Going Medieval in Saint Emilion and Bordeaux
Updated: Oct 3, 2018
I went for the wine and I was not disappointed. Based on nothing more than an affinity for Bordeaux reds and the 3-1/2-hour distance by train from Paris, I had planned three nights in the region: the first two in Saint Emilion, the third in the city of Bordeaux. I packed a lot into my three days/four nights, because that's how I roll, so I'm just going to give you the Cliff Notes...
I left my little lair on the ever vibrant rue Meslay well before the sun was up to take the 6:48 am train to Bordeaux from Gare Montparnasse, and in Bordeaux-Saint Jean, I slipped onto the connecting local train to Saint Emilion just as the door was closing. By 9:56 am, I'd arrived. It's not much of a train station at Saint Emilion and I had no idea how to get to the town from there, but along came an electric Tuk Tuk (essentially, a large golf cart) that would take me into the centre for three euros. And less than 10 minutes of swooshing by rows and rows of vineyards and chateaux, I found myself in a cobblestoned square peering over a wall at a breathtaking medieval village.
I may as well tell you now, though you'd figure it out for yourself soon enough: Saint Emilion was love at first sight. Better yet, the B&B I'd chosen--Maison de la Commanderie--could not have been more perfect. Saint Emilion is a designated UNESCO Heritage site and this comes as no surprise when you see for yourself how old things are. Did I say old? I mean, ancient! We naturally don't have limestone buildings from the 11th and 12th centuries in the United States, and just the idea that the beautiful stone walls of my room were built almost 10 centuries ago was a lot for my mind to tackle. Yet the five rooms in the Maison had all the modern conveniences, including a shower with lots of shower heads, a heated towel rack, a mini bar with (of course) Saint Emilion wines, among other goodies. And the bed--heaven! I'm not complaining, but as a point of comparison, my AirBnB "bed" in Paris is a mattress on the floor of a very low-ceilinged loft up a somewhat treacherous ladder, and let's just say the sheets and pillows are not exactly top-grade. Simply being an actual piece of furniture made the bed at the Maison a welcome change, but on top of that, the sheets were soft and cozy and the mattress the perfect firmness.
Best of all, the spacious room featured five large windows offering panoramic views of the village--the medieval rooftops, the bell tower of the awe-inspiring monolithic church, the limestone buildings, and in the distance, the brilliant green expanse of the vineyards. In the middle of the night, I'd wake up and see the bell tower out my window and I couldn't resist tearing myself from the comfort of the bed to go take a photo--that's how beautiful it was. (Yes, I realize I've just spent two paragraphs rhapsodizing about my B&B, but even the scent of the bar of mimosa soap was intoxicating!)
Having checked into the B&B several hours early, I set off to explore the charming lanes immediately. It was a welcome change to be in a manageable village, meaning that it is small and you don't have to constantly choose seeing one thing over another. I definitely suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), and especially when my time in a place is brief, I'm always racking up some "I-wish-I-would've's." The sunny, mid-70s weather was also in my favor, and it was perfect for the electric bike tour I did the next morning with Rustic Vine Tours.
We're all friends here, so I'll confess that I'm a somewhat clumsy bike rider, and when my husband heard that I was planning on this excursion, he very diplomatically said, "Hmm." (In fairness, he has witnessed me drive a scooter into a parked car, but that was another time, another place, as they say). Anyway, I'm glad to report that his concern (and mine) were unfounded. Electric bikes rock! Luckily, the very helpful young woman at Rustic Vines found me a bike more suited to my height (yeah, I'm short) and warned me in advance of the little umph I'd feel when I turned the bike on and hit the buttons.
Led by our delightful guide, Julie, we were a group of nine (Americans, Australians, Brits) pedaling without any exertion up hillsides and across different terrains through the gorgeous vineyards of Saint Emilion. The sun on my face, the breeze in my hair, the peacefulness in my heart. Life was good and it was about to get better because, unbeknownst to all of us in the group, we'd come at harvest time! After some stops along the way, where Julie would tell us about the vines, we arrived at a vineyard where a truckload of grapes had just been picked (all by hand!) and were being cleaned of their stems. As busy as the workers were, they were kind enough to let us roam around them taking photos and they even shared a glass of fresh grape juice with us. I don't even like grape juice (well, until it has been fermented), but this frothy purple stuff was something else entirely. And here's a tip for any oenophiles out there: 2018 will presumably be a great vintage for Saint Emilion wines as the extended and very warm summer has apparently made the grapes quite sticky and sugary.
I can't go into every detail of the tour here, but it was certainly the highlight of my three-day trip and I was sorry to turn in that electric bike!
I felt a bit sad when I woke up the next morning because Saint Emilion was magical and who voluntarily leaves magical? My bittersweet mood was allayed downstairs in the breakfast room, though, where I found Laurent, the kind soul who runs the Maison, arranging the fresh apple tart, the basket of bread, the cheeses, the butter and homemade jams and yogurt. There were croissants direct from the oven and coffee made to order and orange juice. It just so happened that I was the only one at breakfast at that time, and Laurent and I struck up a wide-ranging conversation that touched on food, politics, racism, music and what to do in Bordeaux. When it was time for me to go, he was even kind enough to drive me to the train station. I sincerely hope my path will cross with Laurent's again someday--if that means I have to return to Saint Emilion, that's just a sacrifice I will have to make! (Laurent, if you're reading this, I hope you will have quit smoking by then--ha!)
And then there was Bordeaux. I realize this won't be a popular opinion, but I didn't love it. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site and named Best European Destination of 2015 by some sort of huge online survey, I do admire how organized the tourism council is and how easy they try to make it for visitors coming for all over the world. There are representatives at the train station to help you with tram tickets, directions, etc., there's a great city pass you can purchase, there's even a pocket wi-fi to help you stay connected.
The city was much larger than I expected. Also, much dirtier, smellier and, I hate to say it, seedier all around. Here's where I get unpopular, because friends have already wholeheartedly disagreed with me on this. I'm willing to blame myself for the experience I had there. Maybe I didn't stay in the right part of town; perhaps I didn't go to the right places. I was in a B&B on the rue Porte de Monnaie in the Saint Michel district, and many of the streets were filthy and reeking of urine and rotting garbage. Much worse, when I was walking home that night from the Saint Pierre area (quite a long walk, it turns out), at no time did I feel safe. Somehow there seemed to be very few women in the streets and I often came across bunches of men drinking, not to mention groups of homeless men with menacing dogs who were lighting up crack pipes out in the open (the men, not the dogs!). So let's just say that I was feeling quite vulnerable walking around with an unlocked iPhoneX. I'm not aware of the going price for crack, but I'm sure selling my phone would provide quite the party.
Oh, and I didn't even mention my B&B, which had been highly rated, but which was a little creepy with its pornographic paintings (I'm not going to include photos, you'll have to trust me on this one). Also, this was a situation where I would have been better off in a hotel where I could rely on the staff for help or suggestions, because this B&B was comprised of a few rooms in a building across from a restaurant, and I had to go find a waiter at the restaurant to check in/out. They didn't speak much English--that's cool, I'm in France, after all--but I couldn't have asked them anything anyway, unless it was to order off the menu.
I went to bed that night thinking that in the morning, I'd try to exchange my 9 pm train ticket for the first train out of Dodge. When this turned out prohibitively expensive, I became determined to make the most out of the day. And it was a better day. I saw a few churches, a couple of sculptures, a pretty street here and there, though it still didn't impress me as "best European destination"-worthy, in my opinion.
The main reason the next day was better was because I referred to Laurent's suggestions, which he'd kindly written down for me. I had a nice, if not memorable, lunch at a cafe he recommended. I walked through the squares he'd written down, which were lively and interesting. And I found the rooftop bar at Mama Shelter, a hipster hotel, where I enjoyed a phenomenal glass of wine (what else?) while feasting on the view of the city. I also did a one-hour Tuk Tuk tour so I could see the major monuments without putting another 10 miles on my shoes and, at some point in the afternoon, I got caught up in the absurd throng of tourists shopping on the rue Sainte Catherine, a 1.2 km promenade of store after store after store, many of them American chains. (Yeah, I don't get it either.) There was an outpost of Galeries Lafayette there as well, and I popped in so I could use the bathroom, only to find smelly plastic cabins that required 50 centimes to enter. I've seen these types of toilettes on the streets of Paris, but in Galeries Lafayette? It was this sort of thing, plus the signs everywhere in Bordeaux reminding you that you're under video surveillance, that raised this New Yorker's red flags.
I was actually very interested in seeing what is purported to be the most popular tourist attraction in Bordeaux: the Miroir d'eau, the world's largest reflecting pool. Located at the massive Place de la Bourse on the Garonne River, I was supposed to see the huge old buildings, the sky, clouds, etc., reflected on this massive expanse of water. My first afternoon in Bordeaux, there was water trickling along the granite slabs, but no reflection. I tried again the second afternoon, but this time there was no water at all! So much for that. All was not lost, though, as I did stumble upon some sort of odd parade with bagpipes and people dressed in what looked like Dutch costumes. I could never figure out what it was all about but at some point all these people--perhaps a hundred?--joined hands and danced to the music.
Big sigh. It seems Bordeaux and I were simply not meant for one another, at least not this time. I went to the station early for my 9 pm train, anxious to be back in Paris.
Even considering my less than stellar stay in Bordeaux, I enjoyed a wonderful weekend, and let's not forget: I went for the wine. I drank several exceptional wines during my 3-1/2 days, and at incredibly low prices. At Bar a Vin in Bordeaux (why were they rude to me--because I was an American tourist, because I was alone?), I had a Margaux and a Sainte-Estephe--large glasses of smooth, full-bodied reds at just 6 euros each. I'm really no connoisseur and I don't pretend to know what I'm talking about; I can only tell you what I like and don't like, and both of these were fabulous.
My only regret of the weekend was not buying any wine while I was there. I really wanted to, and one bottle that I could drink back in Paris would have sufficed, but honestly, the sheer amount and variety of wine was too overwhelming--where to even start!? Also, as usual, I hadn't packed as lightly as I might have, so carrying a heavy wine bottle or two home on the train would have been challenging. The wines will be more expensive in Paris, I'm sure, and buying it here won't quite be the same experience, but I'm not going to let that stop me.