Illats, SW France
It was off to St Emilion on Monday to inspect the world’s largest underground cathedral, in fact, probably the world’s only underground cathedral. The trip was as much to avoid lunch though that’s not as bad as it sounds. I took my aunt out for a meal the night before and started with a salad of which foie gras played a prominent part, and then had magret du canard. It was all very rich, so much so, in fact, that waking up the following morning, I didn’t feel like eating anything more for 24 hours. (Incidenally, my aunt isn't really my aunt, but my stepmother's sister, but I stick closely to the First Rule of Blogging: Keep it simple, and make allowances for the slower ships in the convoy. For all I know people from the UK also read this blog.)
So the problem was: what to do about lunch? Explaining to a Frenchman or woman (although my aunt is not French) that you fancy skipping lunch for a change, you know, just to clear your system (pour clearer la systeme is what they call it) will be met by the same incredulity as if you were to announce that you fancy a quick dip in a vat of boiling oil. So rather than get involved in some long-running explanation and most probably settling for some kind of compromise (‘OK, I’ll just have a bit’ when, in fact, I didn’t want to eat anything), I thought the simplest solution would be to take myself off somewhere and would ‘look after my own lunch’. Scoured the net for nearby, or reasonably nearby, places which might prove to be interesting. One, a ‘bastide town’, was too far, but then I came across the ‘underground cathedral’ at St Emilion which is only about 25 miles away, so off I went.
In typical pagan-catholic fashion, St Emilion (who might well have been demoted in the recent and long-overdue clearout of saints as being far too implausible for words - founding the world's first underground car park indeed, and all that in the 8th century), is revered because of two miracles. He was a chap born of humble origins - like the rest of us, then - and living in Brittany in the household of a nobleman where he was responsible for providing bread for the castle. Being a soft-hearted kind of guy, he also used to slip a loaf or two to the peasants outside the castle, but someone snitched on him to the noblemen, who one night lay in wait to catch Emilion red-handed. On his way out with his stock of bread for the peasants, Emilion was challenged by the nobleman: ‘What, sir, do you have under your coat?’ he demanded. Upon which Emilion opened his coat - to reveal that the loaves had all turned into wood.
That was the first miracle and Emilion’s fame grew far and wide in Britanny. In fact, it grew so far and wide that he began to dislike it and left the nobleman’s employ and headed south and eventually arrived at a monastery where he was ordained. At the monastery his job was once again to keep the establishment supplied with bread and one day he couldn’t find whatever implement was used to remove the bread from the oven. So he simply climbed in to retrieve the bread by hand - and emerged utterly unscathed, with not one burn. Another miracle!
Again he became the toast of the town and being a modest chap, took himself off again, arriving at the spot we now call St Emilion. There he found a cave with springs inside and settled into a life of sainthood.
First a chapel was built next to the cave a couple of centuries later (it wasn’t called ‘marketing’ in medieval times but the RC church knew every trick in the book when it came to attracting pilgrims, who could be regarded as medieval tourists and who also spent their money locally). Then the local bigwig, a chap called Peter of Somewhere or Other who had fought in one of the Crusades, got it into his head to copy several of the churches he had seen in the Middle East and had the underground cathedral carved out of the limestone.
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Later, it was off to the Chateau Gravas in Barsac, which produces Sauternes wine, for a concert given by an Argentinian guitarist and a Spanish saxophonist who played a programme of different South American music. Guitar and saxophone - in fact three different saxes, ranging from a huge bass sax to one which resembled a clarinet - might seem and odd combination, but it worked very well. I liked it a great deal, my aunt not quite as much. They call themselves Le Duo Corrientes and here is their Myspace page. The drink afterwards, in which very generous glasses of Sauternes were served, was where the chateau’s barrels of Sauternes are stored and which also housed an exhibition of work by someone called Flickinger which I found hugely unimpressive.
There was a similar exhibition by the same chap last year, and then my aunt and I fell out after I called it ‘corporate art’, and when she asked me what I meant, I explained that as far as I was concerned it was pretty much the kind of stuff you find in the reception and corridors of multinational companies which any halfway decent graphic designer can turn out on a wet afternoon. Flickinger (if that is his name - I can’t find a reference to him anywhere)
. . .
Last night it was off to a concert by a classical guitarist called Emmanuel Rossfelder who played a medley of various pieces, although, as my aunt said, could have been a little more adventurous in his choice of pieces. And I have to admit that I far preferred the previous night’s guitarist and saxophonist.
The concert last night was at the Chateau Pape Clement on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Tonight it’s a programme of music ‘with a Spanish flavour’ on violin, clarinet and accordion, which sounds promising. That's at the local Maison du Vin at Podensac, who if I remember correctly from two years ago are very generous with their wine. The least generous were the Chateau Smith Haut Laffite who barely wetted the bottom of the glass with red wine, but as my aunt’s husband pointed out, it was probably a wine which sells at more then £100 a bottle, so it’s really not much of a suprise.