plantagenêt!
However, we know that the keep was used as village hall until 1720.
It has since found a marvelous use, as it is the place from where the yearly Vintage Banns are proclaimed!
Saint Emilion – Couvent des Ursulines
The Tour du Roy stands nearby the Couvent des Ursulines.
The Ursulines founded the convent in the 17th century.
They also invented the recipe of the famous macarons, the specialty of Saint Emilion!
Saint Emilion – Couvent des Cordeliers
The Porte Brunet is located on the eastern rampart, next to the ruined Couvent des Cordeliers.
The Franciscan Cordeliers erected the monastery in the late 14th century in order to re-establish discipline in the religious community.
The cloister is the only building that escaped destruction during the French Revolution.
It was restored and converted into a quiet public garden that allows a good views of the (restored) church belfry.
A Flamboyant Gothic arch serves as entrance to a series caves hollowed into the rock and used as storage for sparkling white and rosé wines.
Look attentively at the surrounding facades as you’ll discover countless architectural features that escaped demolition.
It takes at least a half day to visit Saint Emilion, however, a whole day would be perfect to allow for wine tasting!
Location: Gironde department – Aquitaine region
Coordinates and map for Saint Emilion: Lat 44.894387 – Long -0.155729