Had Batman — the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, etc. — been around during medieval times, he would’ve been drawn to the underbelly of a picture-postcard perfect little town aboveground known today the world over for les vins grand crus, Saint-Émilion in southwestern France.
Located in the Gironde department of l’Hexagone’s Dordogne Valley of the Aquitaine region, Saint-Émilion may be famous for the grapes above, but it’s also equally known for its nearly 200 kilometers of galleries and grottoes underground.
It was in one such cave that Émilion, a traveling monk-confessor from Brittany, settled. There, far from the madding crowd, he devoted his new life of solitude and prayer to the Almighty. Eventually canonized by the Vatican, Émilion evangelised the local population and created what went on to become a major monastic center that his followers named after him.
The town of Saint-Émilion, with its fabulous underground monuments, owes its birth and growth to the humble monk and his earthly hermitage.
Among its many treasures, Saint-Émilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts one of Europe’s largest underground monolithic churches, carved out of the limestone rock back in the 11th and 12th centuries, and topped off aboveground by the impressive 53-meter tall spired bell tower, the highest point in the area.
A rocky promontory, Saint-Émilion, with its narrow cobblestoned tertres (steep walkways), is the epitome of southwestern France’s laid-back joie de vivre.
Where to Dine
Having spent a few days meandering along the cobblestone of Saint-Émilion, I found two outstanding eateries worthy of your fork and appetite that I highly recommend.
Les Giron’dines – 5 Rue des Girondins – t. +37 05 5724-7772 – Sitting at the top of the town where the streets are relatively flat, Les Giron’dines sports a small terrace for outdoor dining under huge umbrellas with rooftop views.
Everything on the menu is mouthwatering, creative and so delicious. Make sure you cap your meal off with a slice of the house dessert specialty: the rustic lemon meringue pie.
Best value for your euro is to order from the pre-determined menu vice a la carte. For approximately 33€ (43 USD), you’ll be treated to a three-course dinner, with a wide selection to choose from for each course. Sorry, wine, water and coffee are not included in the menu price.
Amelia Canta – 2 Place l’Eglise Monolithe – t. +33 05 5774 4803 — At the bottom of the aforementioned steep tetres, all merging into Saint-Émilion’s main square, sits the lively restaurant-brasserie-crèperie-bar, Amelia Canta. At first glance you’ll think you’re at a tourist trap, but not to worry. Locals and internationals collide, in a friendly way, at tables set outside along the cobble and under the shimmering starlit sky (weather permitting) and the town’s iconic bell tower.
With a menu as vast as the Aquitaine, you’re sure to find something to satisfy your hunger. Highly recommended is one of Amelia Canta’s signature dishes, carré d’agneau rôtiIf (roasted rack of lamb).
Like in other French eateries that I’ve sampled, your best bet is to select from the Amelia Canta’s rather large pre-determined menu. For less than 23€ (30 USD), you can select from a variety of choices to customize your appetizer, main course and dessert menu. Je suis désolé, but wine, water and coffee are not included in the menu price.
A visit to Saint-Émilion is not complete without experiencing at least one private wine-tasting at any number of world-class local chateaus (wineries) or wine shops.
It is here in the Appellation Saint-Émilion where mastering the grape was first introduced by those pesky Romans of Augustus back in 27 BC. The legions of the empire felled the nearby Cumbris forest and created the first vineyards of Saint Emilion by grafting new varieties of grape that quickly and easily took root.
Since the Romans tamed the earth, local vintners haven’t looked back.
Normally, there’s an approximate 7€ (9 USD) per-person charge for a wine tasting session, regardless of the vintages sampled, which may or may not include a tour of the property’s wine-making facilities and cellars. Some chateaus waive this fee if you purchase wine from their shop at the end of the session.
Here are two of the chateaus that I visited and tasted their coveted grand cru blends.
Chateau des Laudes – just outside Saint-Émilion proper along the Route de Saint-Christophe des Barcles – t. +33 06 1294 1598.
Four wines were put to the test with detailed explanations of each along with a how-to primer on basic wine tasting by our expert host.
No tour was included with the tasting, but the fee was waived when I carted off several bottles of their finest.
Chateau Cardinal Villemaurine – Saint-Émilion proper – t. +33 05 5724 6440. Long on the tour, but short on the tasting; only one blend was offered up to the gods this day.
The tour, quite detailed by the very knowledgeable guide, took us through the in-house wine-making process followed by a tour of the centuries-old cellars down among the kilometers of underground caverns that wind around the chateau and the adjoining vineyards above.
Although I purchased wine after the tour, the fee was not waived.
If you go
For complete tourist information, in English, visit the Saint-Émilion Office of Tourism website. Just click HERE.
With a rich history, great sights, an abundance of gastronomy on every corner and place (square), and award-winning wines for tasting, what’s not to like about it.
Saint-Émilion, a camera-ready medieval town that was truly built from the [under]ground up.
©The Palladian Traveler