Why you should care
Because those struggling to conceive need all the help they can get.
The sweet nectar of the gods draws most of Saint-Émilion’s visitors. But for others, this charming medieval wine village in southwestern France holds the promise of raising a glass to something else: the birth of a child.
Each year, a million visitors brave the town’s steep cobblestone paths lined with almond macaron shops, art boutiques and endless caves du vins, enjoying the sweet smells and free tastings of this Merlot-centric appellation along the right bank of the Dordogne near Bordeaux. Wine prices can be exorbitant — collectors drop thousands for decades-old vintages — but they can also be quite reasonable, with the most popular picks the Premier Grand Cru Classés of Châteaux Pavie, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Angélus. Half the fun is pulling up to some of the hundreds of small wineries that cover the area’s 14,000 acres and tasting them for yourself. Wine guru Frédéric Borliachon recommends his local favorite, Chateau Le Chatelet.
… sitting in the chair helps women who are struggling to conceive.
The first vineyard landscape to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the town itself now holds just 2,000 inhabitants in its tile-clad, limestone-facaded buildings — a reflection of how it now primarily exists to draw tourism. The town boasts famed eateries like La Terrasse Rouge and the Michelin-starred L’Hostellerie de Plaisance, where seafood features heavily, alongside favorites like goat-cheese salads and snails. Or visitors can climb the main landmark — the bell tower of the Monolithic Church, visible for miles — to enjoy stunning views. Built in the 12th century after the area became a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, most of it is underground, with three naves and catacombs carved into the rock.
But Paris-based communications manager Sophie Zaessinger, and thousands of other women struggling to conceive, makes the pilgrimage for the storied magic of a fertility chair in La Grande Cave de Saint-Émilion. The town’s namesake is a Breton monk who descended from Vannes in the 8th century to escape notoriety and dedicate his life to prayer. For 17 years, Saint Émilion lived in a cave — protected now by a chapel — which still holds his bed and chair, both carved into the stone walls. City tour guides claim that sitting in the seat helps women conceive (my guide joked that, as an unmarried woman, she chooses to steer clear).
There is “no evidence that superstitions like this one work,” says Stuart Vyse, a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. But they are good for business, he adds, which means that locals have incentive for spreading the gospel. Of course, it’s all fairly harmless. Maybe.
Within a year of her 2012 visit, Zaessinger did get to raise a glass to toast the birth of her son, Felix, and she’s now looking forward to baby No. 2.