As you may know from reading my Wine Cruising to Sauternes post, there are, to many tourists surprise, no vineyards or wine châteaux in the city of Bordeaux! All of the châteaux that make the famous “Bordeaux wine” are located in designated areas around Bordeaux. St. Émilion is one of those areas and in my opinion, is the easiest and best Bordeaux wine region to visit on your own (i.e. without joining a tour) from Bordeaux!
St. Émilion is world renowned for its full-bodied red wines. But St. Émilion is also an extremely well preserved medieval town that is complete with a unique system underground passageways, wine cellars and even an underground church! As you can imagine, St. Émilion is a very popular day trip from Bordeaux and all of the tour companies offer day trips to St. Émilion from Bordeaux, starting €80,00/person and going up from there. However, St. Émilion is easily accessible from Bordeaux by train on your own, so that is what we did. St. Émilion was my favorite day trip out of Bordeaux and a “must do” for anyone in the area!
Our day started with an early, direct train from St. Émilion to Bordeaux at 8:05. While I am certainly not a morning person, if you do not catch the 8:05 train from Bordeaux to St. Émilion, the next direct train is not until 12:00, and taking a connection will increase your train ride by about an hour. As such, we got up early and caught the 8:05 train to St. Émilion, which lasted approximately 35 minutes. The St. Émilion train station is located a 20 minute, gorgeous (and slightly uphill) walk from medieval St. Émilion. The walk was be beautiful and we passed so many châteaux!
We arrived in medieval St. Émilion around 9:00, and St. Émilion was completely empty with absolutely nothing open! At first I was a little put off, but this was nice as it allowed us to explore the town without the hoards of tourists that would later come…and it provided excellent photo opportunities of St. Émilion.
If your game is photography, get to St. Émilion early – it will get so crowded later in the day! In exploring the town, we slowly made our way up to the St. Émilion Clock Tower, which is the center piece of the town and visible from almost every point in St. Émilion. And I say up because St. Émilion is on a hill, and all of the streets are cobblestone… When we arrived at the St. Émilion Clock Tower, we were treated to excellent views of St. Émilion, and there were absolutely no tourists to get in our way!
You can climb the St. Émilion Clock Tower from 9:30 by collecting up the key and paying a small fee to the St. Émilion Tourism Office, which is right next to the St. Émilion Clock Tower, but we skipped it since the St. Émilion Tourism Office was not open at 9:00. Instead, we had breakfast at the only restaurant open at 9:00 – Le Bistrot du Clocher. Le Bistrot du Clocher is a cafe with outdoor seating just under the St. Émilion Clock Tower. Le Bistrot du Clocher had an á la carte menu and a set breakfast menu for €11,00, which we ordered. The set menu included coffee, orange juice, a croissant, a baguette and jam and butter. The food at Le Bistrot du Clocher was fine for breakfast and came out quickly. The crowds started to come in just as we finished up around 10:00 a.m…
After breakfast, we strolled around town a bit more, popping into several shops, and eventually made our way to the Église Monolithe, or the Monolithic Church. The Monolothic Church is an underground church from the early 20th century, allegedly made out of a single stone… While you can see a bit of the church above ground, the large majority (and the most interest part) of the church is underground. You can tour the underground church, but only on a official tour with the Office of Tourism. We had tickets for the English tour, but ended up skipping the tour to concentrate on wine drinking…and we knew that we would see some of St. Émilion’s famous underground wine cellars on one of our wine tours. Despite skipping the tour, the Monolothic Church is still pretty spectacular from above-ground:
At 11:45, we had our first St. Émilion wine tour and tasting at Château Villemaurine, which is located right in medieval St. Émilion and is totally accessible on foot. The tour started with a history lesson, then proceeded through the wine making process and vineyards, and ended with a tour of Villemaurine’s underground cellar, which was really interesting (and made up for skipping the underground Monolothic Church!). After the tour, everyone tasted two of Château Villemaurine red wines. I thought Château Villemaurine’s wine tour was excellent, and recommend it to tourists visiting St. Émilion without a tour group, as its super easy to reserve and tour, and to access without a car.
After our tour and tasting at Château Villemaurine, we set out to find a lunch spot, which proved more difficult than I expected. A few of the restaurants we look at were super expensive, even for lunch, and we were not in the mood for a long, fancy lunch – we had another wine tasting to get to! We also had an issue because Dan is allergic to duck, and a many of the restaurants in St. Émilion served a lot of duck! Almost ready to eat at a pizzeria, we ended up stumbling upon an excellent restaurant called L’Entre Deux Verres with a terrace overlooking medieval St. Émilion. I ate a pork medallion smothered in foie gras sauce, which was simply delicious!
After lunch, we did a bit of shopping before our second wine tasting of the day, including visiting the original macaroon shop – Fabrique de Macarons. Yes, the original French macarons that are all the rage these days are from St. Émilion! The original macarons are different than the modern macarons, more like a cookie than a “macaron,” but they were delicious nonetheless! You cannot come to St. Émilion without stopping at Fabrique de Macarons – located just down from the St. Émilion Tourism Office.
After Fabrique de Macarons, it was time for our second wine tour of the day – Les Cordeliers! An oddity in St. Émilion, Les Cordeliers does not make any red wine. Instead it breaks with tradition and makes only sparking wine! We joined the formal tour, which included a visit to their underground cellar only accessible on the tour, a history lesson and a tasting of two wines. Side note – Les Cordeliers is also on the grounds of an underground monolothic church, so this is a good substitute for the famous monolithic church. If you are all “toured out” or are “undergrounded out,” Les Cordeliers also has a great outdoor wine garden that you can visit without taking the tour!
After Les Cordeliers, we walked back to the train station and caught the train to Bordeaux, passing this beauty on the way:
I had SUCH a great time spending the day in St. Émilion and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Bordeaux, especially if you are traveling with friends who are not really into wine. Keep on the look out for a companion post highlighting tips and more detailed information on traveling to St. Émilion on your own without a tour group!
STEAL OUR TRIP
SNCF: National French train website with English translation. We purchased tickets online before we left, but you can also purchase tickets to St. Émilion at the Bordeaux train station; they don’t sell out. There is absolutely no difference between first and second class on this local train. Trains run hourly but going to St. Émilion from Bordeaux, direct trains run at 7:05 and 8:05, and then not again until 12:00.
St. Émilion Office de Tourisme: Probably the best small town tourist website ever. Lot’s of useful information in English and French, including information on wine tasting, and on touring the Monolithic Church, including when the English tours take place. You can even reserve certain tours on this website.
Le Bistrot du Clocher: One of the few restaurants offering quick meals on a “budget.” Not exactly budget but one of your best bets in St. Émilion. Le Bistrot du Clocher certainly does not serve the best food in St. Émilion, but it was fine for an overpriced breakfast when nothing else was open.
St. Émilion Clock Tower: No website. Located directly in front of the St. Émilion Tourism Office. To enter, pay a small fee and collect the key from the St. Émilion Tourism Office after 9:30.
Monolithic Church: Interesting website with the history of the monolothic church. Tickets can be purchased from the St. Émilion Tourism Office’s website.
L’Entre Deux Verres: 1, place du Cabiou – 33330 SAINT-EMILION. Casual restaurant with terrace seating. Limited, yet delicious, menu. Reservations not required, but couldn’t hurt.
Château Villemaurine: English website with lots of information about tours. Email Château Villemaurine directly reserve a tour. If you do not pre-reserve your spot, Château Villemaurine’s tours are likely to sell out during high season.
Les Cordeliers: English website with useful information. Book tour through the St. Émilion Tourism Office’s website, although it does not seem like reservations are compulsory.