Biking the Dordogne Valley: Saint Émilion

When I left you Wednesday, I was sitting in soggy Libourne, at the train station, waiting for the rain to stop since I really, really, don’t like riding in the rain. After about an hour, the rain had started to at least slow a bit as it had gone from a torrential downpour to steady rain, and now was now hovering somewhere between a light shower and a constant mist.

Regardless, it was still plenty wet outside.

The other part of my calculus was what I would have to do in order to get ready to ride, and it was at best complicated. In no particular order, I would have to remove my bike from the travel case, assemble it, assess the inevitable damage that had been incurred at the hands of our dear friends at the TSA, inflate the tires, attach various gizmos, and fill my water bottles. I am sure I am missing one or seven steps, but you get the idea.

Then, I would have to prepare myself for the ride. In bike racing/riding parlance, this is referred to as “kitting up” or getting on the appropriate riding gear. That means I would have to find someplace to open up my suitcase, remove the necessary items, get buck naked, and change into all-too-revealing bike gear.

Yeah, that would make me popular.

Last, but certainly not least, I would need to find a taxi that would take all of my crap, which was considerable, to my hotel in Saint Émilion. I have found over the years that any taxi driver that would agree to take all of my luggage once seeing me “kitted up” was, well, thinking “What the heck is up with you? You can’t be all that smart” and was, therefore, a candidate for stealing all my (considerable) gear, leaving me with the lycra on my back and a bad case of helmet head to proceed with the remaining twelve days of my trip.

So there was that.

In the end, I paid 2€40 (about two bucks) for the ten-minute train ride to Saint Émilion. Where it was still raining (although not very hard–I guess that is what was meant by a 0% chance of rain) and I had to schlep all of my bags about a mile uphill, with the last quarter being on cobblestones (sure they look authentic and quaint, but isn’t it about making my life easier?).

The Saint Émilion Station, was, well, not much (other than soggy).

The hotel was modest but nice, run by a Dutch couple who had sold their bar in Rotterdam once they started having children. They were both incredibly nice and their French was much better than mine (as was their English, for that matter). Whenever I meet someone from the Netherlands, they always make me feel inadequate. Sigh.

This was my second time visiting Saint Émilion, the first being a number of years ago with the family in tow. Thus, after having settled into my room and showered, I set out under the mist (the precipitation finally stopped around 6:30 p.m.) to explore the town a little more in-depth.

My bike trying desperately not to go screaming down the hill.

The town is essentially built into a rocky hill, which can make walking around, particularly when the streets are wet, a bit perilous (don’t worry, I was able to stay upright, as far as you know).

A LOT steeper than it looks.

Like most towns in France, Saint Émilion is dominated by its church in the center of the village. Far less common is the fact that the base of the church is monolithic, it is carved out of one large block of stone (calcareous rock, to be a tad more precise). It all started when a monk (Émilion, yeah, duh) came to the area in the eighth century and hung out in a cave, spawning the idea to make it into a church.

You can see the church from just about everywhere in town.

Or something along those lines.

…but the only way to get inside is to get a ticket from the tourist office. That seemed a bit un-Christian to me, so I passed. Notice all of the cobbles. Cool, but a pain when you are lugging a suitcase and a bike carrier up it.

One of the many areas in which the French excel is the lighting of monuments.

The third thing one notices (yes I skipped the second–I will come back to it next, you know for dramatic effect), is that for a town of only around 2,000 inhabitants, there sure are a ton of restaurants (I came to find out that there are 31 restaurants in the town), many of which, unfortunately (at least for me) randomly choose to close on any given day during the off-season, which starts on October 1st.

Lucky for me? That was the date I showed up.

The Franciscan Cloisters in the upper part of the city. Free entry. So I went.

The second (or actually even the first) most striking feature of Saint Émilion is the number of wine shops. Holy cow. I did not count (but I should have inquired) but it seems that wine shops outnumber the restaurants by at least 2-1 (but I am not really sure how to count wine shops that also serve at least some food). They are everywhere.

My kinda wine shop.

A view from the top of the town. See all those buildings? They’re all wine shops (not really, but close).

And unlike really any other place in France that I have visited, the salespeople are aggressive (at least when compared to the French, we are not talking New York aggressive, maintain some perspective, people). In a “normal” French retail establishment, you are pretty much treated as if you were invisible. In fact, most of the time it would be easy to think that the salespeople were annoyed that you showed up.

Over 60% of the Saint Émilion “area” is planted to vines. I guess they need to sell all that wine somewhere.

Not in a Saint Émilion wine shop, no siree Bob. The moment I walked in, I was greeted enthusiastically and more often than not, immediately handed a glass of wine to taste. It didn’t matter if I had just popped in to ask for directions, or to get change for a twenty, I would not even say a word and I was encouraged, no, expected, to start tasting the local juice. And as soon as that glass was emptied, a different wine soon took its place.

I have to say I both liked it and found it rather creepy.


As soon as it becomes clear that you are not going to buy multiple bottles or cases of wine, the spigot shuts off rather abruptly, and you become invisible, much like every other French retail establishment. I found it so unnerving, in fact, that I stopped going into the shops altogether, despite it being one of my favorite activities of all time. I would rather go to a wine bar and pay for my booze and be ignored by the waitstaff from the get-go.

More next week….



About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in France, Humor, Travel, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

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