I had an opportunity to visit the village of St. Émilion, in southwestern France during the summer of 2010. The history of Saint-Émilion goes so far back that not too much is known about the area’s beginnings except that a religious figure named St. Émilion settled there in either the 8th or 9th Century AD. Some say he was a confessor; some say just a monk who wanted a quiet place to commune with God.
He built himself a hermitage, sort of a cave, in the limestone cliffs in the village now known as Saint-Émilion. The hermitage is closed to the general public unless you are with a guide, who gets the key from the caretakers. A few stairs lead down into the one-room hermitage. Water still flows from the spring near the entrance. His stone slab bed still remains, as does the chair he carved out of rock. A small white statue occupies a stone slab in the far right corner.
St. Émilion’s hermitage is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, as are some of the surrounding buildings like the Collegiate Cloister, a chapel, the monolithic church, and the catacombs. All of these buildings are really amazing to see, especially the monolithic church that was built out of the limestone cliff. Not much remains in the church. Even the paint was scraped off the walls to use in gunpowder during the French Revolution. However, you can still see some faint outlines of where the paintings used to be, and it is still a magnificent building, full of history. You can also climb up the ramparts and take in beautiful views.
The village itself is also something to explore. Most of the activity is centered around the square near the entrance to the hermitage and the other UNESCO World Heritage sites. Quite a few shops, many selling wine, macarons, or canapés, and charming restaurants grab your attention along the way. It is easy to see how old the city is. Its streets are cobblestone, similar to those in much of Europe, but much older and very narrow. One street in the city is so steep that there is a metal hand rail in the middle.
A trip to Saint-Émilion combines well with a visit to Bordeaux, which is said to be one of France’s “least French” cities. This is due to the fact that it was settled by the Romans in the 3rd Century BC and maintains many of the influences from the English rule from 1154-1453.
While the region is mostly known for its wine, there is much more to Bordeaux. The entire city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, mainly because of its classical and neoclassical architecture, which hasn’t really changed in a couple of centuries. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that three of its religious buildings are stops along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. Bordeaux boasts a 13th Century cathedral where King Louis XII was married. Be sure to take a walk near the river and see the Place de Bourse, a square built to honor King Louis XV. Hundreds of masquerades decorate the buildings in this area. The impressive last remaining city gates and many shops are also in this area.