You might recall that when we were in the Basque region of France about 10 days ago, we stayed over night in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last stop on the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage trail, before it crosses the Pyrenees enroute to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Well, Saint-Émilion is also on the pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostela and that’s why they built the 175-foot tall bell tower on top of the Eglise Monolithe (the Monolithic Church) centuries ago: to act as a beacon for the pilgrims on the trail.
But, as I said, the bell tower – which weighs 3,000 tons (that’s 6,000,000 lbs!) – sits on top of the Eglise Monolithe and that subterranean church was built even longer ago, over a 50 year period in the 12th century A.D.
We walked back down the Tertre de la Tente to the marketplace that lies in front of the Eglise Monolithe, anxious to see the inside and how it was constructed in order to be able to hold so much weight above.
During the medieval ages, the Saint-Émilion region was known not only for its grapes and wine, but also for its limestone quarries. So, when it came time to build a great cathedral here, it was only natural that the population would carve one out of the hillside, using the sale of the excavated limestone to fund the construction (much of this rock was used in buildings in nearby Bordeaux).
We continued down toward the main door of the Eglise Monolithe, where we had a much better view of the bell tower rising above it.
The main doors are no longer used. Instead, entry to the Eglise Monolithe is gained by going around back, then down into the catacombs and entering from there.
Inside, the church is very dark because the only sunlight that enters comes through the handful of windows and the main door of the front façade.
The church is surprisingly big inside, measuring 125 feet long, 66 feet wide and 36 feet high, all carved out of the limestone. It reminded us of the cave churches we saw in the Cappadocia region of Turkey last year, for good reason: the design was brought back to Saint-Émilion by a knight returning from the Crusades after passing through Cappadocia on his way back to France.
You’re not allowed to take photographs inside the Eglise Monolithe because it’s in private ownership and the owner doesn’t want photos taken, so I didn’t take this picture:
But, public institutions paid for the reinforcement and restoration work that was completed in the 1990s after it had been discovered that the weight of the bell tower, combined with capillary action from the water table, was causing the interior columns to weaken to the point of possible collapse.
The reinforcement was accomplished by wrapping the columns with steel girders and tightening these supports to compress the columns to squeeze out the water and enhance the structural integrity of the limestone. You might just be able to see the columns and supports on the righthand side of the photo, above, that I didn’t take.
By the way, the light you see in that photo, above, is coming in through the windows I pointed out from the front of the church, and it was also our way out.
After the 55° comfort of the subterranean church, emerging back into the daylight with our guide from the tourist office felt like entering a blast furnace. But it did prepare us for our drive back to Bordeaux.
Once back in Bordeaux that evening, we thought about joining all the kids playing in the fountain in front of the Place de la Bourse; those 900 water jets sure looked inviting.
But we were hungry and it was late, so we headed on home, planning on spending Monday cleaning the house and packing – we’re on our way to Paris next!