Going underground in Saint-Emilion

Once we finished our Saint-Emilion scavenger hunt and had some lunch, it was time for our English tour of the underground hermitage and monolithic church so called because it is carved out of one piece of stone in the hillside. In addition to providing a cool respite from penetrating afternoon sun, the tour offers a remarkable view of the town’s origins and what lies beneath the village.

Entrance to the Saint-Emilion monolithic church

Please click on photos to see full-size versions.

You enter the church in the market square, and once you’re past the main door, photos are not allowed – which made me kind of happy as the spaces are so mystical that I felt no inclination to photograph them (instead I’ll share some shots of the eminently photo-worthy bell tower that sits above the church but is not accessible from it). The first stop on the tour is the only one that is above ground: Holy Trinity Chapel, which was built by Benedictine monks on top of the hermitage to protect it. The frescoes in here date from the 13th century and are vivid because the building was used for a number of years by a cooper. The ash generated from the fires used in barrel making coated the paintings and preserved them so that when they were cleaned a little over a decade ago they were revealed in full glowing glory save for a small patch that was deliberately left obscured as for purposes of illustration.

The bell tower of the monolithic church in Saint-Emilion

Directly below the chapel sits the hermitage, the original cave where a teenager named Emilion, fleeing the notoriety that accompanied miracles he had performed in Brittany, lived twelve hundred years ago. The cave is small, but a bed and chair are carved into the wall and a small spring that flows through the cave is said to have almost magical powers, giving sight to the blind for example. Women who want to have babies are encouraged to sit in the chair. Tommy was horrified when Matt suggested that he might sit in it just to see how truly miraculous it is. He was equally horrified when Matt threatened to sit in it himself. (Side note for another post: We discovered on this trip that there are now many things that now horrify Tommy.)

Across from the hermitage is the entrance to the catacombs and church, which was built, it is believed, because the hermitage became a pilgrimage site on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. At one time it is possible that Emilion’s body was laid there, underneath a dome that opened way above where we stood to the sky, but he has long since gone missing without even a relic or two for the church to display. That may be for the better, as I like to imagine (as our excellent guide suggested we do) the pilgrims entering and seeing him intact and miraculously bathed in sunlight in that dim place.

Birds soaring by the Saint-Emilion bell tower

The church is a vast space, the largest of its kind in Europe in fact. Two enormous rows of columns support the ceiling; they are surrounded by metal bars, put in place to support the compromised limestone. At one time the walls were decorated with frescoes, but since the church was used as a saltpeter factory during the French revolution, only faint traces of painting and carved decoration remain, many of them surprisingly pagan – signs of the Zodiac, a naked man killing a dragon that carries four snakes on its back. The boys were fascinated and perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the idea of all the bodies laid to rest around the church especially when Teddy located a visible bone in the floor.

When we emerged the afternoon sun was potent enough to make walking around truly uncomfortable. After some ice cream, we decided that a ride on the Saint-Emilion Petit Train was in order. These tourist “trains” abound in French and Swiss towns – really they are just a tractor or a truck gussied up to look like a steam engine pulling a row of carts, usually with an accompanying guide available in a variety of languages.

In Saint-Emilion I can only recommend the train for the views of the countryside and town it affords; the accompanying audio guide was obviously created and supported by the vineyards and reads like one long advertisement for Saint-Emilion wines, with paeans to their suppleness and minerality. Mix boring commentary with two hot and tired boys, and you have a recipe for a fairly crabby ride.

Crabby boys on the Saint-Emilion Petit Train

But even if the boys weren’t crazy about the train ride, we definitely could have spent a second day in and around Saint-Emilion. For one thing, there are numerous opportunities for wine tasting both in the town (I lost track of how many wine shops there are) and out in the vineyards themselves. I’d be inclined to pack some books for the boys to enjoy while Matt and I did some sampling and spend a little time exploring the gorgeous countryside, enjoying the various vintages and a picnic. Other activities in town that we had to skip were a climb up in the either the bell tower or the King’s Castle and a visit to the Pottery Museum, which is situated underground in one of the oldest quarries in town where the stone for the castle was dug. And of course, the boys would have happily completed the second scavenger hunt (the one we didn’t have time for) as well.

A Saint-Emilion macaron is pretty plain!

We did have one more mission before we left Saint-Emilion to head back to Bordeaux: Macarons. These cookies are all the chic rage on both sides of the Atlantic, but their humble origins are in Saint-Emilion, where they are said to have been first baked by the Ursuline nuns who had a convent in town. Old-school macarons are simpler than their modern counterparts – no garish colors, tropical flavors, or filling. We picked up a box of these chewy, almond-flavored treats, the same shade as the golden buildings in town, at Ferlion Macarons on the Rue Gaudet. This small sweet shop is supposed to be the best in town and promises that their macarons are the “real macarons of Saint-Emilion” made with the 1620 recipe.

Savoring a modest four-hundred-year-old cookie seemed like an appropriate way to bid good-bye to this place, where half of the town’s considerable and ancient beauty lies drowsing beneath the surface.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • Start your visit to Saint-Emilion in the tourist office, where you can book your tour of the underground monuments. You can only visit on a 45-minute tour, and there are a limited number of tours in English available. There’s also a free bathroom here, and you can pick up maps, books about the town in English, and scavenger hunts for the kids.
  • We visited Saint-Emilion in June and the afternoon sun was already a potent force. If you are there in the summer, I recommend spending the morning exploring the town and planning your tour of the underground areas for the time between 2 and 5 when it is hottest. Afternoon would also be a great time to visit some of the caveaux in town for wine tasting – bring some books for the kids and make the most of this opportunity to sample delicious local wine.
  • There are numerous restaurants in Saint-Emilion, many of them clearly catering to tourists. We discovered the excellent Restaurant Les Grion’dines on the Rue des Griondins, where most of the other customers were French. It’s a bit off the beaten track (although not far from the tourist office). The menu here is varied and large enough to please even picky eaters, and the food was delicious, fresh, and beautifully presented. They also have a lovely outdoor patio in the back.
  • I wouldn’t recommend bringing a stroller to Saint-Emilion – the streets are very steep and cobbled and sometimes there are steps.
  • We rented a car to get to Saint-Emilion from Bordeaux; you can also take the train.

Photo of the macaron courtesy of Vincent Ma via Flickr.

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