Travelogue LXIX: Saint-Émilion



July 23, 2016 Last week we took the afternoon train to Saint-Émilion, a lovely little medieval village half a hour from Bordeaux, now entirely given over to the region’s wine industry. It’s full of steep streets and walls to climb. The church at its center is carved directly into a sandstone cliff.

Saint Émilion, as the story goes, was an 8th-century monk who took up residence in that same cliff long before the church existed. He soon gained the reputation of a miracle worker amongst the local villagers. After his death, he was buried under the cliff, and visited by pilgrims and travelers of all sorts. The monks who came after him founded monasteries on the spot, and brought with them viticulture, and so the village slowly took on form. Today, one has to walk a kilometer from the tiny train station to reach St. Émilion, and the place is surrounded by gorgeous sandstone Chateaus and rolling hills of vines.


Here, they plant roses at the end of every row in the vineyards. The plants serve as a sort of early warning system for the winemakers, as they are the first to show diseases such as mildew. Romantic and rather morbid at the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe church tower is the high point of St-Émilion, and we were told it was possible to hike to the top if one had good enough French to ask politely for the key in the Office de Tourisme. Which we apparently did, and so we were given the key, and pried open an old wooden door and climbed up several hundred damp stone steps to take in the windy view from the top.

And then we came down, and drank a good deal of wine. Bordeaux is mostly known for the red wines, but we were taken with the Rosés. They range from the palest of sandy pinks to translucent ruby, and seem to glow somehow in their glasses.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe storefronts in St. Émilion are all brightly painted wood, set into the sandstone buildings. If we could have had a dime for every place that sold vin we could have financed the whole afternoon. And what wine! We saw bottles for 800, 1,000, 5,000, even 12,000 Euros–old, strange, rare vintages with names that said nothing to us, but would have said a great deal to Jonathan if he had been there, and did when I told him about them later.

“How on earth can anything taste good enough to be worth 12,000 euros?” I asked.

“It’s not about the taste of those wines,” he said. “Most of them aren’t particularly good after so many decades. It’s about the collection, it’s about the art-form. It’s like buying a Chevall window to hang up in your living room.”

By the end of the afternoon, we were slightly tipsy. We had to run to catch the last train to Bordeaux, and took a detour through the vineyards of a Chateau that may or may not have been private property, and ended up having to climb over a rather tall and very spiky gate. All as it should be.

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Travelogue LXVIII: Dune du Pyla

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJuly 6th, 2017 I’m back after a hard and good year, for a summer of study in Bordeaux and the Rheingau. Much more about all of that later. For now, this weird, sun-baked place–the Dune du Pyla, all 60,000,000 cubic meters of it, the largest sand dune in Europe, and surreally out of place in the green French countryside.

Over the past decades, it has swallowed up countless trees, roads, and houses. The day we went, it was an easy 100 degrees on top, bone dry, and windy. Imagine being on the set of Mad Max, but with an ocean and a good number of Japanese tourists.


The view from the top, out over the Atlantic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe hiked up the steps someone had kindly laid up the back side of the dune. From the top, one has the feeling of falling straight down into the ocean below. Despite the selfie-taking tourists and beach-goers, it’s a strangely silent and isolating place. The sand eats up all excess sound and if you happen to be looking in a direction where there aren’t any people, it’s possible to feel quite shockingly alone.


Up the stairs, slowly being eaten away by the sand, to the top of the dune.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe slid down the sand to the ocean, and burned the soles of our feet bright red. The water was calm and perfectly cool, and we ran in fully dressed and didn’t want to come out again.

By the time we made it up to the top again, our clothes were completely dry. Within minutes, we were back in the green and on a bus to Arcachon, and within an hour we were surrounded by bordeaux-drinking French and consuming massive amounts of mussels in white wine sauce. It’s a surprising place, this world.



That slope down to the beach was much steeper and longer than it looks. Especially on the way back.



If you look at the sand up close, it’s a shockingly unstable thing–constantly shifting and blowing, little rivulets running down everywhere and filling in cracks and making new ones. 



C’est moi! On the edge of the world…

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