France's Saint-Emilion: Echoes of history amid World Heritage-listed vineyards

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Mystery and anomaly are etched into the hillside at Saint-Emilion.

Crumbling walls stand, final vestiges of the town’s 12th century Cardinal Palace. Built to keep out intruders, they are pockmarked with holes once framed by windows and doors — a little too welcoming for purpose. 

The palace was named for Cardinal Villemaurine, a nephew of Pope Clement V. But he wasn’t born for another 200 years. The building’s original identity has been lost.

Founded by a Breton monk, Emilian, in 767 the town is the first vineyard region to be world heritage listed. A grape idea.

The 11th century upper town is newer and is said to sit above 200km of tunnels. The Girondins hid there. These bourgeoisie natives of Bordeaux were hated by the vicious revolutionary leader Robespierre, who accused them of being monarchists and  hunted them relentlessly during his Reign of Terror.

Down a garden well, they entered the tunnels but were eventually caught and taken to Bordeaux along with any of the townspeople who had helped them.

All were beheaded.

I walk steep narrow streets in the shadow of Romanesque churches that block out the sun. The cold, hard cobbles are English. Curious but not such a mystery. 

The stones were ballast brought by ships from nearby Libourne which had arrived for yet another load of fine wine from grapes that had been cultivated by Emilian and the Romans before him. 

These streets are not quite paved with gold but this town grew rich from the wine and the host of religious orders here were similarly wealthy by dint of the 10 per cent tithe they charged the townspeople.

In the cool of the collegiate church, I see the altar sits not centre but to the right, symbolising how Jesus’ head fell across his chest as he breathed his last on the crucifix.

Frescoes, exposed and unprotected, adorn the walls; a stained-glass window of the last supper depicts Judas Iscariot with a blue halo and bags of gold under the table.

An image of an apostle shows him wearing glasses at a time when there were none.

Like the litany of saints, baker and confessor Emilian is credited with miracles. 

If a woman of childbearing age sits on a stool in the tunnels it’s believed she may become pregnant. 

From all over the planet, pinned postcards breaking happy news of impending arrivals paper the walls of the tourism office. 

Scratched into the cliff face is the monolithic church of Saint-Emilion and high above it all, the huge clock tower stabs at the blue. 

Whitewashed houses with sloping slate-tiled roofs cling to the hillside, vines heavy with fruit line the fields.

The town square bustles with tables full of travellers enjoying wine, beer, macarons, wire baskets of French fries, crepes and flat pizzas laden with cheese.

There at the heart of Saint-Emilion, no riddles or enigma, no hidden meaning or myth, just clarity. 

In the soft autumn light, the joy of travellers is plain to see.

Fact File


Saint-Emilion, one of Bordeaux’s best-known wine regions, lies at the foot of the eponymous village. High on the cliff face, Saint-Emilion is lined with fascinating churches and ruins and is on the Dordogne River about 50km east of Bordeaux.


Romanesque churches and great views of the pretty countryside but be prepared to clamber up and down some of the cobblestone streets.


The eight-day Chateaux, Rivers and Wine itinerary operates round-trip from Bordeaux from March to November this year and in 2019. The excursion to Saint-Emilion is one of seven guided tours on the cruise, which costs from $3595 per person in a standard stateroom. Book by March 31 to fly to Europe for $995 per person.

WWW, 13 87 47 and travel agents.


Niall McIlroy visited France as a guest of Viking River Cruises.


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