Thirty-five miles east of Bordeaux lies a 12th-century village cloistered within its sun-drenched vineyards. Its cobblestones are smooth with wear; its ancient cathedrals and monasteries are mere shells, bleached and sanded by the elements, yet the spirit of St. Emilion has been little touched by the centuries. The inhabitants of this thriving wine-producing village live today in a marriage of seasons and labor that has existed for over a thousand years. The serene and unaffected beauty of its medieval past lingers, making St. Emilion a treasure worth seeking out.
We arrived in St. Emilion on a sunny, mid-September afternoon by local bus from Libourne. The bus discharged us, along with a half-dozen school-children in frocks, at a dusty corner of the town's main intersection, in front of a three-star hotel and the adjacent ruins of a 13th-century palace of cardinals.
The vineyards begin 10 feet beyond the crosswalk, stretching for miles and encompassing some of France's finest wine-producing chateaus. Wine, St. Emilion's major source of income and notoriety since the third century A.D., has penetrated every aspect of life here. On the outskirts of town stands a farmhouse that has planted in its front yard not a tricolor but, a large, South American pampas grass plant. It has been naturalized, however, its plumes baptized in St. Emilion wine.
A policeman's lead sent us across the village to Les Petunias, an alternative to the town's frequently booked hotels. This quaint boardinghouse, whose name is taken from the festive flowers adorning its window boxes, has been in operation for half a century. The proprietress, Madame Margouty, is 94. She was adamant about the 100-franc price. "After all," she explained, "for the privilege of sleeping in the same room as my grandfather's oak armoire you have to expect to pay something."
Since the Middle Ages, the armoire has served as a repository for important documents and possessions, making it a focal point of provincial tradition. These massive, hardwood chests, often ornately carved with blossoms and fruit, are the pride and joy of many French households.
History permeates St. Emilion; its age-old tradition of wine-making flourishes today in its vineyards and wine cellars, bringing a sense of continuity and immutability to village life. In addition, St. Emilion's wealth of ecclesiastical ruins has helped to preserve the town's distinctive medieval flavor.
Our accommodations secured, we set out to explore the town. One block up Madame's cobblestone street lies the main square. Concessions to our modern era -- a crepe shop and a grocery store -- receded from our vision as we confronted the Eglise Monolithe, a 9th-century cathedral carved from St. Emilion's bedrock. The structure, whose carved Gothic portals are among the finest examples of 13th-century Bordelais art, contains the tomb of the village's patron saint, St. Aemilianos. Close by is the spot where the 8th-century hermit is said to have dwelled.
Why the saint settled in this region is unknown. According to one theory, he was sidetracked on his way to or from the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela; St. Emilion is located near the traditional pilgrim's route south (today the village is a pleasant drive from Bordeaux along Rte. 89). Or, he simply may have wanted to partake of the region's already renowned vintages. In any case, his disciples founded a collegiate church in his adopted home, and St. Emilion grew into an important monastic center.
We then climbed above the square to St. Emilion's upper level (the town is situated partly on a plateau on the right bank of the Dordogne River and partly in a ravine). There, the cathedral's magnificent bell tower takes flight over its ancient dome. A few yards away, guests at the four-star Hostellerie de Plaisance sipped drinks on its terrace and shared the panorama. Above the town's honey-colored stone and tile rooftops rises the King's Tower, a 12th-century square dungeon built by Louis XII.
That evening we treated ourselves to dinner at La Commanderie, a moderately priced hotel and restaurant where, for 65 francs, we enjoyed one of our best meals in France.
The following morning we rose before dawn. The streets were silent, shutters like eyelids sealed tight. Soon grape harvesters would arrive to wash away sleep in the waters of the lavatoir (a shallow rectangular pool used since medieval times as a community wash and laundry basin). We wound our way through narrow streets to a ridge on the edge of town, arriving as a blur of gold lit the distant hills. As the sun climbed between the silhouettes of dungeon and Gothic tower, its early rays burned off the morning mists and warmed the sleeping fruit.
It was harvest time. Through a made-to-order opening in a stone wall we spied the armies of vines. Clusters of black grapes swollen with juice, lustrous in their nacre of yeast, spilled toward the earth. Here on the plains and slopes of St. Emilion, the vineyards represent more than so many tons of grapes or millions of francs in export. They symbolize tradition and the lyricism of man's cooperation with nature. A man in a beret glided by us on a three-wheeled cycle, grape shears and a handkerchief in his basket. Another day had begun in St. Emilion.
We walked back to our room for baguette and grape juice (the unfermented variety); Madame stopped serving breakfast in bed when she turned 92. We found her upstairs cleaning the room of the only other guest, a quiet, middle-aged man here as a harvest consultant. In the summer all five rooms are occupied; in the autumn she prefers to keep it to one or two -- she says that she needs the rest.
As check-out time approached, we moved our bags into the tiny salon of Madame Margouty's first-floor apartment. A community of photographs in silver frames dominates the room. One photo shows Madame with her two sisters; three wavy-haired women, arms linked, they laugh into the camera. She has outlived both of them and their children as well.
Madame Margouty identified a portrait of a robust, mustachioed young man in uniform as "my handsome boy." It was her husband; a soldier who always volunteered for the most dangerous missions, she injected, despite her pleas to him to refrain. He was killed in the fighting at Verdun in 1916, at the age of 31. They had been married only two years and had no children.
Madame visited the battlefield 65 years ago. "So many little white crosses," she recalled.
For Madame Margouty, the history, vineyards and architectural treasures of St. Emilion are secondary to its importance as home. During World War II, she chose to lodge refugees in her house rather than German occupation forces. Those were hard, hungry years for her and for Les Petunias as well; refugee children peeled away its paint and paper for entertainment.
Many residents of St. Emilion suffered losses during those years of war. A close friend of Madame's had been forced to house a German soldier in the bedroom of her only son, a prisoner of war; quartered there as well was the family heirloom, an antique oak armoire. One afternoon Madame's friend found her armoire's mirror in shards -- a victim of the German occupation and two emptied bottles of vintage St. Emilion.
It was almost noon when we made our way through the village's antique streets to its upper tier, anecodotes from St. Emilion's more recent history still fresh in our minds. As we crossed an exterior courtyard filled with barrel hoops and machinery into the Cloister of the Cordeliers, we entered the 14th century. There, in a sun-dappled glade, stood the ruins of a medieval cloister. Its two surviving colonnades were crowned, not with acanthus leaves, but woodland fern. The apparent anachronism of plastic wine-tasting tables amid the slender columns only reaffirmed the inseparability of St. Emilion's viticulture and history.
Three steps led us through a handsome stone archway and into a room of gray stone. Cascades of ivy flowed over its walls; an elegant stairway lead to a second story, long disappeared. Through empty window frames, warmed in autumn light, we glimpsed foliage and our ubiquitous neighbors, the vines. Nearby, a medieval chapel lay exposed to the intrusions of nature and human eyes -- only its apse remained intact.
Below this monastery, and elsewhere in the village, winds a network of man-made grottoes used for the storage and fermentation of local wines. As we walked down the steep and dimly lit corridor of the cloister's own wine cave, the echoes of men's voices and the grind of lifters surfaced from the tunnels beneath us. Webbed with cocoons of black mold, the cavern's walls were slick with moisture. Vapors of grape, earth and must enveloped us, and outside, the lusty fragrance seemed to waft amid the ruins.
We sauntered back to Les Petunias, where we collected our bags and bid au revoir to Madame Margouty and to St. Emilion. A single day of walking St. Emilion's medieval streets, meeting its people and sampling its wine and regional cuisine left us with vivid and poignant memories of this sanctuary in the Bordeaux.