Humans have lived in Eymet, a small town south of Bergerac in the Dordogne for thousands of years. Tools dating from all the prehistoric periods have been found and jewellery and domestic utensils indicate Bronze Age habitation. The dolmen of Eylias and the sites of standing stones, the “Peyrelevades”, suggest the existence of a Gallic cult, a “nemet”, which is probably the origin of the town’s name. These days, it’s the Brits who have taken over, forty per cent of the population, perhaps in response to Sidoine Apollinaire, the Latin poet who wrote: “This entire valley is so full of vineyards flowered meadows, cultivated fields, fruit tree plantations deliciously shaded by hedges, watered by springs crossed by streams, rich in harvests, that their owners seem to have had a vision of paradise.” Fourteen out of sixteen B and B’s I am reliably informed, are owned and run by the old enemy, the English, one of whom I had a drink with the other day in his half-finished farmhouse a few kilometers out of town. Pensions don’t go quite as far in the Dordogne as they once did, however, and those planning a retirement servicing the British community with marmalade and Marmite had better think again. I did however find a book or two in the Thursday market, where the English sellers are outclassed by the natives in terms of goods and salesmanship by the locals; nevertheless I ended up paying less than a third of the cost of a new copy in W H Smith in rue de Rivoli.
On the way westward, a small hilltop village caught our eye. Flanked by pristinely kept vineyards and surprisingly large châteaux, a short detour was rewarded by an hour or two in St Emilion, which every wine drinker knows is world-famous for its reds in particular.
For the serious buffs, Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc are the only two wines currently classified as ‘premiers grands crus classes A’, but there are over fifty grands crus in the region. Apparently. The original owner of the Ausone lands was the Latin poet Ausonius, a late and perhaps not very enthusiastic convert to Christianity, who died about 395 CE. The modern town, only seven hundred years old, was founded by a monk, Emilion, who decided to live in a cave and around whom a cult grew based on the fruit of the vine and, presumably, of the Spirit. Mediaeval streets and monuments are remarkably well-preserved and there are old churches, ramparts and underground monuments – even a monolithic church plus catacombs – to explore.
Parts of it reminded me of the Old City in Jerusalem, or even small Tuscan villages, probably because of the narrow, cobbled escalettes and the pervasive remnants of monasticism in the cloisters. Ah, Rome again…