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 claim 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 a lot 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!

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