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!

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