By Maggie LaCoste
Arriving into St. Emilion by bike is an experience to savor: lush rolling hills, vineyards as far as the eye can see, medieval houses and ramparts, cobblestone streets, picture-perfect piazzas. A photo couldn’t quite capture the amazing beauty of the landscape, so I just stopped along the way to enjoy the experience. A leisurely 4 hour bike ride from Bordeaux, St. Emilion is a perfect bicycling destination.
Arriving into St. Emilion by bike means you will be one of the few visitors who will not be scrambling looking for a parking place! Parking is very limited, and expensive, even on the weekends. Biking is the best way to tour the area and surrounding vineyards. Information on local bike routes and rental bikes are available from the St. Emilion Tourism Office. Biking routes are available for all fitness levels.
No problem with parking for me!
Many who visit St. Emilion stay only for a few hours, mainly to visit its famous vineyards, have lunch, drink some local wine and then move on to another destination. Sad for these tourists, as they totally miss the real magic of St. Emilion: its culture, people and history. St. Emilion is not so much an attraction, but rather the kind of French town where you can form a bond with the culture and the people, exactly what I look for in a bicycling destination!
Shaded piazzas for relaxing and sharing a bottle of wine.
St. Emilion was built for growing grapes: the first vines were planted by the Romans back in the 2nd century! The town is actually named after a monk named Emilion who settled in a hermitage he helped carve into rock in the 8th century. Stories about St. Emilion are an important part of the area’s history and folklore, and in conversations with local residents it’s very clear that his memory is alive and well.
It was Emilion’s fellow monks who started the commercial wine production in the area around the 10th century. The vineyards of St. Emilion and the surrounding area are so historically important that the area was the first wingrowing region on UNESCO’s list of World Heitage sights. If you like wine, St. Emilion is a great, friendly place to come and learn about it, and take in some local history too. This town embraces its visitors, and seems to enjoy helping everyone, from wine enthusiast to occasional drinkers learn more about wine and its importance to the region.
On my recent visit, I was fortunate to stay at Chateau Franc Pourret as a guest of Catherine Ouzoulias. Franc Pourret has been owned and run by the Ouzoulias family for over 100 years and is one of the few organic vineyards in the region. The Chateau has two large bedrooms that are rented out, and my family was fortunate enough to have both. Staying with Catherine at Franc Pourret is like staying with family and it was an experience that my family will never forget….from incredible breakfasts, to a tour of the vineyards and tasting with Catherine to quiet walks through the vineyards, it just doesn’t get any better than this! We arrived at Franc Pourret as visitors and we left as friends.
I almost forgot about the macarons! Other than wine, St. Emilion has another amazing claim to fame–macarons. I have to admit, I was a bit underwhelmed at how everyone marveled about St. Emilion macarons. I had already fallen in love with the lighter-than-air, pastel colored macarons from Mulot bakery in Paris, what could possibly be better? Catherine at Franc Pourret recommended that we go to Fabrique de Macarons, as they still use the original recipe introduced by the Ursuline nuns in 1620. Competition to produce the best macaron is intense, and the recipes are closely guarded, with only a select few knowing all the ingredients. There are about a half dozen macaron stores in the St. Emilion area, each vying to be regarded as the best. This particular store has been run by the same family for three generations, but was recently sold to Nadia Fermigier upon the retirement of Madame Daniele Blanchez.
One step inside Fabrique de Macarons and my legs went weak. The aroma of the baking cookies was indescribable, and made me think of my Mom, Grandma and Saturday’s at home baking. How could almonds, egg whites and sugar smell so incredible? But I remained skeptical, certain that these very plain looking cookies would never compare to my favorite Paris treat.
The display case was full of uncolored, very ordinary looking “buttons” as they are called in St. Emilion. No colors, no layers, no fillings like in Paris. Although the aroma was wonderful, I was prepared to be disappointed. Then I took one bite of heaven, and my love of macarons will never be the same! The beauty of St. Emilion macarons is their perfect simplicity. Not showy like the Paris macarons, but elegant and divine in their simplicity. Interesting, as that is how I would describe St. Emilion, so it’s perfect that this macaron is one of the best loved specialties of the town!
Not surprisingly, we went back for more macarons, and even ate them the way the locals do, with a glass of Cremant de Bordeaux, a sparkling wine unique to the area that is made from local grapes.
I will treasure all these experiences until I have the opportunity to visit St. Emilion again.
Things Not to Miss in St. Emilion:
- St. Emilion Historical Tours. From the cloisters of the collegial church to the town ramparts, learn how St. Emilion developed from ancient times. Visit underground monuments and catacombs. Tour leaves at 11:00, takes an hour and a half, and is offered daily from July 5 to August 29 and weekends in April, May, June and September. Make reservations at the St. Emilion Tourism Office.
- Climb to the top of the Monolithic Church. Just 196 steps to the top will give you a million dollar view over medieval St. Emilion and the surrounding area!
- King’s Castle Keep. Only 118 steps to the top of this key part of the medieval town’s defense system.
- Visit a vineyard. St. Emilion has 89 chateaus open to the public, many of which are within walking distance of the village, so pick one and visit it. Or sign up for the Chateau of the Day, offered by the St. Emilion Tourism Office. Both a walking tour, lasting about 1 1/2 to 2 hours and a coach tour are offered. Consult with the Tourism Office for days and times. This is a very popular excursion, so reserve ahead of time.
- Spend the night. While the area is full of expensive hotels, there are also many small, inexpensive hotels and bed and breakfasts where you can savor the St. Emilion atmosphere. Consult the online accommodations guide at the St. Emilion Tourism site or visit one of my favorite trip planning tools, the website Trip Advisor.
- Take a bike ride around the vineyards. There is no better way to experience St. Emilion that on a bike. Bike routes and bike rentals from the St. Emilion Tourism Office.
- Visit the Cloitre des Cordeliers historical monument, 14th century cloistre, tour of cellars and tasting of Cremant de Bordeaux
- Take a wine class. Vignobles and Chateaux offer a popular with 3 wines, instruction and booklet for 29 Euro. Also popular is the course at Maison du Vin.
- Eat macarons!