Saint- Émilion – A Jewel of a Town

When a place is especially beautiful, the French call it a bijou or a precious jewel.  In that sense, Saint-Émilion is definitely a bijou in the heart of Bordeaux with its narrow streets, monolithic church and vineyards which have survived intact from 11th cc.

Rooftops, Saint- Émilion
Rooftops, Saint- Émilion

Today Saint- Émilion and all the surrounding area is a Unesco World Heritage site, which is a reason for pride for the French and a present to us wine lovers.

Saint- Émilion at night
Saint- Émilion at night

The old medieval city owns it name to a very pious young man called Émilion who came to the region in the 8th cc . He found it so peaceful he decided to live as a hermit. So he carved a cave of 15 square metres out of limestone, dedicated his life to prayer and after a while started to perform miracles. His reputation helped to make the town a pilgrimage site and other Christian orders followed suit. Among them the Benedictines proved to be very industrious, they not only built the town of Saint- Émilion , they also managed to carve themselves the largest monolithic underground cathedral of Europe in just 40 years.  What I especially liked was how they used the Zodiac calendar in their planning and architecture; letting the stars guide them in the outlining of their town.

The magnificent underground cathedral was once covered with carvings and paintings, some of which were inspired from the paintings at the cave churches of Cappadocia in Turkey.  Unfortunately after the French revolution when all religious assets were nationalised, its walls were scraped to obtain saltpetre to be used in guns, only leaving a fraction of its original glory.

All-in-one : Church, Cathedral and Hermit's cave
All-in-one : Church, Cathedral and Hermit’s cave

Now a Romanesque church and its catacombs rests just over the underground cathedral and the hermit’s cave, adding another dimension to this medieval town.

Today the little town hosts two cathedrals, nice bars and restaurants, numerous wine boutiques who are selling any imaginable produce & vintage & gadget .

Canelé
Canelé

One of my favourites  is Madame Blanchez’s small patisserie that is specialised in heavenly canelè and macarons.  Canelè is a pastry with a soft and tender custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust. For centuries Bordeaux wine makers used egg whites to cleanse the wine from remaining sediments.  Just before bottling they used to scrape 4-6 egg whites to a barrel and wait until the egg whites along with remaining sediment rest at the bottom and they get the clear wine. Being good merchants they used to sell the unused egg yolks to neighbouring patisseries that make a special desert called Canelè from all these egg yolks.

Another popular shopping item here are the wine salts;  salts flavoured with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. I bought couple of boxes and it makes a great gift. I also use it as a finishing touch right before serving a dish (it goes great with any kind of meat and fish) or to decorate a plate by rimming it with a bit of olive oil and then sprinkling the salt. They also go nicely with fresh baguette, virgin olive oil and a bottle of wine.

To our delight a new aspect of Saint- Émilion became apparent near sunset.  All of a sudden the sky was full of hot-air balloons, adding more colour to this ancient city.

sunset
Sunset over the vineyards

It’s impossible to talk about Saint- Émilion without mentioning its beautiful vineyards and wine, which Louis IV called ‘ the nectar of Gods’. So, not surprisingly Saint- Émilion wines have their own classification and own patron saint ! Whereas all other wine growing regions are protected by St. Vincent , Saint- Émilion producers chose St. Valerie , a saint that doesn’t appear anywhere else, to be their patron saint. It seems to work just fine ; the little town is buzzing with tourists and wine enthusiasts , all shops are doing good business and this years’ harvest was bountiful.

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