The lovely hilltop town of Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, surrounded by vineyards is a wine legend. UNESCO listed, as well as a “plus beau village de France” (officially one of the most beautiful villages) its medieval streets are an absolute delight. Here’s what to see and do in Saint-Emilion. You don’t have to be a wine lover to find Saint-Emilion utterly delicious…
What to see and do in Saint-Emilion
Like a film set that’s come to life with its medieval buildings and cobbled hilly roads, Saint-Emilion is seriously gorgeous. Just wandering here is a joy though it helps if you have mountain goat like climbing abilities – it’s really hilly.
The word Tertres is a specific term in Saint-Emilion and refers to the steep pedestrian streets. One of the most well-known (and well photographed) is Le Tertre de la Cadène with its handrails to which visitors cling on the way up, and on the way down.
There is another hill that’s worse which is, say the locals, only for the “valiant” – or possibly barmy! It’s the steepest hill in the town, it’s short – but hair raising and is appropriately named le Tertre des Valliants.
Whatever you do don’t try walking this town in heels, the cobbles are tricky enough in flats. You might be horrified or entertained to know that one year, the locals organised a ski competition on the hills – but a re-run has not been planned!
But definitely leave time to explore, not just have a glass of wine, there’s lots to fall in love with here.
History of Saint-Emilion
The fortified town was built in the 12th century. Surrounded by ramparts it had six grand entry gates, one of which remains – Porte Brunet. From here the views over the vineyards are sublime.
From the middle of the 12th century until the mid-14th century, the area was under English rule. In 1199, King John Lackland of England (the King who signed the Magna Carta), brother of Richard the Lionheart, granted a charter to Saint Emilion. It gave the inhabitants of the town a series of privileges and freedoms. They created the Jurade, a sort of jury which collected taxes and managed Saint-Emilion’s interests. In return English merchants had the first pick of wine from the area.
The Jurade is still going strong though it did have a break from 1789 when the French Revolution put a stop to their activities, until 1948 when it was resurrected. These days the Jurade plays a part in the quality control of wine as well as organising and participating in wine festivals.
Top sites to see in Saint-Emilion
It’s fascinating to know that the cobble stones that are everywhere in Saint-Emilion came from England. The English loved the wines from here and would send boats, weighted down with cobbles for safety. On arrival they would be removed and the holds filled with barrels of wine. Those cobbles were used to line the streets and hills of the town.
Much of Saint-Emilion is fabulously well preserved. The mellow colours of its ancient buildings and orange tiled roofs create harmony. Understandably, it’s busy here in the high season but go in the evening after the crowds have gone and watch the sun set over the town and vineyards and you’ll witness a truly wonderful sight. Especially from the square above the Church of St-Emilion.
There are two pretty washhouses in the town, perfect on hot days for a cool rest in the shade, watching the sparkling reflections and listening to the tinkling water, great for a picnic stop too!
From the top of the Tour du Roi, a 13th century tower (probably, no one is totally certain), you’ll get wonderful views over the city. But don’t climb the 118 steps if you’re not good at heights.
Who was St Emilion?
Not just popular for wine lovers, the town is also popular for religious pilgrimages.
Emilion was from Brittany and lived in the 8th century. Leaving his hometown he wandered about France, devoted himself to prayer and became a monk. He finally settled in what was then called Ascumbas. A hermit, he was said to perform miracles and founded a religious community, and the monks that followed on from him began commercial wine production though it was the Romans who first planted the vines. The town was named Saint-Emilion in his honour. He lived in a stone cell and around this simple room, a church was erected. Dug into the limestone in the 12th century, the monolithic church makes for an atmospheric visit.
You can only tour it if you book at the tourist office. The tour takes in Saint Emilion’s cave, the monolithic church, the catacombs (complete with a few bones on view and rather creepy) and the Chapel of the Trinity with its medieval paintings.
All this sightseeing is thirsty work and you’re in the perfect place for that!
If you’re visiting from Bordeaux city, you can take a tour (book at the tourist office). Or take the train which is about a 45 minute journey. From Saint-Emilion station it’s a 20 minute walk into the town. It’s not too strenuous but it is up hill and takes you past the famous vineyards. There was an advert at the station for tuk-tuk rides to town but no timetable when I was there, so I hoofed it and loved the walk.
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