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St-Emilion

40km (25 miles) E of Bordeaux

Surrounded by vineyards, the village of St-Emilion sits on a ridge overlooking the Dordogne Valley. Aside from its famous wine, the town is a treasure in itself: Ancient alleyways lined with centuries-old limestone buildings, half-timbered homes from the Renaissance era, and pleasant cobblestoned plazas draw visitors from all over the world. Sometimes too many—the town can get clogged with tourists in the summer months. Since most come for the day, the best time to visit is in the late afternoon when they are all leaving, and you can enjoy an early evening glass of red in relative peace.

Essentials

Trains from Bordeaux make the 35-mi. trip to St-Emilion 10 to 15 times per day; the one-way fare is 9.50€. Trains from elsewhere in France require transfers in either Bordeaux or Libourne, a 10-min. train ride from St-Emilion. For train schedules, visit www.oui.sncf or call tel. 36-35 (.40€/min.).

The Office de Tourisme is on place des Créneaux (www.saint-emilion-tourisme.com; tel. 05-57-55-28-28).

Exploring St-Emilion

At the town’s heart is the medieval place de l’Eglise Monolithe, which is brimming with outdoor cafes. From here, a knot of cobbled streets and stone houses beckon with gift shops, wine-tasting rooms, and boutiques. 

The Eglise Monolithe, pl. de l’Eglise Monolithe (tel. 05-57-55-28-28), was carved into the limestone side of a small hill sometime around the beginning of the 12th century. The largest underground church in Europe, it is dedicated to a saintly hermit named Emilion who frequented the neighborhood in the 8th century. To get in, you’ll have to take a tour, which also gets you into the catacombs, the 13th-century Chapelle de la Trinité, and its underground grotto—where St-Emilion sequestered himself during the latter part of his life. The 45-min. tour costs 7.50€ for adults, 5.25€ for students, and is free for children 11 and under. Regularly scheduled English tours run April to October. 

For a splendid view of the town and its vine-covered environs, climb the 196 steps to the top of the bell tower (clocher) of the Eglise Monolithe. To get in, you’ll need a key, which you pick up from the tourist office for a fee of 1.50€ per person (leave your ID as a deposit). More views can be had from the top of the Tour du Roi (tel. 05-57-55-28-28), a 13th-century castle keep. Open from April through September, this moody tower offers views of the surrounding countryside—on a clear day you can see the Dordogne River. For more medieval thrills, take a stroll around the crenellated ramparts.

Where to Stay & Eat

You’re not going to find a better welcome in St-Emilion than Le Pavillon, lieu-dit Villemaurine (www.lepavillon-saintemilion.com; info@lepavillon-saintemilion.com). This luxury chambre d’hôtes is a 3-min. stroll into the medieval town center. Doubles start at 250€ (all king size) including breakfast, complimentary wine, and mineral water. Owners Jules and Nikki Garafano are a wealth of information for where to eat and explore nearby. They would no doubt point you in the direction of L’Envers du Décor, 11 rue du Clocher (www.envers-dudecor.com; tel. 05-57-74-48-31; daily noon–2:30pm and 7–10:30pm; main courses 21€–23€, fixed-price menus 25.50€–35€), a popular restaurant and wine bar with a courtyard terrace. Also worth trying is Le Terrasse Rouge, 1 Château La Dominique (www.laterrasserouge.com; tel. 05-57-24-47-05; Tues–Sun noon–3pm, Fri–Sat 7–10:30pm), just 5 min. out of town at Château la Dominique, this laid-back bistro has stunning views over the vineyards.

Arcachon & Cap Ferret

40km (25 miles) W of Bordeaux

Arcachon and Cap Ferret are situated at either end of the Arcachon Bay, almost touching each other from either side of the opening to the Atlantic Ocean, but completely different in atmosphere. Arcachon is the once-bustling and now a little sleepy coastal resort that comes with a Casino, plenty of spa hotels and an increasingly smart pocket of hotels based around the town of Pyla (where you can climb Europe’s largest sand dune.) Cap Ferret, on the other hand, is all about understated chic, like a dollop of Cape Cod in Western France. Bordeaux châteaux owners and Parisian bankers have their second homes here, but you’d never know, as the dress code is strictly casual. A lovely shaded bike path runs for 200km (125 miles) between the two, tracing the shoreline of the bay and passing through beaches, pine forests, and over a dozen small fishing villages along the way, each one loaded with oyster huts where you can stop for refreshments. Bike hire is also available at pretty much every village, although it can get busy in the summer.

Where to Stay & Eat

Philippe Starck has created a luxurious enclave in Pyla, with two wonderful if pricey hotels that both offer brilliant dining. The original is perhaps still the best La Co(or)niche, 46 av. Louis Gaume (www.lacoorniche-pyla.com; tel. 05-56-22-72-11; from 390€ double, breakfast included), with incredible ocean and dune views from its chic terrace. This also happens to be the perfect spot for cocktails at sunset.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.