Drive about an hour northeast outside of the city of Bordeaux, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of glorious rolling vineyards, exactly the kind of landscape you might imagine when visiting France. Cross the Dordogne River for which the region is named and you’ll soon come to Saint-Emilion, the crown jewel of the area, famous for both its merlot and its charm.
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The town of Saint-Emilion and its wine-rich environs have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s easy to see why. Although the town is situated on a hill, a trick of the landscape hides it from view as you approach until it suddenly appears in the middle of the surrounding vineyards like a mirage.
Start your day in Saint-Emilion at the tourist office, which is at the top of the hill just across the square from the bell tower. Here you can buy informational books about the town, get a free map, and reserve space on a tour of the unusual underground church beneath the tower.
Most importantly for those of you visiting with kids, ask at the tourist office for free scavenger hunts, which are available in in both English and French. There are two themes– “The Mystery of the Knight” and “An Adventure in Nature” – as well as age-appropriate versions for kids of different ages. Children are promised a prize if they return with the hunts completed.
Have you ever arrived in a lovely village with your children and wanted to simply poke around without a real agenda, only to be stymied by the kids’ cries of boredom? I’m happy to report that the scavenger hunt, which took us all over Saint-Emilion just as we might have wandered on our own, was the perfect solution to this problem.
The boys immediately set to work just outside the door to the tourist office in the Place du Clocher, giving me ample time to admire the town spread out down the hill before us and also the bell tower.
The other fun thing about the scavenger hunt was that it pointed out details that we wouldn’t have noticed on our own. Our second direction was to follow a string of manhole covers decorated with the coat of arms of Emilion, the patron saint of the village to a half-timbered house, the only one in the village, which has stood since the 16th century. The boys were directed to look for animals on the façade and in Tommy’s case, to draw them.
From there we had to find the market square and then the Rue des Jurats (named after the town council that once controlled the village and now serves as goodwill ambassadors for the Saint-Émilion wines). Along with a group of French schoolchildren we tracked down la Petite Fontaine, which in the 19th century served as a communal washhouse for the village.
We wandered some more in search of the Place du Cabiou and found the King’s Castle, actually a square keep, which is all that remains of a fortress built during the Hundred Years’ War. This is an important spot for Saint-Emilion, as it is from here that the Jurade, or town council, proclaims the beginning of the grape harvest in September and announces their opinion of the new wine in June of each year.
After identifying a few more buildings and counting the bull’s eyes on the façade of a large house, we ended up in the cloister of the Collegiate Church, the active parish church of the village (this one above ground). The large church itself is worth a visit – you can point out to the children that it was built over such a long period of time that the outside of it demonstrates two obviously different architectural styles dating from different centuries. There are also some beautiful frescoes inside that show the story of the life of Saint Catherine.
But we had to find our last clue in the cloister next to the church. This is a good spot to look up close at the soft native limestone that the buildings here are constructed from and that give the town its luminous golden appearance.
We couldn’t linger too long however, as the boys were eager to get back to the tourist office to claim their prize. The lovely young woman working there checked their sheets carefully before declaring that they had both succeeded. Each boy was given an official diploma and a cool multi-color crayon.
But the biggest prize of all was the fact that we had walked all over this lovely village for several hours without one word of complaint from the boys.
Next I’ll offer more tips for visiting Saint-Emilion with kids and will also share the story of the rest of our day, including our visit to the hermitage and underground church.