Monday, July 21, 2014

Exploring Saint-Emilion, France


To say that Saint-Emilion is beautiful would be a vast understatement. This picturesque village in the Aquitane region of France seems as though it's been untouched by modernity and aside from people with iPhones snapping photos wearing current styles of clothing, it's as though it has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The homes are old, there's not even the slightest touch of modern architecture or design and many of the people who live there have gardens outside their homes where they grow maybe only a few vines. There's definitely a different pace of life in Saint-Emilion and for those of us who feel like we're plugged in all the time, it's a welcome oasis from the technological storm we live in.

Getting to Saint-Emilion from Bordeaux...

If you're visiting nearby Bordeaux as I was, there are of course many tours available to Saint-Emilion, either for sightseeing or vineyard visits, however I took the more adventurous route. I decided one morning after seeing gorgeous weather ahead for the day at breakfast that my husband and I should take a road trip of sorts, so we headed for the Gare de Bordeaux-Saint-Jean to embark on our journey to Saint-Emilion. The train journey takes about half an hour give or take a few minutes and it's very easy to navigate. The kiosks in the train station have an English option, so buying tickets is quite easy and the trains are clean, cool and comfortable. The tickets are about €10 each way give or take a bit of change and I recommend buying a return ticket as there is no kiosk in Saint-Emilion to purchase a return ticket. Upon arrival at the train station, it can be a bit scary, but don't be alarmed. There is about a 15 or 20 minute walk (I'm guessing about a mile) from the train station to the town center, but if the weather is nice, it's a beautiful stroll where you can see grape vines growing on the side of the road and chateaux on the horizon dotting the hillsides. It's easy to let your mind wonder as you walk, imagining the average daily routine of the family and workers who live in such a beautiful place making wine. How could you not love that? These people dedicate their lives to making something from the earth that people all over the world enjoy - it's magical to think about and even more incredible to see!

If you're planning a trip to Saint-Emilion by train, I high suggest wearing comfortable shoes and carrying a bottle of water with you - after all, you'll need to be hydrated for all the gorgeous wine you'll drink later! Temperatures can be very hot in Southwestern France and at the end of the walk, steep hills and cobblestones await, so proper footwear and cold water are vital. You'll also want to be sure to wear sunscreen and sunglasses to be comfortable and avoid sunburn.

What to expect… 
You'll know when your walk is over as you'll be greeted with a sign. Just a few yards ahead, there is a restaurant appropriately positioned to catch those coming from the train station for a day trip. Being hungry, we stopped there as it was unclear how many restaurants we might find on our way. It was perfectly positioned after such a long walk and the food was incredible. Of course it's a good idea if you love wine to try one of the many Grand Cru varieties sold by the glass at restaurants in Saint-Emilion. There are plenty of varieties available at most places, so there's a little something for everyone and it's a nice little bit of the local culture. If you'd like to have lunch in St. Emilion, I recommend arriving at the train station between 12pm and 1pm as many restaurants in the Aquitane region tend to only serve lunch between 12pm and 2:15pm or thereabouts. It's a good idea to stop for lunch after the long walk from the train station to refuel, take in the surroundings and relax in such a beautiful location. You may not eat for several hours afterwards and you have more walking ahead of you, so why not have dessert?

What to do in St. Emilion?

There are plenty of things to do with your time in St. Emilion. Winery tours are of course the most common option, however not necessary to enjoy the village. From beautiful cathedrals and castles to quaint little shops selling wine, spirits, culinary wares and other goods, there's something to enjoy on every budget. Chateau du Roi is very inexpensive to visit - only a few Euros per person. Located atop a hill, it's a castle that offers panoramic views from a mid-level and at the top of the tower. It's probably not suitable for people who aren't able to climb unpredictable stone steps and may not be appropriate for those with a fear of heights.

Of course you can buy wine in St. Emilion and many vendors are more than happy to ship it to you if you're not traveling by car. However if that seems all too much, why not just take in the beautiful views from the peak of this hillside village and spend the rest of the day trying different wines at any of the available restaurants and wine bars? I had the opportunity to taste a 20 year old wine while in Saint-Emilion and I thoroughly enjoyed knowing that I was drinking a wine that was more than half my age and a part of local history. I recommend visiting O Trois Fontaines and sampling whatever they have available that sounds nice… I'm pretty sure you can't go wrong with the wine there and the rustic scenery mixed with three soothing fountains makes for a lovely, tranquil hour or two.

About St. Emilion
The village was named after the monk Emilion, who settled into a hermitage carved into the rock there in the 8th Century. However, Saint-Emilion's history dates back to prehistoric times and the Romans planted vineyards there as early as the 2nd Century. Saint-Emilion is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features Romanesque churches and ruins all through the town along its narrow hillside streets. For more information, visit the Saint-Emilion tourism website.

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