On Saturday morning I took the regional train from Bordeaux Gare St. Jean to Libourne, (a quick 25 minute, 8 euro ride) where I met up with my new friends. From there it was a mere 10-minute drive to Saint Émilion (and their secret parking spot).
I met Laetitia at a recent wine class where we immediately connected. She lives in Saint Emilion, a place I’d yet to experience. A few weeks and email exchanges later I found myself with these two gals standing in front of a “mono lithos” building on one of the first partly sunny days in weeks.
In the heart of the Bordeaux right bank, in the Saint Émilion AOC wine area sits a historical village dating back to medieval times. At its center looking over an old market square, the monolithic church stands. Unlike most things that are built, this church was carved and is mostly underground.
The church started out as a cave where the monk Emilionis lived in the 12th century. It was entirely carved from the limestone rock. Between the 12th and 15th centuries a gigantic, 4500 ton bell tower was added. The building houses impressive areas including a chapel with well-preserved wall paintings, catacombs, and other ceiling art. A truly amazing, not to be missed building where you’ll learn several legendary tales.
Particularly interesting were the uneven pillars in the center of the church. The weight of the bell tower is unequally distributed over the pillars. Cracks discovered on the vault caused closure of the church for 15-months worth of repair and reinforcement. It was thought the 4500 tons caused the cracks but research revealed underground spring water infiltration caused them. By capillary action, the limestone pillars absorbed water, weakening the pillars. Thick, steel braces currently surround four pillars to maintain a pressure and protect them from mother nature: water and weight.
It was also discovered that when built in the 12th century, drains were carved below the church to evacuate water. Apparently quarry men were aware of the springs and infiltration issues way back then.
Coming up for air we headed to their favorite small, cozy restaurant, Chai Pascal. We’re talking fresh, simple, delicious. Laetitia shared they source ingredients locally, and organically (bio is the French term for organic) when possible. My confit de canard was extraodinarily moist and flavorful. Highly recommend this restaurant!
Next up was Château Villemaurine. The whole of Saint Émilion sits on limestone; Chateau Villemaurine is build over a series of quarries (17 acres). They offer a fantastic, information filled and lantern lit tour, ending with a tasting of two current wines.
Oddly enough, we didn’t visit any château for tasting on this first visit but tasted at Villemaurine and the restaurant. We did drive by Château Cheval Blanc and Angelus on the way back to the train station for yucks!
I’ll be whisking the hubby away from his studies (hopefully soon) for a day trip to Saint Emilion. So much more to explore and taste!