“Is this wine? I had to sit down. The first time I had an emotional shock. Yes, it happened!”
Our French tour guide Christiana was laughing as she described her first and happily memorable taste of wine from Saint-Émilion, one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux. We were on our way to visit a wine chateau and explore the old medieval town. Our tour bus crossed the Garonne River and headed about 45 minutes east into the countryside of the Aquitaine region.
The landscape was becoming hilly, with gently curving roads and green and yellow hues. Beautiful old limestone buildings dotted the roadside, from simple nearby structures to elegant chateaux in the distance. At times it looked more like a painting than a reality.
As we arrived at the Château de Ferrand, Christiana explained that we would be given a tour of the vat and barrel rooms and have a brief lesson on how to taste wine. She turned the tour over to a sommelier from the chateau, who showed us around the property.
Château de Ferrand sits on 42 hectares – over 100 acres – of the area’s rich clay soil and produces mostly Merlot grapes, with a smaller amount of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a tranquil sort of place that just makes you want to head down the road and hang out among the vines for a while.
As we walked through the vat and barrel rooms, the sommelier gave us an overview of winemaking at Château de Ferrand. He told us that each batch is tasted throughout the process, and several blends are produced.
After the tasting, we headed to the town of Saint-Émilion, about a 10-minute drive from Château de Ferrand. The town dates back to the Middle Ages and was named after the monk Émilion, who lived there in the 8th century in a hermitage carved into a rock. I was immediately taken with the golden hues of the limestone buildings and the winding and extremely steep cobblestone streets.
As we made our way to the Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church, Christiana headed to the tourism office to pick up the keys for the tour. My curiosity was already piqued at the thought of needing a special key to get into an underground church, but when Christiana returned with an old-fashioned-looking skeleton type of key, I was really intrigued. She unlocked the old wooden door and re-locked it once we were inside.
Behind the wooden door was a courtyard surrounded by golden limestone buildings. Christiana told us the story of the hermit monk Émilion, who was a bit of a miracle-worker, curing the sick and becoming such a legend that monks and followers faithful to his memory flocked to the town. We would be visiting the three structures inside the courtyard, and once we entered the buildings, photography would not be allowed.
The first stop was the Holy Trinity Chapel, built by Benedictine monks on top of Émilion’s hermitage in the 13th century. It was a humble little room, with several colorful frescoes serving as the only decoration. Next we headed underground to the original cave where Émilion had lived. The tiny space contained a bed and chair carved into a wall and had a natural spring that Christiana said had been the source of miracles for people seeking cures for their illnesses.
But the really fascinating part of the tour was the underground church and catacombs. We entered through a small door, carefully climbed down a narrow staircase and found ourselves in a large space with high ceilings and rows of supporting columns. The church was hewn out of one piece of rock sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries, and Émilion himself is said to be buried there.
Christiana pointed out a few remnants of frescoes, which were mostly lost when the church was converted to a factory during the French Revolution. She showed us where the altar had been and where the catacombs were. The room had a mystical aura, with interesting zodiac symbols painted on the ceiling. Christiana said that people believe the underground space was once used by the Knights Templar. It made me wonder if Dan Brown had been inspired to write his Da Vinci Code after a visit to Saint-Émilion!
My thoughts of skeleton keys and secret underground meetings were quickly brought to an end as we climbed back up to earth and the wooden door was closed and locked behind us. With some time to explore Saint-Émilion on our own, we had a chance to take in the enchanting village before our trip back to Bordeaux.
Our journey to Saint-Émilion had been one of those moments when what you did a couple of hours earlier seems like it had happened on another day. Sampling wine at a lovely modern-day chateau and exploring the underground world of an eighth-century hermit monk wouldn’t seem to exist in the same place. But in Saint-Émilion it somehow all fits together in a most perfect way.