During our visit to the Cognac region we took a day trip to Saint-Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and it is easy to see why this little town got this distinction in 1999, being the first vineyard in the world to be declared as such.
The moment we entered this town we felt like we had traveled back in time. Every street, every house looks like it has not changed in hundreds of years.
Saint-Emilion lies in the fertile region of Aquitaine in France and was settled as far back as 35,000 to 10,000 BC. The Romans arrived here in 27 BC when Augustus created the province of Aquitania. It is also thanks to the Romans that this region is famous for its wines.
The first Christian monasteries appeared here at the beginning of the 7th century. The town got its name from a monk called Emilian, who, according to legend, sought asylum here from the Benedictine community. Emilian led an eremitic life in a cave and his numerous miracles attracted many companions. Saint-Emilion lies on the Pilgrimage Route to Santiago de Compostela and thanks to this it prospered from around the 11th Century onwards. Monasteries, churches and other religious buildings were founded during that time.
The region itself became famous when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, who later became Kind Henry II of England, and the town of Saint-Emilion became part of the English kingdom.
However, in 1224 it fell back into French hands; some years later the English lay claim to it once more, only for it to return to France, and so it went on for a number of years during the Hundred Years’ War. It finally became permanently French in 1453.
Saint-Emilion is defined by its vineyards and the high quality of the wine produced here (incidentally, only red wines are produced). The town is noteworthy, in comparison to other vineyard regions, for its innovations; it established the first wine syndicate in 1884 and created the first cooperative cellars in 1932.
Everywhere you turn there is a wine shop, ready to let you sample some of its wares. It has to be said, I am not a red wine drinker, preferring white or rose, or best of all champagne, but I tried a couple of reds that even I thought were very nice indeed. This destination is a great combo of exceptionally good wine, great food and fantastic history. Aside from this you will find lots of little independent shops selling everything from handmade soaps to unique jewelry and great little art galleries/shops. One of the best things I spotted to buy was outside a few wine shops. They had little boxes with vines for sale at a very reasonable price; I was highly tempted to buy one for our friends garden!
Even if you are not a wine drinker, this little town is a must visit if you are in the area. The little cobbled roads, some of which are quite steep, just ooze history and make it easy to imagine what life must have been like in the middle ages. There is actually a word for these steep streets, which is unique to Saint-Emilion, it’s “Tertre”, and the town has four of these. The cobbles for these streets arrived here with English merchants, who used them as ballast in their ships and on the return journey left them behind, their place taken by the full wine barrels.
Despite its small size, there is lots to do in and around town. We only had a day here and came specifically to taste the wine, buy some of it, and enjoy a walk through the ancient roads. If you are there for a little longer you should ensure to visit the King’s Castle Keep, take a tour of the underground heritage, tour the pottery museum, join one of the many town walking tours available, and take a tour of one of the local vineyards.
The town has plenty of hotels, campsites, guest rooms and even some flats you can book for your stay and you won’t be short of restaurant choices. The official town’s tourist website (http://www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com/) has a host of options for you to explore.
Be warned, as usual with places like this, it can be quite crowded in the summer, so be prepared! We ended up walking into town just as a bus load of tourists did the same, but thankfully their tour guide stopped every so often, so we managed to outrun them.