The medieval village of Saint-Émilion is a tiny but world-renowned kind of a place, pals! Located in the Aquitaine region of South West France and a mere hop skip and a jump away from the wine capital city of the world, it was pretty much a given that as I was staying in Bordeaux anyway I might as well venture on over to Saint-Émilion to check it out and see a bit of countryside on my travels as well as the bustling city. Plus, while Bordeaux is where they sell the wine…Saint-Émilion is where they grow a whole load of it. Although there’s a plethora of tours between Bordeaux and the village every day, I’m not a fan of a planned excursion, for two reasons- partly because of the lack of time available to do whatever I feel like, and partly because I feel like I’m probably being ripped off. So it was a casual train journey for me instead, whooshing out of the station and onwards through the greenery of Aquitaine one morning in July, eventually pulling into a minuscule station which seemed to be located all by itself, just a humble platform and a blockish building like a lonely toy house perched next to the train tracks.
The walk from the train station to the village is as straightforward as straightforward can possibly be, and after hanging back slightly to avoid the rather large collection of people who got off the train at the same time as me, I left the little car park, turned right and basically kept on going until I saw buildings that were grouped together in a more concentrated fashion, with rows and rows of grapevines rolling outwards from the road I was walking in in every direction. It was all a bit beaut to tell you the truth, and in the distance here and there I could spot the odd chateau sitting proudly in the middle of their wine-fields. This part of France has been home to vineyards since the Romans began planting them here in the 2nd century…so if anyone knows a thing or two about wine-making, it’s these guys for sure.
Related: What to do in Bordeaux
At some point in the 8th century, a monk named Emilion came to live in a cave all by himself, seeking refuge and performing the odd miracle here and there, and it’s this miraculous monk who the village was eventually named after. The cobblestoned village grew and grew over time (although still is home to only about 1,900 people), and these days still retains that Medieval vibe of yesteryear, which quite frankly I found downright lovely. Even aside from the wine element, as a location to have a wander in this place is lovely, especially when you stray slightly from the main couple of streets and squares which are home to wine sellers and restaurants galore.
The Château du Roy- or the Kings Keep- is one of the buildings, along with the church spire, that towers slightly over the rest of the village, looking a bit like some kind of statuesque protector stationed there just to make sure everyone’s ok. No-one really knows whether this was actually built by or for royalty- and if so whether it was English or French royalty, as this part of France was actually technically part of England for several hundred years back in the Middle Ages, would you believe it? But pals, that’s not my main point. Because what I find full on interesting about this lovely old square tower, is that every single year, twice a year, a bunch of fellows called The Jurade parade through the streets of Saint-Émilion wearing red robes and hats, eventually climbing all the way to the top of the Château du Roy (which might I add is quite a windy affair once you reach the uppermost part), to honour the great wine growing traditions of the region. Back in the reign of King John (ie sometime circa the 1100s), this brotherhood was created; in return for the English having priority when it came to the area’s wine trade, the Jurade were allowed authority over Saint-Émilion and its inhabitants. And apparently they wore crimson robes whilst doing their authority business. What a funny bunch.
I’m not gonna lie, the wind was blowing so hard once I reached the top that I had a few Marilyn Monroe moments with my dress, which isn’t the most graceful of things when you’re also clutching a bag, a camera and a bottle of water. The view of the village streets and surrounding wine estates was pretty breathtakingly lovely, although this was disturbed slightly when a Korean lass who was up there at the same time as me attempting to take a selfie almost threw all her possessions over the edge. It was a close call; she managed to retrieve her phone from the other side of the railing where it was half-laying in empty air, but a few euro coins were lost to the selfie cause, alas. Needless to say; I offered to take a photo for her and she graciously accepted. I did not want to see anything more than a few euros plummeting to the ground that day, oh Lordy be.
The Cordeliers Cloister is located on the direct opposite side of the village to the Château du Roy, and after stopping in a cafe back down near the church which has been carved into the actual cliffside, I decided to find this mysterious old stomping ground for the Cordeliers monks, slipping several times on the shiny and incredibly steep cobblestones in the process. What a time to be alive!
Built by the monks in the 14th century and inhabited all the way up till the French Revolution, when all that was done with the building was completely abandoned and lay dormant, being slowly taken over by vines and mice and nesting owls until humans decided to claim it back for themselves. Although it’s all old and crumbly these days, in my personal opinion that makes the place even more atmospheric, and these days you can sit in the gardens and amongst the ruins eating a picnic and chilling in the sunshine to your heart’s content. It’s a beautiful place for sure! The Cloister has a network of caves and cellars which run for around 3km underneath the village (pretty spooky I’d say), which are the perfect place for storing wine, and these days they make their own full on delicious sparkling wines called Les Cordeliers, which I FULLY enjoyed and recommend TO ALL WHO WILL LISTEN.
After an afternoon of medieval slip-and-sliding accompanied with wine tasting in the sunshine, the air began to get damper, accompanied by that strange but awesome light that happens when there’s a summer thunderstorm about to take place; turning the buildings golden but with a backdrop of inky grey clouds ready to give way. I left the cobblestone lanes and began the walk along the road to the station just as the first gigantic rumbles of thunder could be heard and flashes of fork lightening jolted across the horizon. It. Was. AWESOME. And so jolly well spectacular that I didn’t even mind sitting in the rain for approximately twenty minutes at the station watching and listening to it all before the train pulled in to get back on over to Bordeaux.
What a place Saint-Émilion is.
- Journey time between Bordeaux and Saint-Émilion is around 35-40 minutes one way.
- Cost is €9.50 each way per person; it’s definitely worth buying both tickets at Bordeaux station or online though, as at Saint-Émilion I didn’t see a ticket office.
- I didn’t do it myself, but if you turn up to the tourist office in the village wanting to locate a winery tour, they’ll help you find one that’s open and close enough to visit (if you haven’t booked anything in advance)
- Entry to Cordeliers Cloister is free, and they also hold daily free tours of the tunnels and cellars beneath the village.
- Entry to the Château du Roy is a mere €2 which I’d say is a bargain.