September 1, 2013

Wine and Church ... Church and Ruins

Vineyards were first planted here by the Romans before the 2nd century AD. 

Bordeaux. St. Emilion. This is serious wine country, the source of what I refer to at home as "St Emilion - the - never - to - be - afforded - French - wine." The landscape is filled with vineyards, as far as the eye can see.The grapes are close to ripe, and soon to be harvested.

I saw many more red grapes than white

St. Emilion is, of course, a town as well as a wine. That town, historic as it is, now obviously caters to a wealthy tourist market (I am told American, Chinese and Japanese, in who knows which order, and I certainly saw a lot of Germans) and it is end-to-end full of wine stores. Wine is as important, as much a part of its very essence, as pepper is to Espelette, where I visited last year. The stores reflect that culture. One of the many things I love about France is that foods are a part of the terroir, the food reflects the soils, exposure, water, temperatures of the specific land they grow in. And so foods vary, from valley to valley, ridge to ridge, town to town. A Bergerac wine is not a St. Emilion wine. The two towns are less than 35 miles apart.

A particularly attractive wine shop. 

But there is more history here: a collegiate church, founded by monks in the 8th century, reformed in the 12th century, still containing medieval art on its walls, including I think, these frescos and reliefs. There are Roman ruins that I did not see.

Fresco detail from the Collegiate Church
Not only is Eleanor of Aquitaine often close by, so is Joan of Arc

Built as an abbey church in the 11th century, it is now the collegiate church.

Fire and warfare destroyed much, though not all of the old walls and gates. The oldest now extant dates, I think, from the 15th century. If you look carefully you may see the carved dolphins. We are not far from the sea here, nor far from Pays Basque, and by the middle ages, Basque sailors had been traveling the seas for many centuries. Bordeaux was a major port in Eleanor of Aquitaine's time, exporting the red wine of Cahors to England, among other goods.

Town gate. Walking in bike shoes with recessed cleats, this was steep and slippery.

The oldest existing house in town

These are dolphins swimming. Perhaps the original owner went to sea with the wine trade.

After St. Emilion, I rode quickly to Montcaret, for the Gallo-Roman ruins found at the Site Archeologique de Montcaret, there are not to be missed. Well, I rode not so very quickly, because I always choose the little white roads on the map. That doesn't mean much if you haven't seen the maps, but these are local roads, often only one lane wide, and sometimes unmarked. Not all are included on the maps. So, I had a lovely tour of several of them, as I made the wrong turn, or unanticipated turns anyway, probably more than once, until arriving at the main road that I wanted. I ended up a mile or so further north than I aimed for on the D road.

What's a D road? A departmentale road, marked on my Michelin maps either by red or yellow lines, thinner or thicker. Red lines are more travelled, yellows usually less congested. A thinner line means a narrower roadway, whether red or yellow. When possible, I ride on the little white roads, sometimes departmentale roads, sometimes local roads.

Once in Montcaret the first thing I saw was the church, not what I expected. It turned out that this 11th century church was built on, using stones from, the Roman villa.

The 11th century Romanesque church was built with stones from the Roman villa

Remains of the Roman villa, with the hot bath under the structure to the right

The church was built right above and onto the ruins

Some of the original stones remain today, along with this carving

The Roman villa here was large, and the mosaics must have been breathtaking, because the remains of them are beautiful. I am told that the Romans were still in the area (though not I think, with a vibrant intact civilization) in the 8th century. By the 10th century, this magnificent complex was partially ruined, and Benedictine monks built a romanesque church on top of part of it, using (one could say recycling, though it largely destroyed the Roman site) its quarried stone.

Tile floor from the villa, which was occupied for 400 years, from the 1st to 5th centuries AD.

The mosaics are strikingly complete. I asked, and was told the archeologists are no longer finding tiles.

Later Christians used the site as a burial ground. (By then, the Roman ruins were well underground.)

It was used as a Christian burial site. Did they not see, or ignore, the mosaics they  dug through to bury the corpses?

It was discovered in the 20th century and painstakingly uncovered. A treasure of a site to visit.

At the ruins I met an English cyclist, also touring, who was staying in town, and also riding up the Dordogne tomorrow.

View 2013 Stage 1 Bordeaux to Montcaret in a larger map



  1. Fabulous pictures. You have the eye of the reporter, archeologist, story-teller! Hope your legs are those of a cyclist!!!

    1. Thank you George! It is all such fun, there are many incredible stories everywhere I look. .... And the legs ... en effet, ce sont les jambes d'une cycliste touristique d'un âge... comment dit-on, peut-être ... avancè?! Not at all the legs or lungs of a racer ... but then they needn't be.

  2. Fantastic. I remember St. Emilion well. It was the place I found out that you just can't rock up to a vineyard in September with no work permit and ask for work picking grapes. Now that I have a job it looks like a nice to place to give a 2nd chance.

    1. Hi Gerry,

      The countryside is lovely ... but don't hold your breath for a job picking grapes. Work permit or no, I hear that it is mostly all mechanized:-)

  3. Thanks for humoring by taking pictures of the old house and the dolphins - fabulous!

    1. Hey Ned, no humoring involved, thanks to you for telling me abut it, or I would never have seen it. Was sorry to miss the church. Another time:-)


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