St. Emilion’s Icy Warmth

St. Emilion, a small town a short train ride outside of Bordeaux, is famed for its lush, green sprawling vineyards glowing in golden sunlight which produce world class wine every year. I recommend not going in December for this experience. But if you like fog, dead tree branches, and air so cold your soul could freeze over, do what we did and go in December.

I was, for some reason too lofty even for me to know, very excited about the ridiculous amount of fog outside. I spent the entire train ride riveted to the window, staring at the fog and catching occasional glimpses of barren, frosty fields beyond.

At our stop, only a few other people got out with us, which was perfectly understandable considering the bleak weather and icy temperatures. The instant I stepped out of the train and onto the station’s platform, I was engulfed with swirling fog and icy fingers of wind clawing its way into my skin.

As the train chugged off, we were left stranded amidst a world of grey. There were a bunch of trees shrouded in midst ahead of us, so there were only two options: to go right or left.

To the right was a bleakly dismal sight of an empty parking lot covered with fog.

To the left was an equally dismal sight of an empty parking lot covered with fog, but with the grotesque addition of bare-branched trees that looked like ogre fingers clawing out of the ground.

I was of the opinion of going right, but since everyone else went to the left, as you can see, I was obliged to follow.

That was blessedly the right way to go, since there was a road with a sign that looked like it came straight out of a book. It said several things, one of which was that St Emilion was a 20 minute walk away.

Well, thank God there’s a shuttle and we don’t have to walk, I thought to myself cheerily. That would be absolutely miserable.

Only there were no cars, no other people except our lost and confused selves, and certainly no shuttles. It was completely quiet except for my chattering teeth and an occasional breeze that sent pellets of icy atoms into my face. After nearly freezing off from the cold while we searched for a shuttle stop, one lady from Portugal searched on her phone and discovered that there’s only a shuttle in the summer. She also discovered that it was about 1.5 kilometers (or a mile) to the actual town of St. Emilion from the station.

We had to walk. For 1.5 kilometers. In the cold. Staring at the desolate greyness in front of me, I heaved a sigh from the depths of my nearly frozen soul.

On the bright side, walking would warm us up. On the dark side, I foresaw it to be long, freezing, and absolutely miserable.

It was long. It was freezing. But it was definitely not miserable.

Although you might not realize it from my graphic descriptions, I am in fact a huge fan of fog. It’s so Victorian, so mysterious, so…foggy. That 1.5 km walk was one of the happiest of my life.

The others didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for the fog, but I applaud them for taking off resolutely nonetheless.

As for me, I lingered behind, taking in every puff of fog, every leaf lined in frost. Especially the frost. I’d never seen so much before, having lived most of my life in central Texas where the winters are rarely cold and wet enough for anything icy. There on the road to St. Emilion, I finally understood why icing on a cake was called icing.

The frost accented the leaves, berries, and nuts on the hedges to the right of the sidewalk so beautifully that I was both at a loss for words and full of inspiration to write them.

On the left, of course, were the vineyards covered in fog.

Then there was a break in the sidewalk where a road led off further to the right. I could hear the slight gurgling of a creek, though how it could possibly be unfrozen was beyond me. The road, shrouded in mist, literally sent a tingle down my spine with its dark, gloomy mysteriousness. It made the writer in me scream for joy and start to weave a story in my head.

I realize that sounds strange.

We continued on, the fog so deliciously thick and the frost making every ordinary little thing look magical. As we passed by a pebbled section I saw a metal object glistening in the grass. On closer inspection and verification from Papa (who knows these sort of things) it had the frosted-over symbol of Peugoet, a French car company, on it. So cool.

As we started to near the town (and my nose was just about ready to fall off), buildings lined each side of the sidewalk. One old building in particular was covered in sprawling vines that looked like veins and further stoked the fabrics of story flames in my head.

Finally we entered the village of St. Emilion, my gloveless hands (gloves were another article of clothing I had imprudently not taken with me) shivering even from inside my coat’s pockets. Probably because I couldn’t resist stroking some frosted flowers drooping so remorsefully in the cold.

Not exactly knowing where we were going (except to find somewhere warm) we wandered up the steep cobblestone streets, lanterns hanging from closed shops on either side. Then we found signs that pointed to a visitor’s center and decided to follow them. Since the few others from the train had dispersed in several directions, there were no people about, which was hardly surprising. Anyone with any sense would be inside where it was warm.

Obviously we didn’t have much sense.

Eventually we reached the top of the steep path where it turned right. We followed it and saw a church with a few people bustling into it, and decided to do the same. It was Sunday, after all. Perhaps a mass was about to be in session. And it would surely be warmer in there.

There was a mass about to begin, but it was not warmer, despite all the apparent efforts, like heat lamps, going on to increase the temperature. The stone walls acted as a refrigerator trapping all the cold inside.

We found a pew right under a heat lamp and settled down. I didn’t dare take off one scrap of clothing, for fear of turning into an ice sculpture, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw little girls skipping by in dresses and stockings, without shoes or coats.


It would be apparent that we were strangers, the only ones shivering with such intensity and the only ones not saying a word of French. I was as miserable as you might imagine a soul freezing over, but when the mass began I felt it melt away. Outwardly, of course, my teeth were chattering, my nose was red and running, and everything was icy. But there was something about the people in that humble church that warmed me to the heart.

There were a least a dozen altar boys ranging from five-year-olds to teenagers, all looking genuinely happy to serve. The little ones were so adorable as they did their best to sit still, occasionally kicked by the older ones, and fulfill their important tasks of holding candles.

Everyone else in the congregation, despite having kept their coats on and blowing into their hands, had faces glowing with pure joy and…something else much deeper. I couldn’t understand anything except for a few choice words (like Amen) but I could feel the presence of overwhelming peace.

It was a peace we shared with those locals of St. Emilion, the peace that comes from the living Spirit we all had living within us. We weren’t strangers. We weren’t separated by language, culture, or resistance to cold. I looked around and felt like I’d known them forever. We were brothers and sisters, all beloved children of the Creator.

I left mass that day feeling as cold as ever, my icy feet crunching in my shoes, but warmth was blossoming in my heart. I would see those kind, joyful French people again one glorious day in heaven.

However, that glorious day might come too soon if I didn’t get somewhere warm. Fast.

We found the visitor center and spent a couple of delicious minutes in its heated interior while Papa and Mama asked a few questions. They discovered that only two restaurants were open and acquired the directions to the closest one, and also tickets to tour a huge monolithic church nearby the aforementioned restaurant.

I was only concerned about heat.

We navigated the cobblestone streets once again, this time going downhill. I got the feeling that St. Emilion was not a very large town, but the fact was charming because I’d always wanted to visit a village.

It didn’t take a detective to find the restaurant at the bottom of the steep incline. It was packed and crowded with possibly everyone in St. Emilion in it, but most importantly: it was WARM.

It was about one in the afternoon and the food we ordered took at least an hour, but I didn’t mind. My blood finally returned to its liquid state and my bones were able to thaw out. Besides, the sausage and potatoes that I ordered were delicious. The best I’d ever had.

So what that everything tastes better when you’re cold and starving?

Our tour started at four and we finished eating a little before three, which meant we had over an hour to…stand in the cold. The restaurant wouldn’t let us sit there while other customers were arriving, which was perfectly understandable, but I wasn’t thrilled to leave the comfort of warmth.

Thrilled or not, leave I did.

I’m sure that town square was a charming place in the spring or summer months, but it was painfully bleak in the winter. I was cold again in five minutes, even when I tried jumping jacks and squats and running around like a little child. The rest of the time I amused myself with taking pictures.

I was so cold and tired and bored it was ridiculous.

That bottom-right building is the life-saving restaurant.

I spent a good deal of time staring at the intricacies of this door.

Finally, when I was reduced to the point of taking pictures of my shoes, the tour began. I hoped the poor tour guide got paid extra that bitterly cold day, because his job did not seem very enthralling.

He began by telling us that it was a monolithic (Greek “mono lithos” meaning “one stone”) church carved out of limestone rock in the early 12th century. Very impressive, when I realized it was stone, and likely to be similar to a giant freezer. Then he led us in through wooden gates, telling us that pictures were forbidden.

I have never claimed to be perfect, and I will not do so now.

I confess: I took some pictures.

We descended steps into a cave which was the hermitage of a monk named Emilion. He spent the last 17 years of his life in that cave, which tells me that I could never be a hermit.

On the way out I noticed this carved in the wall, which makes me wonder who Pierre was.

Next there was a chapel that looked rather plain and insignificant but for a few startlingly colorful paintings of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Virgin Mary, and St. John carrying the Easter Lamb. During the French Revolution, it was first converted into a grocery and then sold to a cooper who renovated it to make oak barrels. To curve the wood, he had to burn it, which produced smoke and soot which covered all the walls. This soot protected the paintings against ultraviolet light, which is why they retained their incredible color.

Then we entered the catacombs of the church, coming from the Greek “kata” (under) and “tumba” (tomb). Underground tombs.

Honestly, I found them rather boring, until the tour guide said it was a very small part of the total 200 acres of catacombs, spreading under the village and its vineyards. Can you imagine? There were tombs underground those foggy vineyards we passed.

He added that they’re used nowadays as wine cellars due to their perfect conditions of a constant temperature at 13 C (55 F) and a high humidity level.

It wasn’t boring anymore.

Finally we entered the monolithic church, all of which was underground and making it less cold than I thought it would be, which was a relief. It was dark and massive, with columns holding everything up. Metal braces had been installed on them to keep it from collapsing. There was one altar I could see, but everything else was shrouded in darkness, and the tour guide with his torch was growing increasingly verbose by the minute.

As we walked up the steps back into the freezing cold front square, the tour was declared officially over. We thanked the guide and decided to visit a wine shop, because it’s apparently a crime to visit St. Emilion without tasting wine, and because it was an excellent excuse to get somewhere warm.

Obviously I was seven years younger than the drinking age, but while Mama and Papa tasted with the shop owner and exclaimed at how delicious the wine was, I looked around and found a bottle from 2004 (my birth year) that was 245 Euros. Two hundred and forty-five. Wow.

Then it was time to head back to the train station. It was a mere minutes walk outside of St. Emilion, but I saw a cute mossy pavilion thing on the way.

The walk was not as magical as the first one, mainly because it was just as cold, but with no more fog and frost. I was able to see the vineyards and some chateaus beyond, with the fog gone, but it wasn’t the same, though you couldn’t tell from my cheery, dorky, pathetically cold face.

Not so epically mysterious anymore.

Eventually, we reached the train station, where we had to wait freezing our heads off. It was 5 degrees C (41 F) but it felt so much colder because there was wind and I wasn’t exactly dressed properly.

Then I saw how rustic and lovely the train tracks were with the fallen leaves, and I cheered up once again.

It reminded me, for the umpteenth time, that beautiful things are hidden in unpleasant circumstances, if only you have the heart to find them. The magical village of St. Emilion gifted me with this treasure that I will (hopefully) remember always.

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