Taking to Saint-Émilion’s cobbled lanes not long after sunrise, I felt as though I’d gone back in time a few decades, perhaps even a few hundred years. In the early-morning light, the graceful wrought-iron signs appeared in silhouetted form. Though the establishments’ names were in shadows, the contours of a sign’s grape leaf, baguette, or sausage hinted at what activity would soon be taking place inside those marchands de vins, boulangeries, and boucheries.
On a main square, waiters dressed tables with linen cloths, and merchants set out pots of grapevine plants for sale. Another shop’s proprietor rolled out a weathered, caramel-colored barrel, carefully arranging bottles atop it for a shop display. Hordes of visitors had not yet descended upon the 8th-century city, and I felt a bit like a local, even though my camera undoubtedly gave me away.
It was during this morning that I would first become acquainted with Saint-Émilion’s steep roads, known as tertres. There are four of them in the city, and as I found out on a subsequent evening following dinner, they make for a lively walk – especially after you’ve enjoyed a glass of the area’s esteemed wine!
Back in the courtyard of our historic hotel, the Au Logis des Remparts, I’d join Shawn and his parents for a delightful breakfast of fruit, orange juice, pastries, eggs, and yogurt. It is the yogurt we most delighted in – creamy, freshly-made, and served in yogurt cups made of glass, with a matching lid.
For the rest of the weekend, we savored the sunshine, while enjoying a delightful bottle of Rosé from Provence at the pool’s edge, staring out into the vineyards behind our hotel’s garden. We also mingled with the neighboring wine shop’s French Bulldog, Georges and enjoyed the delicate flavors of the town’s legendary macarons. Legend has it that nuns from a Saint-Emilion convent created the timeless recipe. I was ecstatic that they were gluten-free! Shawn and I would work off those sweet-treat calories by ascending the 196 steps of Saint-Emilion’s church tower where we were rewarded with extraordinary views of the Old Town and the vineyards that surround it.
Lovely dinners enjoyed indoors and al fresco in the town’s main square, combined with a rustic picnic, rounded out our weekend of special moments in Saint-Émilion. Our first evening in town, the four of us were enjoying dinner in the atmospheric cellar of a local restaurant. Beside us sat a group of Saint-Émilion residents, savoring their dishes and an enormous bottle of wine. Sensing my amazement at the beautiful bottle before them, the man at the head of the table asked us if we would like to sample the brilliant red wine. Politely accepting a splash, we learned that this generous man was actually a Bordeaux winemaker, enjoying a Friday evening with his staff. I’d heard that wine comes in a variety of bottle sizes such as Magnums, etc., but until this evening had never seen such a mammoth bottle such as our neighboring diners’. Based on this chart, I think the bottle was probably a Balthazar, containing 16 liters of wine!
Before bidding adieu to Saint-Emilion, we stopped by the UNESCO World Heritage’s Site’s visitor’s center, picked up a walking-tour map, and enjoyed the historic structures at our own pace. The details of that mini walking tour follow.
Monolithic Church & Bell Tower
Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, Saint-Émilion’s bell tower is the town’s highest point. The church structure below the tower was hollowed out of solid rock more than 900 years ago. Its dimensions make it the largest monolithic church in Europe. From the tower’s windy perch high above Saint-Émilion, we saw café-goers in miniature, and extraordinary views of the vineyards that enclose the town.
Les Tertres (Steep, Cobbled Streets)
Saint-Emilion has four tertres. Made of cobblestone, and featuring iron handrails to assist even the most tipsy of pedestrians, the steep inclines give the calves a workout and easily gobble up high heels! The names of the four tertres are: Tertre des Vaillants, Tertre de la Tente, Tertre de la Cadène, and Tertre de la Porte Saint-Martin. Their cobblestones were supposedly imported by English merchants, who had come to Bordeaux for its fine wine. On the way to France, the ships would be filled with the stone, acting as ballast, and on the way back, the ship was filled to the brim with Bordeaux wine.
The Great Wall
In the 13th century, a Dominican convent was constructed here, only to last less than a century. There was once a church, a cloister and a bell tower. All were destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War, leaving only this fragment, featuring a wall of Gothic arches.
The Ursuline Convent
Today, only the shell of the 17th-century convent (couvent) remains, but we enjoyed strolling around the vineyards that surround it. We liked peeking through the convent’s crumbling windows, imagining what its interior once looked like. We can thank the Ursuline nuns for having crafted the recipe for the city’s celebrated macarons!
Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- Saint-Émilion is about 45 km (25 miles) east of the city of Bordeaux. Basing ourselves out of Bilbao, Spain, we spent a long weekend in Saint-Émilion.
- Shawn’s parents treated us to two wonderful nights at the Hotel Au Logis des Remparts (affiliate link). We loved the boutique hotel’s pretty courtyard, where breakfast was served. (I especially enjoyed the fresh yogurt. Served in little glasses, it felt as though it came straight from an artisanal creamery.) We spent many many happy hours taking a dip in the hotel’s swimming pool, then enjoying Rosé wine from Provence, poolside. La vie en rose indeed!
- The Matthieu Mouliérac macaron shop is where we purchased delicious macaron cookies. Initially I was skeptical that any of their sweet treats were gluten-free, but the young salesman assured me that the macarons were indeed so.
- See the Saint-Émilion and Bordeaux tourism websites for more details.
- Looking for more inspiration as you plan your trip to France? From Burgundy to Mont-Saint-Michel, this link contains an index of all my posts from France.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.