A highlight on a Bordeaux tour is a stroll around the small town of Saint Emilion. A picturesque town with its steep (sometimes very steep!) cobblestone streets, cafés, wine bars, beautiful old houses and its extensive view over the vineyards.
It was in the 700s that a monk from Brittany settled down at the place that would later become Saint Emilion. Life and people often treated him unfairly but he always met these iniquities with goodness. Here, in the future Saint Emilion, the monk Emilion, as was his name, he created his hermitage and devoted all his time to God, far from all people.
Today, Saint Emilion is not empty of people, on the contrary. The city is one of France’s most popular excursion destinations. There are, of course, a lot of wine tourists, but not only. The unspoiled medieval character of the city also attracts history and culture enthusiasts. And luckily, hordes of tourists cannot ruin the peace and harmony of the city.
Perhaps it is the beautiful, bright limestone that does it. “It was this limestone that was used to build Bordeaux,” says Christophe Dussutour, winemaker at the well-known Château Trottevieille. “It is a limestone that is easy to mine and the whole area is full of quarries.” It’s a beautiful stone, with a nice lustre. In France, there are people who call themselves the amateurs des vieilles pierres – “lovers of old stones” – and in Saint Emilion they get as much of it as they can ever hope for. The whole of Saint Emilion is built on and of this stone. That all the houses have the same light-red tiles contributes to the harmonious whole.
One of the most exceptional things in Saint Emilion is the impressive monolith church. It is an underground cathedral whose tower rises highest above everything in Saint Emilion while the rest of the church is under the ground. The church was dug out of the rock, from a single rock (hence the name of monolith) between the 700s and 12th century by expanding existing caves and quarries. It is the largest monolith church in France and the size, height and perfect vaults are magnificent.
There are so many kilometres of underground galleries under Saint Emilion that car traffic is very restricted inside the city. And on the narrow streets it is best to go on foot anyway.
Actually, there are 2,000 inhabitants in the town, but I sometimes wonder where they go shopping for food. I have never seen as much as a baker. But that is not quite true, there are the “macarons” everywhere. “Les Véritables Macarons de Saint Emilion“, it is written on signs everywhere and from there emerges a seductive scent of freshly baked almond cakes. The most genuine is said to be made by Madame Blanchez on Rue Gaudet. She has a recipe from 1620 supposedly is the original recipe. Making them is simple, the result irresistible. It is a round little cake containing only sweet almonds and bitter almonds, fresh egg whites and sugar, absolutely no preservatives or colorants.
However, stores are plenty, and most of them are wine shops. Tourist traps? Yes, some of them, but not everyone. Those who offer triple-packs standing in the sunshine should be avoided. But many are serious. Like l’Essentiel on rue Guadet. This combined shop and wine bar is owned by Jean Luc Thunevin, owner of several chateaux, including Château Valandraud. The designer Bruno Dolis from Bordeaux has made a modern and colourful interior, a striking contrast to the bright stone. Some 300 wines are offered for sale: big Bordeaux wines such as Yquem and Cheval Blanc, Thunevin’s own wines and also less famous but excellent local producers. The shelves also feature some good foreign wines. At a bar, you can try what you want with some good cheeses. A lounge offers a little more relaxed tasting space.
If you want to go shopping for wine another good tip to go over to the Maison du Vin de Saint-Emilion, at Place Pierre Meyrat (next to the tourist office). Here you find “La Boutique”, a shop offering 250 different wines at chateau prices. Whatever that means; most Bordeaux chateaux do not sell wines directly at the property, although it has started to become more common today. There is also a large collection of wine books and books about Saint Emilion.
A very nice wine bar where you can also eat some good food is Chai Pascal (wordplay: chez meaning “at someone’s place”, and chai, meaning wine cellar, is pronounced almost the same way). It opened a few years ago and it is Pascal himself that is behind the counter. He used to work in one of Paris’s best wine shops but got tired of the big city and moved down to Bordeaux. The wine offering is superb. You can even get a good dry sherry from Lustau, a rarity in France! The cheeses and the Basque charcuteries are highly recommended.
Another place with both good food and fine wines is L’Envers du Decor, 20 meters from the tourist office. A rustic and friendly restaurant. A nice summer evening, you can dine out in their large, peaceful backyard. The waiters are friendly and very knowledgeable. Specializing in serving good wines by the glass, and even some older vintages. A menu for around 30 euros can include oyster from Arcachon, grilled duck breast (magret) or entrecote with red wine sauce and shallot and a smooth crème brûlée. The restaurant has recently changed owner (to Gérard Perse at Château Pavie) but seems to continue in the same style.
One big advantage of Saint Emilion is that the town is set amid the vineyards. You do not have to walk many meters from the city centre to get into the vineyard. In one direction, you come to Clos Saint Julien, in another direction you come to Ausone, Clos Fourtet, Grandes Murailles… The list is long. You just have to start walking.
A nice walk can be to start “at the top of the village”, at the beginning of Rue Guadet. Walk down towards the city. Turn right on Rue des Girondins to arrive at Place du Clocher with its stunning views of the city’s rooftops, the Château du Roy tower and the vineyards. Take a few steps back and take the steep cobblestone street Rue du Tertre de la Tente down to the main square, Place de l’Eglise Monolithe. Alternatively, from the view on the square, you can take the road along the vineyards, on the western side of town and get a glimpse of Clos Fourtet and Chateau Ausone’s vineyards. But best of all is perhaps just stroll around in the winding alleyways and soak up the atmosphere that seeps out of the “old stones”.
Named in the text:
- Chai Pascal, 37 rue Guadet
- L’Envers du Decor, 11 rue du Clocher
- Essentiel, 6 rue Guadet
- Maison du Vin de Saint-Emilion, Place Pierre Meyrat
- Les Veritables Macarons de Mme Blanchez, 9, rue Guadet
More restaurants in Saint Emilion
The restaurant scene – as well as wine shops – can change fairly quickly. If someone on the list has disappeared, or if you have suggestions for new ones, please let us know!
In addition to those mentioned above:
Logis de la Cadène, 3 Place du Marché au Bois: A classic of very good quality recently acquired by Hubert de Boüard (Château Angélus), who will probably pull it up to the luxury level.
Hostellerie de Plaisance, 5 Rue du Clocher: Very luxurious with Michelin stars. Also owned by Gérard Perse. Not cheap.
Le Clos du Roy, 12 Rue de la Petite Fontaine: Classica French of good quality. Has outdoor seating. Medium price level.
Le Tertre, 5 Rue du Tertre de la Tente: Classical French food with a touch of elegance. Medium price level.
There are many more!
Now you know the most important things for a visitor to know about Saint Emilion. So the only thing that remains is to go there, and what better way than on a fantastic wine tour to Bordeaux with us at BKWine!