People say there are no guarantees in life. But they are wrong.
If you’re going anywhere near Bordeaux on your next trip to France, it’s a given that someone will point you in the direction of Saint-Émilion.
In fact, it is an absolute sure thing.
I know that every time I breathed the word Bordeaux, I was met with “You must visit Saint-Émilion”. And the words came towards me at startling speed!
I found this near universal adoration intriguing and immediately put Saint-Émilion on our to-do list.
But when I started looking into tours of the famed medieval wine village, I was anything but inspired. Too many fellow travellers. Overpriced. Not long enough. Left Bordeaux at a ridiculous time.
Yes, I know I’m fussy. But I’m also a fan of making our trips to France as special as they possibly can be. No one wants to waste precious travel time or euros on a tour that leaves them feeling decidedly underwhelmed.
However, after the success of our Do-It-Yourself Visit To Champagne (you’ll find part two here, and click here for part three) I was undeterred. If you can’t find the tour that is right for you, it is easy to create your own perfectly tailored experience when you know how.
Here I’ll be sharing everything we learned on our Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion. I promise to help you explore Saint-Émilion your own way. And you will quickly understand why everyone raves about the place – and it’s not just because of the wine (although, I have to tell you the wine is pretty good).
Getting To Saint-Émilion
Saint-Émilion sits around 35 kilometres from Bordeaux. If you happen to have a car you will have no trouble getting there. And on the plus side, a car will help you navigate some of the village’s steep terrain. On the downside, you’ll need to think about limiting your tastings of the red wine the village is famous for if you choose to drive.
For our Monday in Saint-Émilion we chose to take the train from Gare Saint-Jean in Bordeaux. Check online for current timetables, but on the day we travelled there was only one train in the morning, and then a train to Saint-Émilion every hour during the afternoon. We purchased two return tickets for 38 euro and took the train that left around midday with the view of spending a long half day in the village. The train trip takes a little over half an hour, so you soon find yourself at the Saint-Émilion railway station which – according to a well positioned sign – is about a 20 minute walk from Saint-Émilion itself.
If the walk seems like something you’d rather not do, you can jump on an electric Tuk-Tuk which awaits the arrival of the trains and be whisked into town for a mere 3 euro. Due to all the yummy things we’d been choosing to gobble while we were travelling, we opted to walk. For the record, it’s a fairly easy walk up a gently sloping hill and we made it to Saint-Émilion just in time for lunch.
What To See On Your Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion
Now in a perfect world we would have arrived a little before lunch because the first thing you should do is visit the tourist office….and it closes at lunchtime.
However a visit to the office – which is situated right on the highest point of Saint-Émilion – is incredibly helpful in planning your visit.
Make sure you pick up the map that features the 12 key historic monuments in Saint-Émilion, all of which are contained on a self guided walking tour. Highlights include the mysterious King’s Keep, whose commissioner remains unknown and the historic wash houses.
While the village certainly has plenty to offer visitors, if I was going to recommend just one thing to do in Saint-Émilion it would be to take a tour the underground monuments of the village’s namesake.
The cave where Saint Émilion lived, the Trinity Chapel, the Catacombs and the Monolithic Church are definitely worth a visit. You would never guess that these treasures can be found behind a couple of simple doors. The vast Monolithic Church in particular delivers a ‘wow moment’ – it is an incredible space, carved straight out of the limestone.
I’d booked our tickets online, which saw us joining a French speaking tour. But tours run regularly in English and can be booked at the tourism office. However don’t be concerned if you find yourself on the French tour. Simply ask for the extensive tour notes (again, available from the tourism office) which include an English translation of the tour and enjoy the opportunity to practice your French listening skills.
The Wine Of Saint-Émilion
This might go without saying, but many people travel to Saint-Émilion to taste the famous local wine. Interestingly, the wines in this part of the Bordeaux region only come in red varieties, with Merlot being the predominant grape used in the local wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc play supporting roles in the making of Saint-Émilion wines. But white wine drinkers need not worry – the whites of Bordeaux can easily be purchased in Saint-Émilion’s numerous restaurants and bars.
If you are keen to try out the local red wines, it is worth making an early stop at the Maison Du Vin De Saint Emilion. Situated right next door to the tourist office, the Maison Du Vin offers the opportunity to not only purchase Saint-Émilion wines but to also learn more about them.
The Maison contains a wine school for the truly dedicated as well as small, informal group classes that are held numerous times throughout the day – but you need to book! Scott and I signed up for a blind tasting which is hilarious given how little we knew about Bordeaux wines (having said that, Scott did very well in the blind tasting. Me – not so well). Our tutor Frédérick was knowledgable and fun and taught us a lot about the wines of Saint-Émilion – and all of Bordeaux – in the process.
What To Wear
When it comes to deciding what to wear on your Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion, start by thinking of your feet. Believe me when I tell you to wear the most comfortable walking shoes you have with you. Even if you drive in or jump on the Tuk-Tuk at the station you’ll still need decent shoes to ensure you can explore the steep and narrow streets, or tertres, that give Saint-Émilion its character.
In terms of clothing, go for a smart casual outfit – remember, you are still in France and you don’t want to stand out as a tourist.
And opt for layers. Even on cool days, there is a strong chance that you’ll warm up as you navigate the terrain.
Despite being a relatively small village, Saint-Émilion has something to delight every visitor. Whether you are into history, wine or just outright charm, you’re sure to find Saint-Émilion appealing. And if you are on a Do It Yourself tour, you’ll have all the time you need to enjoy it.
Oh, and it is safe to say that I have now joined the army of people who are quick to announce “You must visit Saint-Émilion”.
Have you visited Saint-Émilion? Did you enjoy it as much as we did? And did you go it alone, or did you visit with a tour group? I’d love for you to share your story in the comments section below.
Until next time – au revoir.
Scott’s photo of Frédérick has been used with Frédérick’s permission.
Looking for more French inspiration? Then don’t miss the #AllAboutFrance Linkup over at the Lou Messugo Blog. Click this link and you’ll discover a diverse range of blog posts all about France.