Saint Emilion

Sometimes, it’s hard to make it past Bordeaux. There is something about the city that always asks us to stay a little longer. I think it’s the silence. I always have the urge to linger until some clumsy waiter shatters a plate and penetrates the unnatural absence of sound that envelops the city after 6pm. But to bear witness to this crime – this cacophony of porcelain pieces played out against the ground – is like combing the sky for a shooting star: you have to wait hard for it.

Cities aren’t supposed to be silent. They are made for sound, like loud, hormonal teenagers with a million thoughts to verbally untangle between skyscrapers, suburbs, and their cellphones. Yet the mystique of Bordeaux is that its silence comes across as benign, a kind of categorical expectation. Nobody questions the stillness of the streets after dark or the polite whispered conversations in the park. Nor does anyone seem to be thrown off balance by the sudden decline in decibel output. They just sip their fine wine, draw elaborate architectural plans in the air with their cigarette smoke – plans for other silent cities I suppose, and smile triumphantly at all that never needs to be shouted.

This perplexing contrast, the silent city, reminds me of my walks through the Basque countryside where I have rounded the crest of a mountain to randomly find a smog-belching factory or an industrial complex in the middle of a green valley. Impossible, I react. It doesn’t match up with the postcard. I have always known a landscape to be a fundamentally binary experience. It can be a noisy city or the serene countryside. It can be industrialized or it can remain untouched, but these hybrid inventions fluster me. It feels wrong to call a beach with a water treatment plant beautiful, yet unjust to cast it aside. I love the Basque countryside, but somehow I must also accept an occasional eyesore in the name of progress. One must strategically take the picture, leaving out the parts less desired.

Yet I am also willing to consider that the silence of Bordeaux is really just a terrible illusion and if so, I blame the Spanish. We always come up from the Spanish border to Bordeaux, and so the city feels like a tomb compared to any boisterous Spanish town. In fact, the lack or excess of noise is an age-old flashpoint between French and Spanish tourists that rears its ugly head every time these nationalities go on vacation together.

Anyway, I digress. I always get stuck on Bordeaux, but the city deserves it own post and its own homage. This time, we were lucky. We broke free from its spell and kept going on the open road until we reached the world-renown wine region of Bordeaux (Department of Gironde). We were saluted by endless rows of grapevine soldiers in rigid formation, who sweltered under the sun in order to protect their wineries and royal chalets. We were reminded of the great names of the Enologic Empire and were humbled by their hand in this breathtaking scenery. They had uncovered the most succulent cure for thirst and as a result, the air was thick with the perfume of paradise. We felt obligated to pay our respects.

Saint Emilion entrance

Saint Émilion

Approximately 35 kilometers outside of Bordeaux sits Saint Emilion, a city that can claim inhabitants as far back as the medieval times. It is famous for many reasons, but I for one, was most impressed by the fact that despite its world-class reputation for wine, there was not one wine-o napping on the doorsteps or tottering through the cobblestone streets. Given the price of this vice, I can only assume this confirms the saying: “The poor get drunk in the streets while the rich get drunk indoors.”

We did not go indoors very often precisely because of this. However, the wine stores in the city center religiously sell the region’s wine so it is possible to skip the fancy wine bars. You can taste a few complimentary samples of their featured wines and take home a box of three varieties for a reasonable price instead. (Make sure it includes a Merlot and a Cabernet, as these are the grape varieties primarily used in this region). This also makes for a great picnic opportunity. I was happy because even when my limited knowledge of wine subtleties became evident, the shopkeepers never took on snooty airs. They were friendly, knowledgeable and not at all pushy – because thanks to the cognitive illusion of sampling wine in the picturesque Saint Emilion instead of your local supermarket – the drink pretty much sells itself.

The town’s geographical position on a steep hillside historically allowed for the separation of High Town and Low Town, or the religious and secular parts of the city. A 12th-century monolithic church carved into the limestone cliff brings the two parts together in the center. The Monolithic Church of Saint Emilion is named after a Breton monk who arrived to the city as a traveling confessor. He was escaping persecution from the Benedictine order and decided to live as a hermit in a cave. His miracle work eventually attracted a following of other monks.

Monolithic Church Saint Emilion

There is a lot more to the monument than meets the eye so a tour of the church is well worth the 8€ per person. (Tickets are sold at the tourism office). A large part of the structure is subterranean and each of its different galleries comes with a fascinating story. You can even examine the modern-day engineering feat that was designed to keep the church’s 53-meter bell-tower intact after water infiltration destabilized its foundation.

After three hours in the town, I announced to Damián that I was ready to get in the car and to continue on with our journey, since we had no plans to blow all of our money on wine. He gave me that look that he sometimes gives when I have completely missed the point of a conversation, or when I forget the capital city of Kazhakstan or cannot recite the most famous work of Kafka and most especially, when I am unable recall the names of all the players on the Argentinean national football team. I am not offended, but rather, used to it. We both love to know things that the other does not know or to use our phones in a race to be the first to acquire that missing knowledge.

“Macarons, Ashley,” he said with an air of condescension. “Macarons.”

Little did I know, Saint Emilion is as equally famous for its macarons as for its wine. The Saint Emilion macaron is a moist, melt-in-your-mouth cookie with a slight almond flavor that is frequently served to accompany the local wines. These macarons are thought to be the original version, first brought to life by the Ursuline sisters who established their monastery in the city in 1620. The recipe was salvaged after the French Revolution and sent to the widow, Goudichaud. She was mother to Madame Grandet, who bore a son, Joseph Grandet. Joseph Grandet has the sole right to produce Saint Emilion macarons today. He still uses the same, surefire religious recipe of the sisters and he sells them (not so cheaply) at 9 Rue Guadet.

I don’t get particularly excited about sweets so I will hold my judgement on the expectations for the Saint Emilion macaron. I will only say that the line to buy went out the door and Damián left the store with eyes as big and bright as a little boy. He had only bought one, that is the diabetic’s dilemma, but one was enough to discover and savor its story. France, once again, had left us dumbfounded, dreamy, and worried if our senses could take anymore pleasure.


Grapevine Saint Emilion


Most alcoholic beverages contain sugar and may cause dehydration. For diabetics (and for anyone, for that matter!), it it is important to drink in moderation. Keep in mind that white wines are more sugary than red wines so red wine may be a be a better option. A 115ml glass of red wine contains 0.5 grams of sugar while a 115ml glass of white wine contains 0.8 grams of sugar.


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