Apparently the town producing one of our favourite French wines is the oldest wine-producing town in France and we were keen to view it. The town clings on the side of a south facing hill and the belfry acts as a great orientation. We were mightily impressed of the view down over the cluster of red pantiled roofs from the Place des Creneax, but having struggled up the tower (you’ll need to be fit to manage this one) there is a more superior view over the town and the surrounding countryside—the regimented fields of meticulously cared for vines.
Although the town has a high reputation for its wine it should also be known for its underground church. The Eglise Monolithe is the largest underground church in France and it must have involved blood, sweat and tears as centuries of workers bludgeoned their way into the hillside. Initially the hermit, St Emilion carved his home into the rock back in the 8th century and in this small compact "residence" he had running water (a natural spring), a Chair (hewn out of the rock), and a bed (identified as the crudely formed ledge). Trinity Chapel was built, by Benedictine monks, in the 13th century as a sanctuary to celebrate the life of St Emilion. It is still possible to see parts of the original fresco, including a scene allegedly of St Emilion stooped in prayer. Personally my imagination let me down at the point that the tour guide (you can only view the church with a local guide) explained this to us.
The church itself is just incredible and this huge place of worship has three aisles, hefty square pillars, impressive vaulting and intriguing carving of angels and monsters around the altar. Apparently it was covered in murals in its early days but over the generations the damp conditions have made it virtually indistinguishable. Whilst her you will be shown the catacombs where three chambers, moulded out of the limestone rock, were initially used as a cemetery but later as an ossuary.
Next to the belfry are St Emilion’s cloisters. I just love to wander the cloisters, enjoy the calmness and enjoy the sense of history that accompanies them. Somehow they never seem to loose their mystic and I enjoy the smell and the tactileness of the limestone environment. I can almost hear the chants of those 14th-century monks!
If you're wondering what happened to all the rock dug out for the church then look no further than some of St Emilion's ancient houses. Many of the dwellings are seriously chunky structures with thick walls (cool in Summer and warm in Winter) with higgledy-piggledy roofs giving them a sense of real character.
There are plenty of cellars to call in and sample the local wine and the town has some great restaurants serving up local delicacies. You don't have to pay high prices to eat well in St Emilion. Just feel the atmosphere!