The Hermit Emilian
The magnificent medieval village of St-Emilion overlooks the Dordogne Valley and is located 40km slightly north-east of Bordeaux in the Gironde département in South-West France.
Both the village and the mythical vineyard were listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO on December 2, 1999.
St-Emilion appeared during the 8th century when a Benedictine monk from Brittany, Emilian, retreated in a cave atop the hill and near a spring.
The many miracles he performed quickly gained him fame and people traveled from far away to come and seek advice from the old hermit.
After his death, the grotto where he lived was patiently enlarged out of the rock and transformed to house his remains.
St-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 the outstanding vineyard that surrounds it.
You just have to stroll along the steep and uneven lanes locally known as tertres.
You will discover a wealth of architectural and historical features at each street corner.
The village was built with the solid ocher limestone extracted from the kilometers of underground galleries which run under the site.
This results in a subtle harmony of warm colours which vary in shade with the intensity of the light as the day progresses.
Watching the sun setting down on the roofs of St-Emilion is one of the most enjoyable sights.
Built in a natural amphitheatre at the junction of two hills, St-Emilion is still protected by a fairly well preserved and restored stone wall pierced with five gateways known as Porte Bourgeoise, Porte Brunet, Porte Bouqueyre, Porte St-Martin and Porte du Chapitre.
Discover them by strolling along the steep cobbled lanes that follow the interior of the ramparts.
Porte and Maison de la Cadène
Coming from the valley you enter St-Emilion by the Rue Gadet where you will find parking spaces along the pavement if you have missed to two large car parks located at the bottom of the hill.
Farther up the street you will find the Rue Cadène that leads to the Place de l’Eglise Monolithe.
The picturesque lane is span by the superb Gothic arched gate Porte Cadène which was built long after the ramparts and is located inside the fortified village.
The gate is flanked by a superb 15th century timbered-frame house known as Maison de la Cadène.
The present house dates from the early 16th century when it replaced the house built in the late 13th century by Guillaume Renaud de la Cadène.
It is believed that the name Cadène evolved from the Latin Cadena meaning chain and would suggest that the gate was equipped with a chain to control the traffic between the upper town and lower town.
Eglise Monolithe and Halles – Covered market
The Place de l’Eglise Monolithe is obviously the heart of the village.
You will find shops and restaurants and cafes but also the superb covered market or Halles which was 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 to 1902.
The main attraction in St-Emilion is without any doubt the stunning Eglise Monolithe whose belfry peaks 133m above St-Emilion’s roofs and the Place de l’Eglise Monolithe.
The monks of the Benedictine convent founded near the cave where St-Emilion had been buried hollowed the adjacent grottoes to create the Ermitage.
The troglodyte chapel is the oldest building in St-Emilion.
It was shaped in the form of a Greek Cross and houses the hermit’s armchair known as St-Emilian’s Bed that was carved inside the rock and near the small St-Emilion Spring.
A statue of of the saint hermit stands above the altar.
Other underground galleries were enlarged and used as ossuary – Catacombes for many centuries. You will see their entrance in the cliff by the Ermitage.
The monks built the Holly Trinity Chapel – Chapelle de la Trinité during the 13th century.
The small sanctuary is a superb illustration of Gothic style.
The interior of the Eglise Monolithe was patiently carved out of a single block of limestone by enlarging the existing caves and galleries between the 8th and the 12th century.
It is an almost unique feature.
The Eglise Monolith is the largest monolithic church in Europe.
The interior strikes by the symmetry of the architecture and of the square pillars supporting the belfry.
Hundred and ninety eight steps will take you atop the tower.
The climb is worth it as you will enjoy one of the most magnificent views over the village, the surrounding vineyards and countryside.
Collegiate Church and Cloisters
You have to climb the Tertre de la Tente, a lovely but very steep and uneven cobbled lane to reach the Rue du Clocher and the Place du Clocher where you will find the entrance to the belfry of the Monolith Church.
The square offers a superb view over the village.
It is a great place to stop for lunch and a glass of wine.
There you will find the entrance to the Tourist office that was set up in a large building that flanks the cloisters.
The building is known is as the Doyenné (Deanery) and is believed to have been the monks’ refectory.
You will find the entrance to the cloisters to the right of the Doyenné.
Traces of the Romanesque cloisters – Cloître de la Collégiale can still be seen in the northern gallery that flanks the collegiate and the western gallery.
The Gothic cloisters which strike by their architectural elegance were built during the 13th and 14th century, and remodeled during the 15th and 16th.
They have been beautifully restored and you will be able to admire splendid sculptures and the remains of medieval wall paintings.
The huge Romanesque Collegiate Church (Collégiale) is considered one of the most impressive churches in the département of Gironde.
The nave, adorned with 12th century paintings beautifully restored, and the main entrance porch topped by the remains of a church tower (on Place Pierre Meyrat round the corner) , have both retained their original Romanesque style.
The statues of the Apostles on its tympanum were partly destroyed during the Wars of Religion then during the French Revolution (1789).
A superb 14th century porch marks its entrance on Place Pioceau on the northern side of the 14th century chancel that houses a magnificent listed organ built in 1892 by Gabriel Cavaillé-Colle and 15th century carved stalls.
While on Place Meyrat have a look at the elegant Classical building built against the ramparts.
You will discover the top of the roof of the Logis de Mallet de Roquefort, peaking above that of the newer building.
The mansion was built during the 15th century and was entirely integrated into the newer building, and if you walk towards the Avenue du 8 Mai 1945 you will clearly see the former crenellated watch-path that passes underneath its roof.
This is the original layout of the mansion!
If you follow the Rue de l’Abbe Bergey and Rue Gadet you will arrive at the Porte Bourgeoise which opens onto the north and stands near to the vestiges of the Palais Cardinal, the episcopal palace built against the ramparts during the 12th century.
Tour du Roy
The Tour du Roy – Castel Daou Rey (King’s Tower) is another major feature of the village.
The square tower that peaks above the roofs on the western side of the village is the only intact remaining keep in the Gironde département.
The massive tower was part of the 13th century Château du Roy.
The polemic still goes about who built the castel…some believe it was the French King Louis XIII, others say it was the English Henri II Plantagenêt!
The keep was used as village hall until 1720 and has found a marvelous use since as it is the place from where the yearly Vintage Banns are proclaimed.
Couvent des Ursulines
The Tour du Roy stands nearby the Couvent des Ursulines, a convent founded during the 17th century the sisters who invented the recipe of the famous macaroons, the specialty of St-Emilion.
Couvent des Cordeliers
You will find the Porte Brunet on the eastern side of the village and near the ruins of the Couvent des Cordeliers, a monastery erected in the late 14th century by the order of the Franciscan Cordeliers to re-establish discipline in the religious community.
The cloisters escaped destruction and have been restored and converted into a peaceful garden for those who want to escape the busy village centre.
From there you can visit the vestiges of the 15th century church belfry supported by two arches lying on the top of each other.
A Flamboyant Gothic arch that still stands leads to a series caves hollowed into the rock and used as storage for sparkling white and rosé wines.
Look attentively at the facades of the surrounding buildings and you will discover countless architectural features that escaped demolition.
It takes at least a half day to visit St-Emilion, a whole day would be perfect as there is a lot to discover.