How could I not fall for a town that fills its trashcans with nothing but empty wine bottles? In Saint-Emilion, where the dominant street aroma is balanced parts Merlot and Cabernet, wine is life. However, fine bistros must eventually lay to rest the vessels of what was once worth $50, $100, and even $500 or more. If drinking a whole paycheck in one meal seems like a step towards the financial guillotine, don’t fret. I’ve discovered how to get an entire stay for the cost of one bottle of Château Ausone Grand Cru Classé.
Sidestepping around crates of spent vintages near my hotel the first morning, I caught a scent of baking macaroons, while restaurateurs set out their new plat du jour. Immediately, I knew this enchanting medieval hill town, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, had more to offer me than just a good glass of Bordeaux, even while on a strict $500 budget.
Where to sleep
At most Saint-Emilion hotels, the requisite “Bonjour!” is soon followed by “un café, chocolat, ou thé?” The hot morning drink is just a precursor to a breakfast of yogurt and fruits accompanied by a basket of fresh croissants and mini-baguettes. The friendly service starts each day off right, and unless you stay at the four-star Relais & Chateaux property in town, you won’t have to spend much more than €100 per night (about $134; see XE.com for current exchange rates)—plus a €1 or so tourist tax—on your room.
Hotels in France are regulated and starred according to price, so rates are posted up front, helping to avoid the price-comparison and guessing game you often have to play in the States.
Two-star properties like Auberge de la Commanderie start at €65 and offer comfortable but basic accommodations. I stepped it up at the three-star Au Logis des Remparts, which starts at €100 with a bath but has extra amenities like a pool and larger rooms. For me, the spiral stone staircase and in-room towel warmers made all the difference. Set against the town’s fortified ramparts, both hotels have modern amenities like Wi-Fi (for a fee) and trendy urban decor, and are situated in the thick of it all with views of an abutting vineyard on one side and a wine-shop-filled street on the other.
I shared my street-facing double for €50 (about $67) per person per night, bringing my total for three nights to $201. Breakfast cost €12.50 each day, which is pricier than most but worth the convenience of having food waiting each morning. Those wanting to stay longer might consider a chambre d’hôte, or French guesthouse, which start at about €50 for two in town.
My subtotal so far: $201 (three nights’ hotel) + $4 (tourist tax) + $50 (three breakfasts) = $255
Though the wine gets most of the fuss, Saint-Emilion is also a gourmand’s paradise. Food makes up part of its history, especially the traditional macaroons (nothing but almonds, sugar, and egg whites) baked here since 1620. Even Emilion, the famed eighth-century hermit and the town’s namesake—who took up residence in one of the underground limestone caves—hid bread in his coat to give to the poor, according to legend. Today, the town packs in 20 restaurants whose dishes use classic French ingredients such as duck magret or foie gras that pair perfectly with the wonderfully tannic, full-bodied reds.
Surprisingly, despite such luxurious menu items, dining doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Most restaurants offer affordable three-course, fixed-price menus. For about €14 to €25, you’ll get an appetizer, main course, and dessert or cheese plate that won’t leave you hungry. Many places also offer a special plat du jour (plate of the day) with similar format for even less. All prepared food requires a VAT of 19.6 percent, which most restaurants include in the price of the meal.
At the modest end of the spectrum, Amelia Canta is a cheerful restaurant and brasserie located in the square next to the monolithic church’s bell tower, perhaps the town’s most recognizable landmark. For €16.50, I enjoyed onion soup, veal confit, and a simple cheese plate featuring Camembert. Across the square inside Le Bouchon’s funky blue dining room, I found a well-presented tomato mousse with sun-dried tomatoes, duck tenders, and apple parfait for €19. My biggest splurge of €25 was at L’Envers Du Décor, where the dish of the day is “English Spoken with a French Accent.” Here, my most memorable three courses were tuna tartare, country-style herbed chicken and rustic potatoes, and macerated cherries; however, my favorite part of the meal was drinking wine poured from a carafe graal, a decanter that looks like an ogre-sized wine glass.
Although lunches can last up to two hours and involve menus as elaborate as those for dinner, I kept things simple and cheap. At Les 5 Sens, I opted for the most expensive menu item, a foie gras and smoked duck sandwich on a whole-grain roll for €7.50. When home felt a little distant, a simple tomato and mushroom pie at Restaurant-Pizzeria de la tour Du Roy for €8.50 was the perfect solution. Unlike home, however, this pizza parlor is a former grain silo with a nonsmoking section inside an excavated limestone storage cave. Le Médiéval is a perfect spot on the edge of town to sit outside in traditional French cafe style. Here, I lunched on a refreshing chicken and duck magret salad with mustard vinaigrette and a fried egg on top for €9.50.
I spent much of my downtime in the soft leather chairs at the Saint Emilion Web Bar, owned by fellow New Englander Priscilla Gimeno and her French husband, who made me feel right at home. After swapping stories from abroad with her, I ordered a half-portioned cheese plate with brebis (a sheep’s milk cheese) and cherry preserves like you’d find in the Pyrenees, and a double noisette (espresso with a dab of cream) for €10.40.
My subtotal so far: $255 (from above) + $130 (food), and $16 (a glass of house red with each dinner for €4) = $401
Saint-Emilion’s wines are some of the world’s finest. However, if you’re not careful, you can spend as much on a bottle as on your entire trip. The good news is that jovial winemakers and talkative shopkeepers take the pretense out of wine with friendly banter and a willingness to help you make the right purchase.
The best place to taste and buy wines is at one of the 90 or so wine shops in town. If nothing else, tastings are free. When I visited Cave de L’Ermitage to sample Château Croix de Labrie, the winemaker himself, Michel Puzio, stepped in to discuss his techniques through the translations of shopkeeper Thierry. Not only did I learn the importance of “being a good chef” with the vines, but I also got to taste the full range of what Puzio produces. His top-label Château Croix de Labrie, though spectacular, costs more than €100 per bottle. However, his second label, Petit Labrie (a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes) contains a significant percentage of the merlot juice from Croix de Labrie, but costs a mere €24. Plus, you can’t find Petit Labrie in the U.S.
In similar fashion, fellow winemaker Michel Gracia makes Angelots de Gracia as a cheaper alternative to his top-rated Gracia wine. In teasing Gracia, Puzio says, “His wines are like the winemaker, full and rich and robust.” I couldn’t agree more.
Both Michels are part of the garagiste movement, a revolutionary school of homespun winemaking that rivals Saint-Emilion’s aristocratic grand cru wines such as Châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, at least according to wine journalist Robert Parker. Because of speculation though, these wines are highly sought after, so consider yourself lucky to get a sip.
You’ll be even luckier if you get to taste Ausone, probably the most prestigious Saint-Emilion wine, and the most expensive at around $500 to $1,500 per bottle. The only place that would let me get close was L’Essentiel, a wine and cheese bar that serves Ausone by the glass for around €40 (about $53). My new effervescent French friend, Aurelie the sommelier, who I met earlier at lunch, convinced me to go for it. Since it was her first day on the job, I couldn’t say no. Thank goodness my act of charity didn’t kill my budget. And thank goodness the wine’s exceptionally balanced taste of ripe black fruits and sweet floral aromas justified the expense.
My subtotal so far: $401 (from above) + $53 (one glass of Ausone) = $454
If you want to visit the cellars, the tourist office will help you set up tours of those open to the public.
Saying Au revoir
With only $46 left in my budget and a still healthy appetite for just one more meal and bottle of wine, I picnicked in the vineyards right outside the town’s ramparts with my boyfriend Jack. We picked up a grocery bag filled with baguette, cheese, and raspberries for $8, then made one last visit to Cave de L’Ermitage to purchase a bottle of $32 Petit Labrie. My heart grew a little heavy as we said goodbye to Thierry, who gave me a kiss on either side of my face as is custom in France.
While we ate, we recounted our previous meals that made our stomachs round and full, as well as the wines that left our mouths dry but begging for more. We drank slowly right out of this last bottle, trying to suspend time before we hit the road for the next part of our journey in France.
As we walked the winding limestone-paved road back to our car, I paused by the trash. Taking one final look at my polished-off second-label bottle of Petit Labrie (2004), I proudly placed it in the crate next to the top label Ausones, Cheval Blancs, and Parker-touted garagiste vintages that make Saint-Emilion so famous.
Even with only $494 spent, my stay was worth much more, and all the money in the world would not have made it one liquid ounce better.
Read about my continued adventures in France next month when I write about my stay in the mid-Pyrenees and Basque Country for under $500.
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