Perhaps the most ironic thing about our journey to the medieval hilltop town of St. Emilion in our tour of Bordeaux, was our passing a McDonald’s along the way. I can imagine nothing more dramatic with which to juxtapose the ancient, walled city where cars are largely not permitted than the famed golden arches. We may as well have stepped into a time machine.
Finding St.Emilion seemed simpler than finding other places in Bordeaux. I suppose that at this point in our journey we’d finally become more accustomed to the maps, roads and traffic signs that at first had seemed indecipherable. As we neared St. Emilion, the countryside transformed from the rather flat expanses of Pessac-Leognan and Pauillac to a more picturesque, hilly landscape. The drive offered views with a lovely natural quality, and fewer palatial chateaux hovering near the road.
Finally, the city of St. Emilion emerged from the landscape as though out of time itself. Fortified with ancient stone walls, St. Emilion was originally built in the 12th century and then rebuilt in later centuries to its present appearance. The steep, cobbled roads weave round, up, and through in a fashion clearly not intended for automobiles. Indeed, traffic is limited to a unidirectional road, and parking, other than in the tourist area at the very top of the city, is nonexistent.
As one may imagine, the layout of this quaint place made it a challenge to find and park at our hotel, Hostellerie de Plaisance (of the Relais and Chateaux chain). Several false starts forced us right through the city; we then had to find the entrance once again due to the one-way road. Finally, we identified our hotel – partly due to the photo that we had printed from the hotel website, partly due to the fact that there was no other place to park our car than right near the hotel, and mostly due to luck.
The Hostellerie de Plaisance is located at the top of St. Emilion, which is also its heart. It is adjacent to a grand, carved stone cathedral that inspires awe in its visitors. The inn, once a monastery, is owned and operated (since 2001) by Madame and Monsieur Perse, also the owners of the renowned Chateau Pavie (Premier Grand Cru Classe), and of Chateau Monbousquet, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. The interior is beautifully refurbished, offering elegance and modern amenities.
Our room, “Pavie,” was beautifully appointed with rich draperies and fabrics and elegant furniture. The bathroom was very spacious (note to North Americans – the WC is located in a separate room from the bath tub, shower, and sink). But it was the view that was completely breathtaking.
From our room, perched at the very top of this ancient, intriguing city, we could peer over the red-brown shingled roof tops of the snugly-situated buildings and the steeply sloping cobblestone streets. Open-air restaurants with canopied tables spread below us along with a thriving throng of visitors making their way from shop to shop, particularly in the Place du Marche. We could see beyond the city walls as well – and were delighted by the hilly, green vineyards that went on as far as the eye could see.
We dined two nights at the hotel’s restaurant and ate under the stars. We enjoyed a similar view of the city below as we ate the exquisite offerings of Chef Philippe Etchebest. Of particular note was an incredible, almost indescribable entree – a lasagne with foie gras, forest mushrooms, black truffles, and an amazing creamy sauce. The tender layers of noodles and the earthiness of all the rest will never be forgotten! Of course, neither will sipping the bold and beautiful 1998 Pavie-Macquin as we surveyed the land that produced it!
We took in the city itself the next day. Even at a strolling pace, it did not take us long to see the major points of interest and most of the shops. We had lunch al fresco at a pizzeria, eating at a tiny table set against an old stone wall, and then sampled homemade gelato as we finished our walk about. We did not tour the outlying vineyards during our stay, partly by choice after the myriad of tours in Pessac-Leognan and the Medoc, and partly by circumstance. The French do holiday in the summer, after all, and not everything is open just to suit a visitor’s convenience.
St. Emilion is a tiny place, an old place, with nooks and crannies to explore, but not so many that you are left overwhelmed at the end of the day. And there is something truly restful about this old city at night, when the day tourists are gone, and a quietness settles over those left amid the stone walls.
We give the Hostellerie de Plaisance 5 Stars- Outstanding!
Hostellerie de Plaisance is located in St.Emilion in the Bordeaux region of France. For hotel reservations call 33 (0)5 57 55 07 55, or visit www.hostellerie-plaisance.com/