Tuesday, October 28, 2014

France: A thoroughly awesome trip and some final random observations

We left Avignon around 10:00 Saturday morning and headed back to Paris' CDG airport via the TGV. We're still amazed that you can get from Avignon to Paris in just over three hours. This distance is comparable to going from Prague to Budapest, and that takes nearly seven hours on a regular train. So, we love the TGV, despite the fact that it's pricey and you have to buy your tickets kind of far in advance. If only they had some kind of high-speed rail system in central Europe.

From there we embarked on the two-hour flight to Vienna, then the hour-long bus ride to cold, grey, gloomy Bratislava.

And with that, we said goodbye to France. This was a thoroughly amazing, fun, and beautiful vacation for both of us, despite catching nasty colds and having to endure a few lousy meals. Easily among the most memorable three weeks either of us have ever experienced.

For Terezia, Paris was simply the most amazing city she'd ever been to. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it pulses with life and feels like a truly culturally switched-on and cosmopolitan place. With the gorgeous buildings, the dizzying collections of art, the diverse array of people, the fascinating layers of history, and some of the food, this city simply never gets boring. Getting to see Paris was a genuinely eye-opening experience for Terezia, who now feels like we wasted our time living in Bratislava for three years. If we could live anywhere in the world, Paris would probably be our first choice.

Exploring Provence was a major highlight for both of us. We were floored by everything we saw, every town we visited. It was also great to leave Provence for the end of the trip: coming after the energy of Paris, then ramping down a bit with Lyon, it felt wonderful to readjust to the slower, more relaxed pace of life in Provence.

Renting a car and driving around Provence was an especially awesome way to explore the region, and we'd happily do it again. Getting to see stuff like Les Baux-de-Provence, Pont du Gard, and the gorgeous hill towns in the Luberon region was a truly eye-opening experience.

We found the range of ethnic diversity refreshing (especially after living in homogenized Slovakia for three years); not just in Paris, but just about everywhere else we ventured. It's this kind of diversity that makes cities and towns much more exciting and enriching places to be in, and it's definitely something we need in any place that we would call home.

We feel like we got to experience a fairly good cross-section of France, and I'm happy that after all these years I finally got the chance to start getting to know this country the way I've gotten to know Italy.

We're already thinking about which new places to go on the next trip to France, with the Dordogne and the Ardeche River/Gorges at the top of the list, and perhaps some of the less touristy, upscale areas along the Mediterranean coast (are there still any left?). We're also curious about Marseille. And I still need to see the Gothic cathedrals in Chartres, Reims, and Amiens.

I've been inserting random observations about France in some of my posts, and I thought I'd close this out with a few more.

Putting an end to French stereotypes

You know the stereotype: that the French - especially Parisians - hate Americans, refuse to speak English (or at least do so with disdain), act condescending when foreigners butcher their language, and display a general air of rudeness.

I didn't encounter any of this behavior in 2009, and we certainly didn't experience it this time either. Pretty much everyone we dealt with in restaurants or shops was friendly, patient, and totally willing to speak English, especially when explaining menu items we didn't understand, and never resentful about doing so. We made a point of starting all communication in French, however rudimentary, and as soon as it became clear that my vocabulary was limited, the restaurant server or shop clerk would switch over to English without batting an eye.

And yet, this stereotype still seems to persist in some circles, and while there may have been some truth to it decades ago, today it's time to lay this sucker to rest. The French appear to have accepted the fact that English has become the lingua franca for people from all over the world (and that learning it these days is pretty much mandatory for people in numerous career fields), and I think it's possible that the younger generations today simply may not have any of the hang-ups or resentments that the older generations might have harbored.

But we always try to be polite and we always make our best attempt to initiate communication in French. I'm sure there exists a breed of fussy, rude, or inflexible Americans who make life difficult for hotel or restaurant staff, and perhaps the French reserve their ire for them. But the interactions we had were nothing but polite and friendly.

And I'll end with this: we've encountered infinitely worse customer service here in Slovakia than anywhere in France. France has Slovakia beat in the customer service department by a profoundly significant degree.

The Paris Metro

My brother lived in Paris for over a year in 2009-2010, and when he moved to San Francisco, he was quickly overcome by a deep depression. The reason? After getting accustomed to zipping to any corner of Paris with ease on the Metro, he had come to the realization that San Francisco's public transportation system stinks.

He found himself stymied by perpetually delayed buses that share the roads (and the traffic jams) with the cars; he was unwilling to rely solely on his bike in a city with such steep hills and car-related congestion; and he was bummed out about having to drive everywhere and spend an eternity searching for parking. In short, he had been spoiled by the Paris Metro system, and San Francisco's pitiful excuse for public transit was seriously getting him down and tainting his impression of what is otherwise a city with a lot to offer.

If you live in Paris there is absolutely no reason to own a car. The Metro's complex web can get you pretty much anywhere, and if it doesn't, your destination is usually within walking distance, and there is a system of buses to fill in the gaps.

We are also amazed by the intricate warren of tunnels and passageways that lead in and out of and around the underground stations, especially those with connecting lines. You lose all sense of direction when you're under there, and you just have to follow the signs, which are usually clearly marked and easy to find. The system map looks daunting at first, but you get the hang of it quickly and then it's a breeze.

Since we were there for more than a week, we both got a Navigo card - a magnetic card/pass that beeps when you flash it at the turnstile and lets you through. You pay about 20 euros for a week of totally unlimited use within the city's system, and if you're using the metro a fair amount, it's really the best and most convenient way to go. (The only catch is that when you charge a Navigo for a week, it starts on Monday morning and ends Sunday at midnight, so if you fill your card on, say, a Wednesday, you won't get a full week's use because it'll still expire Sunday.)

More on the several life-altering and the few lousy restaurant meals we had on the trip

I know we griped about a few of those lousy meals, but we did have several outstanding ones, a few of which we'll probably remember for the remainder of our lives. That lamb saddle with wild mushrooms dish we had the very first night of the trip was never quite topped, and it certainly set expectations high, but we had plenty of other meals that were extremely memorable.

Awesome dish from Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris.
The most mind-blowing mussels ever from A Cote in Arles. 

But Terezia was genuinely shocked by some of those less-than-stellar (or downright horrible) meals we had. I think she was expecting that more chefs/restaurants would maintain a higher standard, and she was surprised to see a couple places (which were highly rated, non-touristy establishments) churning out some truly awful stuff, especially in a country with such an unparalleled reputation for its cuisine.

The under seasoning was especially strange to her. She doesn't understand how a chef could live in a country with every herb imaginable readily available, and yet insist on totally under seasoning his/her dishes. Part of the art of cooking is knowing how to use herbs, and how to strike the perfect balance so that they elevate and enhance the flavors; not eschewing herbs altogether so as to produce bland and unexciting food. If we'd wanted bland food, we'd go to Scandinavia, or we'd eat out more in Slovakia! Terezia would've gotten an 'F' if she had tried to prepare a few of these bizarrely under seasoned dishes at the school where she trained to be a chef.

But again, we did have numerous meals that totally met or even exceeded our high expectations, and you're always bound to run into some degree of inconsistency no matter how much research you do. At least there still seem to be plenty of chefs who 'get' how to cook in a way that makes the flavors pop - it's just a matter of finding them!

Amazing tagliatelle with truffles from Le Petit Gourmand in Avignon.

My French

In a word: pathetic. But, since Terezia's knowledge of French was zilch, we had to rely on my pitifully rusty, barely existent French to get by. She kind of got a kick out of this since I'd become so reliant on her in Slovakia and on our numerous travels to the Czech Republic. Fortunately, things worked out OK.

We had a few instances where I needed to sort out a minor problem in French, and in most cases, as I mentioned above, the people we dealt with spoke decent English and had absolutely no qualms about doing so.

In a grocery store I had to ask a clerk whether they sell wine bottle openers, since we didn't have one, but I didn't know the actual word for that. So, I had to stupidly ask, "Avez-vous la chose pour ouvrir une bouteille de vin?" (Do you have the thing for opening a bottle of wine?)

Or when Terezia's Navigo card stopped working (only temporarily, it turned out) because she didn't hear the beep of the turnstile and hesitated too long when going through it, I had to explain to the station agent: "Nous avons achete ce Navigo hier, mais ce ne marche pas aujourd'hui" (We bought this Navigo yesterday, but it's not working today). I didn't always know the most common or eloquent way to phrase things, but I gave it my best shot, and the conversation would usually transition to English anyway.

Still, I'd really like to brush up on my French before the next time we go back so that I can feel a bit more confident about communicating in certain situations. My main fear is speaking to someone in French but then not understanding what that person says back to me and feeling like an idiot. I could understand anywhere from 15-50% of the French that I heard around me, depending on numerous factors, but when attempting to speak the language, it is exceedingly difficult for me to recall the words from my failing memory and get them from my brain to my mouth.

I fared better with my Italian when we were in Italy back in 2011, but since then my Italian has faded alarmingly fast! But sometimes when trying to remember how to say something in French, I could only think of how to say it in Italian. So, I'm basically completely useless when it comes to foreign languages!

At any rate, we're now back in Slovakia attempting to navigate the bureaucratic obstacle course involved in tying everything up here before we move back to California (I'll write more about the fun we're having with state offices and the super happy fun people who work in them soon!). As for France, we're still reflecting back on the trip constantly, and we wish we'd made it there sooner!

Monday, October 27, 2014

More fun in Avignon

I mentioned in a previous post that our hotel in Arles stingily charged €8 extra per person per day for breakfast on top of the rate for the room (an alarming trend we noticed when researching B&Bs in France), which forced us to seek out breakfast on our own. This proved particularly frustrating in Arles because the inhabitants there seem to maintain a very clear distinction between bakeries and cafes, and the two almost never seem to overlap (e.g. you can't get a pastry with your coffee at a cafe or vice versa at a bakery). That meant we had to go to a cafe or a bar for coffee (and these places never served it to-go), and then head to a bakery (or grocery store) in search of some food to eat. This ate up valuable time, and we were sometimes grouchy and foggy-headed while wandering the streets in the morning in search of the best looking places for our morning fuel.

But this was not a problem in Avignon, despite the fact that the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Colbert, which was an otherwise nice and classy-looking place) had the same stupid breakfast policy. Avignon has an abundance of cafes that also serve croissants and other pastries, which meant we could get everything we needed in one stop, and made mornings significantly easier.

Caught in the Mistral wind!

We had a lazy morning checking out some of Avignon's vintage clothing shops and record stores, exploring some of the old, funky Medieval churches, and keeping an eye open for potentially good restaurants. We also wandered into Les Halles, Avignon's big indoor food market, which like seemingly all food markets in France was spilling over with a vast assortment of fresh produce, seafood, cheese, meat, etc... I hope people who live near these markets realize how lucky they are. Terezia can't emphasize enough how much she misses stuff like this in poor old Slovakia, where the markets just pale in comparison.

We wound up back on the picturesque Rue des Teinturies and settled on a bustling place for lunch called Le Zinzolin. It had a very hip, artsy, casual vibe, as well as waitresses with nose and eyebrow piercings and funky art on the walls. The clientele appeared to be all local. What caught my eye was the risotto with chanterelles on the menu.

Sadly, the lunch wound up being so mediocre that I forgot to take any photos of it! We split a caesar salad which came with spinach and arugula rather than romaine, and had fried pieces of chicken and zero anchovies or anchovy flavor (most European establishments have a very open interpretation of what constitutes a caesar salad). My risotto was just OK. The mushrooms were nice, fresh, and forest-y, but again, the whole thing was very under seasoned, excessively creamy (needed an infusion of wild mushroom stock to elevate and balance the flavors) and was desperately crying out for a generous helping of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, which a good Italian chef would absolutely know to do automatically.

Terezia ordered a burger that was dry and overcooked. The whole thing was very 'meh', while the service was super slow. Not sure why this place is so popular. And given that we were two for two with lousy restaurants in Avignon, we were starting to panic a bit.

Palais des Papes and the St. Benezet Bridge

Later that afternoon we went into the Palais des Papes. Most people surely know the story, but back in 1309, the Vatican elected a French pope who moved the catholic church headquarters to his native France in Avignon. He and a series of French successor popes built the Palais des Papes, a massive Medieval palace to house the entire operation, which in turn brought loads of money, status, and development to Avignon, transforming it from a little hick town into a bustling Medieval metropolis. In 1378, some Vatican officials back in Rome grew frustrated and elected their own Italian pope, which resulted in the well-known schism, where for over 30 years there were two popes - one in Avignon, and one in Rome. This situation was finally resolved in 1417, but Avignon remained an important and wealthy town in the region.

The Palais des Papes is the biggest surviving Gothic palace of its kind. The interior is curiously unfurnished, however, as the place seems to have struggled to find things to fill up its vast rooms and lure visitors. Some rooms go into great detail about the construction of the palace and its gradual expansion, with models and diagrams of the different stages. A few rooms have spare period furnishings, while others feature gorgeous, immaculately restored frescos.

We thought it was cool that a few of the bigger rooms, like the papal conclave and the airy Gothic Grand Chapel, were being used to display contemporary art. The spacious, Gothic chapel had an exhibition by Stefan Szczesny, whose whimsical, sensual female nudes were a refreshing sight in a place that for centuries represented Catholicism and all of its rigidity, conservatism, and oppression.

Going into the Palais allows you to ascend one of the guard towers for some amazing, panoramic views over the city and surrounding area. The Mistral wind was still cranked up to full blast, though, which made piddling around on the guard tower kind of a challenging experience. I kept feeling like it was going to whip my scarf away.

We got the combo Palais des Papes ticket which also included entry to Avignon's popular, "broken" St. Benezet Bridge, where the wind was even more brutal. Walking out on this bridge with the Mistral roaring down the river was perhaps not the best time to experience the thing, but what can you do?

The bridge is the subject of an apparently famous children's nursery rhyme (one that neither of us had ever heard), and its broken state makes it a popular curiosity. When it was built in the 1100s, it was the only bridge that crossed the untamed Rhone River, but it kept collapsing due to unpredictable flooding, and at one point destruction by a French king in a battle. Its last incarnation collapsed in the early 1600s during a particularly nasty winter flood, and it has remained a broken bridge to nowhere ever since.

Near the ticket office was a room showing an interesting documentary about how historians are currently creating a full digital image of the entire bridge using old archival documentation and illustrations, as well as digital mapping of what remains of the bridge. The goal is to create something that can allow visitors to virtually walk its entire original length. This is more complicated than it might seem because the river banks have shifted dramatically since the 1600s, including the big island in the middle of the river, which was smaller and in a different place when the bridge originally crossed it.

Since we went out for lunch, we opted for some inexpensive sandwiches for dinner and eclairs for dessert from one of Rue de la Republique's several quality bakeries, and gleefully broke our hotel's stupid rule against eating food from outside establishments in the room!

Final day in Avignon

For our last day in Avignon, we were considering taking the train up to Orange to check out the huge  and amazingly intact Roman amphitheater there (I've always known it as the venue where the Cure played in the 'Cure in Orange' live film). But given that we'd been traveling for three weeks and this was the final full day of the trip, we were frankly feeling a bit run down, and just felt like having a slow, relaxing day. We decided to save Orange for next time, and lazed around the town instead, exploring more of its picturesque streets and checking out the Angladon Museum.

The Angladon has an intimate collection of art from the private collection of the late Jacques Doucet, a Parisian fashion designer and collector. It includes a smattering of big 20th- and 19th-century names, including a few small Picassos, a Modigliani, a Van Gogh, a Cezanne, etc., as well as many pieces by lesser knowns that go back to the Renaissance and several eras in-between. Some of the rooms are more about the antique furniture and decorations than the art. It's a small museum that almost feels like going through a private collector's house. We would not call this a must-see, but it could be interesting to any serious art geeks staying in Avignon for more than a day.

Fortunately for us, by this point the Mistral wind seemed to be winding down. After a few final strong gusts in the morning, it settled to a calm breeze, after which the weather warmed up and all the restaurants and cafes' outdoor tables started filling up.

We took a break from ice cream when we were sick in Arles, but we thought we'd check out this place called La Princiere that reportedly makes the best ice cream in Avignon. Whoever owns this place has serious balls, as they charge even more per scoop than Berthillon in Paris (€2.25 per scoop to Berthillon's already whopping €2 per scoop). Their ice cream was definitely good, but not Berthillon good. If you're going to charge that much, you'd better back that up with the most amazing ice cream on the planet.

We ate a few of our cheap lunch and/or morning meals in a cool, inviting park near our hotel, called Place Agricol Perdiguier. The park is tastefully landscaped with ample seating under shady trees and cool remnants of old Gothic arches, all set against the backdrop of the side of an old Medieval church (which, I'm not sure is still being used as a church). We noticed a few other parks like this around town, and locals and tourists all seem to make good use of them.

In Place Pie there was a half-assed flea market of sorts, with a handful of vendors out selling old junk. I suspect that this market usually attracts more vendors but the Mistral wind was probably keeping people away. One guy who appeared to sell nothing but old, red, plastic objects, had his stuff all strewn out on the ground with a pile of wind-blown leaves all mixed up with it.

Final meal in France: Le Petit Gourmand

We desperately wanted our last meal in France to be a good one. I'll spare you the details, but we spent time refining our research to reduce the chances of having another shitty meal. We even asked the friendly hotel manager for his personal recommendations, and guess which restaurant was the first he mentioned: Le Caveau du Theatre - that wretched place from the other night! No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We kept our mouths shut, but this suddenly made us highly skeptical of his taste and the other two restaurants he recommended, one of which was already on our list (and we promptly removed it!).

So, we settled on a place that we only noticed after walking past it and scanning the menu posted out front. We made a mental note and went back to the hotel to check out any online reviews, and it had shockingly few negative write-ups and loads of praise. But reviewers did emphasize that reservations were crucial, as the place is tiny, and it was getting to be too cold to eat on their little terrace out front. We called 'em up, made a reservation for 7:30, and crossed our fingers.

Our research paid off, as Le Petit Gourmand turned out to be one of the better meals of the trip. Housed in a small place with relatively spartan decor, the dining area and kitchen were both sharing the same space in the front, separated only by a modular counter. There was only room for about 18 people inside, and that's after cramming everyone in with a shoehorn. The place appeared to be run by a super friendly husband-wife duo (or I at least got a husband-wife vibe from the couple): the wife cooks and the husband is the host/waiter. She had two younger assistants helping out in her tiny kitchen.

When we walked in, a table of six Americans were just getting their starters. (Why is it that whenever you encounter groups of white Americans in their 50s-60s traveling in Europe, they always seem to talk so loud? You can hear them declare in their 'outside' voices, "WELL, WE'RE FROM BUBMLEFUCK MISSOURI AND WE WENT HERE AND WE DID THIS AND WE ATE AT SUCH-AND-SUCH..." It's cringe worthy.)

The chef and the waiter both spoke decent English, making the ordering process smooth. For the starter Terezia had the foie gras, which came with toasts and apple chutney. The quality was superb and we both thoroughly dug it. I had what was basically like a cannelloni stuffed with a very tasty mixture of chèvre, pine nuts, and various herbs, but wrapped in thinly sliced zucchini instead of pasta, and served over a bed of greens in a sweetened dressing with two poached figs. I wouldn't call this life-altering, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly seasoned plate of food.

For the main dish, I ordered the foie gras-stuffed ravioli in a porcini sauce. The ravioli were tender, delicious, and perfectly cooked, though the sauce, while definitely good, could have benefitted from some actual chunks of freshly sautéed porcini to increase that earthy flavor (I think the porcini flavor came from a stock), and maybe a bit more herbs. But otherwise, it was a very good and flavorful dish.

Terezia's dish was the star: fresh tagliatelle with black truffles and a very light truffle oil-infused sauce. This was the best truffle dish either of us have ever had. The truffles themselves were super fresh and bursting with their characteristic rich, earthy flavor. And the chef was fairly generous with the amount of truffle shavings in the dish. This is a good example of a well-made, dead-simple dish that doesn't need any messing with because the star flavors can totally stand on their own. Just good, honest cooking.

When I've had truffle dishes in the US, they always seem a little on the bland side, in part because the truffles have to be imported from France or Italy, and by the time they reach the California they seem to lose some of their flavor (and they're always damn expensive - the restaurants pass those extra shipping costs onto the diners, obviously). So, it was really special for us to have a dish like this, which you'd really have difficulty finding in the US.

For dessert we split the chocolate macaron, which was sublimely gooey and rich, and came in a powerful chocolate sauce with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Insanely good.

Throughout the service, the chef would occasionally step out into the dining area and chat with guests, which, after the group of loud Americans left, consisted solely of French-speaking locals.

On our way out, the waiter shook our hands and thanked us, and we told him that this was the best food we had in Avignon. He seemed genuinely moved and appreciative. Too bad we weren't staying longer, because we would go back in a heartbeat. The scallop risotto that some people were ordering looked and smelled really good.

Of course, the irony that this excellent final meal in France consisted mostly of Italian dishes didn't escape us! But who cares. We wanted a really good and memorable final meal in France, and that's what we got.

At any rate, Avignon seemed like a more livable town than Arles, even if it lacked some of Arles' gritty charm. Avignon felt more urban and sophisticated, and struck us as a more vibrant and culturally switched-on place. We could imagine basing there for future visits to Provence and it would probably be better than Arles in some respects, partly because it's a bit easier to get basic necessities there. But both towns are short on major, must-see sights, and visiting them is really more about the ambience and the visual appeal.

(Click here to see more Avignon photos!)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Arriving in Avignon, our first brush with the Mistral wind, and an atrocious dinner

In Arles, we really lucked out with the unseasonably warm and summery weather. It was really a little too warm (we were wearing t-shirts and going jacketless late into some evenings), but too warm is better than rain, so I shouldn't complain.

But on our last night there, a slightly ominous sounding wind started to pick up, blowing dried leaves and other detritus down the street. The next morning we awoke to a full-blown Mistral wind, which howled violently through Arles' narrow streets, taking with it any inadequately secured shopfront A-frame signs, menu boards, and plastic outdoor restaurant chairs in its path.

The Mistral wind is a defining aspect of life in Provence. This powerful wind rips through the region 100 days per year, on average. It blows from north to south, roaring through the Rhone River valley, which acts as a natural wind funnel, picking up strength as it heads downstream, hitting towns like Orange, Avignon, and Arles the hardest. The Mistral causes all kinds of havoc, and locals say it can blow the ears off a donkey, and contend that it can cause migraines, ear aches, and even insanity. Some say the Mistral winds were what drove Van Gogh crazy.

I have to say, the Mistral really is a nasty wind that totally lives up to its reputation. Firstly, it just doesn't let up and it batters the towns and their inhabitants all day long, for however many days it lasts. But this particular Mistral had a chilly bite to it, which put an abrupt end to the summer-like weather we'd been having. It was finally time to bust out that scarf I'd brought along.

Needless to say, it's not good for business. The wind can clear out the streets and suck all the life out of the restaurants' outdoor seating areas. And in autumn it covers the floors of retail shops with leaves.

At any rate, this was the morning that we were to leave Arles for Avignon. The easy 10-minute walk to the train station turned into an epic test of strength as we pushed northward directly into the headwind, dragging our suitcases behind us.


The walk from Avignon's center train station to our hotel was mercifully short - a good thing since we again had to head north against the wind for most of the four-ish blocks.

As soon as you pass through the south gate of the medieval wall into Avignon's old town, you're met with a scene that's entirely different from Arles. You first go down the grand, partially tree-lined Cours Jean Jaures, which after a few blocks turns into Rue de la Republique. The whole strip looks like an attempt at a Haussmann-ized vision of Paris, and stands in contrast with the rest of the city's squiggly, narrow, medieval lanes, lined as it is with big 19th-century neoclassical-ish and occasional Baroque facades and balconies. When the train station was built in the 1800s, city officials wanted to link it with the center of town via a grand, modern boulevard, and so they plowed one - Haussmann-style - right through the middle of town and adorned it with big, new (for the time) buildings.

But while you might mistake this central strip for a boulevard in an upscale section of Paris (or even Vienna), as soon as you wander off of it, you're back in gritty, medieval France.

Rue de la Republique culminates in Place de l'Horloge, which continues the grand, upscale 19th-century vibe with the city hall and the town's ornate main theater building (as well as a big faux-Rococo merry-go-round) as its centerpieces (along with a slew of bad, touristy restaurants with an abundance of outdoor seating). The city hall has a pretty cool medieval clock tower that, quite frustratingly, is difficult to see as it has been fully engulfed by the surrounding building. You can catch glimpses of it from the nearby streets, but the best way to see it is from a distance.

A block beyond that is one of the city's biggest draws, the imposing, massive medieval fortress that is the Palais des Papes. But more on that later.

If you're coming from Arles, the second you step into Avignon you can immediately detect a much more sophisticated and urban vibe. The locals seem to have more money, and they tend to be a bit more fashionably or smartly dressed. Avignon is apparently a college town and has the kind of pulse and diversity that you would expect from a big, energetic student population. Hip-looking students hang out all up and down the main drag and in the numerous inviting public parks, while packs of homeless gutter punks and dreadlocked hippies (all of whom have the requisite untrained Rottweiler or German Shepherd on a tattered, makeshift leash or rope, just like in San Francisco and Berkeley) beg for spare change, and a few drugged-out, smack-eyed zombies wander in an aimless daze.

Avignon also has other signs of student-town hipness: on its network of narrow, pedestrianized streets are numerous funky secondhand bookstores, a few hip vintage clothing shops, and at least two record stores with fairly impressive vinyl sections. One of these record stores, which also doubles as a comic book store, had a few seriously cool rarities, and for much less than Monster Melodies in Paris.

A pile of phones in a cool vintage junk shop. 

When wandering through the old section, you occasionally stumble into a cluster of more modern buildings, one of which has a groovy, 1960s sci-fi aesthetic.

The afternoon

The main drag has several good bakeries that, in addition to selling baguettes and pastries, make good and very reasonably priced sandwiches. For lunch, we chose the one that seemed to be the most popular with the local student clientele, then walked up to the massive square in front of the Palais des Papes and sat near a wall that offered a bit of refuge from the fierce Mistral wind so we could eat in relative peace.

Next, we ventured up to the park (Jardins de Rochers des Doms) just north of the Palais des Papes, which sits atop a big hill and offers nice views of most of Avignon. The problem was that this hill is situated just above a hard westward curve in the Rhone River, and is probably the spot that is the hardest hit by the Mistral, and the wind nearly knocked us over as we struggled towards the north end to get to the sweeping view upstream.

We found you could kind of escape the Mistral if you slipped down a narrow side street going in an east-west direction, but you could still hear it howling as it ripped through the trees and sandblasted the terra-cotta roofs overhead. We ducked in and out of such streets while checking out the menus of restaurants from the list of contenders we compiled.

Our explorations took us down Rue des Teinturies, which is lined by a gentle canal, big trees, and limestone benches with various gargoyle-esque figures and designs sculpted out of them. The street appears to have developed into kind of a hip area, dotted with cool cafes, trendy bars and restaurants, and vintage clothing and furniture shops. The Sorgue River, which runs into the Rhone, was broken up into several canals like this that went through the town, and by the 1800s they all had numerous waterwheels to supply power to the various industries. The canal that runs along Rus des Teinturies has three waterwheels that are still in place and gently spinning.

Rue des Teinturies is usually a bit more hopping, with lots of people eating/sipping coffee out on the establishments' outdoor seating areas, but the Mistral winds forced everyone inside.

A better dinner could be scraped out of a stray cat's mite-infested ear

Sadly, our first dinner in Avignon was one of the worst of the trip. Le Caveau du Theatre had the requisite promising reviews, and its menu boasted several things that we were in the mood for. And with the Mistral wind blowing at full steam, we didn't want to walk all over town, and this place was a mere few blocks from the hotel.

We got there early by French standards, around 7:30, and only one other couple were in eating in the small, acoustically dead dining area: an elderly pair of super intellectual snob college professors types who discuss every trivial detail in life as if it were some fascinating sociological phenomenon. You know the type? Though the woman was American, the guy had an accent that sounded Mancunian, and spoke at a distractingly loud volume in that way when old guys who are hard of hearing talk too loud without realizing it. The place soon filled up, however, with a mix of English-speaking tourists and French-speaking locals.

For the starter, I ordered scrambled eggs with chanterelles and truffle oil. This was actually okay, although it could have been much better had the chanterelles first been sautéed in some parsley and thyme. But things got a bit odd with Terezia's starter: strips of duck carpaccio were draped across a bland and under seasoned pile of lentils, which came with a sweet-tasting pink creamy substance and a few sliced pears on the side. You could kind of almost get what the chef was going for if you had a bite with all of the elements at once, but it was still a bit of a stretch.

The bread we were given was similar in texture and consistency to a lava rock.

But the grand insult of the night was Terezia's main dish, which had to be the most disgusting, and most utterly confused and muddled dish to have crossed either of our palettes. It came with two poorly seared, lonely scallops and two under seasoned shrimp, which sat atop a bed of revolting, difficult-to-identify, thick, grey/white gloopy mush. This sad mush was intertwined with strips of leeks, flavorless mushrooms, and what tasted to me like bits of brussel sprouts. The whole thing had balsamic glaze drizzled on top of it, which for Terezia was the dead giveaway that this was a young, rookie chef who had no idea what he/she was doing in the kitchen.

A heaping pile of blechk!

First of all, the dish was so confused that it was impossible to tell where the chef thought he/she was going with it. Secondly, balsamic glaze has NO place on a seafood dish. It's okay on salads and some poultry dishes, but not seafood, and it's a clear sign of a chef who is trying to mask his inexperience by trying to make the plate look fancy. One of the things I love about eating out with Terezia is that you can't fool her. Because she is a chef (and a good one), she knows every desperate trick in the book, and she can tell right away when a chef is either lazy or inexperienced.

The guy in an Australian couple not far from us also ordered this dish, and he was visibly unhappy with it and kept nibbling off the duck that his significant other had ordered.

I got the chorizo-stuffed chicken that came with shellfish sauce and a moulded cake of bland, totally unseasoned potato mush. The chicken was actually cooked pretty nicely and the dish was decent overall, but there was zero wow-factor, and tellingly, it had balsamic glaze drizzled all over it, the taste of which clashed with the flavors on the plate.

The menu came with desserts, and these were so-so. My chocolate lava cake was alright, even though it arrived room temperature and came swimming in a cloying pistachio sauce with two massive globs of whipped cream on either side. The dish was laughably amateurish and weirdly symmetrical in presentation. Terezia's dessert couldn't figure out whether it was a mousse or a cheesecake. A massive glob of tart, lemon-y marscapone arrived on top of a crumbly cheesecake crust, but it was far too runny to be a cheesecake, making it more like a kind of mousse. This also came with two big, unnecessary globs of whipped cream, as well as a cookie that was as hard as a rock and had clearly just been taken out of the fridge - a nice touch!

Whoa, there's just too much going on here!

Not everything was a complete failure, but the bad dishes here were so appallingly bad that the experience left Terezia totally shocked. At the rate this place is going, that imbecile in the kitchen is going to run them out of business! How can someone get away with cooking such embarrassingly awful food for paying customers in a town like Avignon? We had a few lousy meals on the trip, but this was by far the most bizarrely horrible one yet.

I've seen people on the internet message boards talk of a recent decline in French cuisine, and maybe they're actually on to something. If anything, this and the few other bad meals we've had on this trip have totally boosted Terezia's confidence in her own cooking. She really puts a lot of passion and care into the food she makes, and she would never in a million years subject anyone (especially paying customers) to food that's so muddled and crappily put together.

Anyway, after such a shitty experience, we were worried about finding at least one last good restaurant before the end of the trip, so we had to get back to the hotel to refine our Avignon research.

(Click here to see more Avignon photos!)