When one thinks of French wines, Bordeaux immediately springs to mind. However, just under an hour drive away is a town far more beautiful, rich in medieval history and flowing with some of the world’s best wine. Home to renowned winemakers, such as Château Mauvezin and Château Figeac, Saint-Emilion is the first place in the world where UNESCO has listed a vineyard as heritage status back in 1999.
Named after a legendary monk from Brittany who fled from Vannes, his hometown, to seek refuge in one of the natural caves in the area, Saint-Emilion fast became a site of religious significance in the country. Whilst the monasteries and churches shaped much of the region’s stunning architecture, its complex geology (sands, clay, limestone) combined with a unique microclimate, allowed for a vast diversity of great wines to be produced.
Where there is good wine, there is bound to be good food and this town does not disappoint. French gourmands will tell you that Saint-Emillion is home to some of the finest restaurants in south-western France with a number of them having raked up Michelin stars. Visitors might feel rather overwhelmed with the amount of good food, wine and sightseeing to choose from. Fear not, for we have put together a selection of our favourite spots that should be on your list.
La Table de Plaisance
Awarded 2 Michelin stars for its unique and creative offerings, La Table de Plaisance is located at the renowned Hostellerie de Plaisance, one of the towns most beautiful hotels. Chef Ronan Kervarrec’s discovery menus are always a mysterious eight-course meal but have included Foie gras de canard des Landes, White Truffles and Bar de Lignes in the past. All paired of course with the town’s unparalleled wines makes the entire dining experience a league of its own.
Logis de la Cadene
Founded in 1848, the Logis de la Cadène is one of the oldest restaurants in Saint-Emilion and has become a historical institution in the region. Chef Alexandre Baumard’s new and incredibly personal take on French cuisine adds a modern and far more colour than many will have experienced before. This small and deceivingly simple family-run restaurant was awarded a Michelin star last year. Signature dishes include Breton Lobster and Squab cooked three ways.
If you are looking for something simple and more casual, head down to Le Bouchon. The restaurant’s seating area dominates the market square and here, you will be very much at the heart of the town’s hustle and bustle. Fast service means it is an ideal spot for a quick lunch and at night there are musical performances for the guests’ entertainment. Either way, the wine simply does not stop flowing. Dishes include a variety of French classics including confit du canard and a selection of terrines and pates.
All the richness of ingredients in French cuisine can become a little overbearing and for those of you who are missing flavours from home then you are in for a treat. Cafe Saigon is rated as one of the best eateries in town with locals and foreigners flocking to this small little restaurant for its famous Vietnamese food. Due to its popularity and size, the restaurant only takes reservations — so make sure you book a spot if you are in need of that Asian kick to the taste buds.
Eglise Monolithe de Saint-Emilion
This monolithic church is the most identifiable symbol of Saint-Emilion with its 68-meter high bell tower overlooking the town. However, the most impressive aspect of the church is that the body of the building lies underground. Dug out in the early 12th century, it harks back to the Middle Ages with its gothic design. Today, it is still a consecrated place of worship and hosts regular religious ceremonies and concerts. It is also the place where induction ceremonies of the Brotherhood of wines of Saint-Emilion or ‘The Jurade’ take place.
The Battle of Castillon
The largest event in the region takes place just outside of Saint Emilion wherein 400 volunteer actors and 50 riders create a grandiose show at the foot of Château de Castegens in Belvès-de-Castillon on a 7-hectare stage, 3 kilometers from the historic battlefield. The 1.5 hour spectacle uses a dizzying amount of pyrotechnics to recreate the battle between the English and Charles VII’s French forces during the Hundred Years War. Aside from the main event you can also sample local amateur wines, sample artisan foods and witness traditional jousting tournaments.
The Cordeliers Cloister
The Franciscan order was better known as ‘Cordeliers’ in Medieval France because of the rope they used as a belt. They arrived in Saint-Emilion in the 13th Century and built this monastery but it fell to disrepair after the French Revolution, when it was abandoned. However, in the late 19th Century, the new owners of the cloister decided to use its underground cellars to make and age sparkling wines when the region was hit by poor sales. To this day its legendary sparkling wine, ‘Les Cordeliers’ is still sold in one of Saint-Emilion’s most picturesque settings.
You will not be short of vineyard tours in this area. Saint-Emilion is home to over 100 estates that visitors can visit. Chateau Laroque is a less known one, dating back to the 12th Century, but boasts a 61-hectare vineyard and is Saint-Emilion’s largest, with 40 hectares of the vines classified as Grand Cru Classe. Late in the game, Laroque has only recently returned onto the scene after the estate was neglected, abandoned after the depression in 1929. Since then it has been redeveloped and now is producing some of the regions finest. Not only will you taste the best wines available but a tour of the estate also includes walks through perfectly manicured gardens. Little, in fact, remains of the original buildings with its magnificent chateau only constructed in the 17th century. It is fast becoming the premier wine touring destination of Saint-Emilion.
Chateau Grand Barrail
Château Grand Barrail is easily the most luxurious offering of accommodation in Saint-Emilion. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the world, the gorgeous rooms are split between the chateau and its outbuildings. Located on the right bank of the Garonne river and within a seven-acre park, guests are treated to the most spectacular views and are free to roam the palatial grounds. The 19th Century chateau houses a gourmet restaurant serving south-western French fare as well as a chic smoking room that includes a vast array of cigars.
Hostellerie de Plaisance
Once a convent where nuns offered shelter and protection to pilgrims and travellers, the building became a post office after the French Revolution and then an inn. Hostellerie de Plaisance opened as a hotel in 1927 to the public. Located in the heart of the town, the hotel comprises 14 rooms and three modern suites with every window and terrace offering beautiful views of the surrounds. Additionally, the hotel also has its own house set in the heart the Chateau Pavie estate, three kilometres away from the town. Guests can choose to stay here in amongst the grapes of this classified Premier Grand Cru Classe A vineyard.
Auberge de la Commanderie
The ideally located Auberge de la Commanderie offers all the comforts of modern luxury with the convenience of being right on the doorstep of the town’s shops and restaurants. Steeped in history, the hotel was originally an ancient Templar house and its annexe even said to be the last hide-out of the Girondins deputies during the French Revolution. Staying here also means you will have the Michelin starred Logis de la Cadene just down the stairs for you to wine and dine in.
Things to take note
Saint-Emilion does not have the modern convenience of Uber that other French cities do. Additionally, it suffers from not having enough taxi drivers. Therefore plan your trips to neighbouring vineyards and villages well in advance, especially during peak holiday seasons.
The French public services are also known for having a penchant for protesting. Always check your train or bus schedules online to make sure it has not been delayed or cancelled due to public strikes.
How to get there
Fly to Paris from Kuala Lumpur with only one connection on Emirates, Etihad or Oman Air. From Paris, get a bus or train from a number of stations around the city direct to either Gare de Libourne or Gare de Saint-Emilion.