Driving in France can be very expensive -- diesel gas costs about 1.20 euros per liter (about 4 liters per gallon and mulitply by 1.4 to get almost $7 per gallon!) Luckily, our little Ford Fiesta got good mileage - or should I say "kilometerage"? Filling it up was a little weird though, the gas line was very loose and I could see the ground when I placed the fuel nozzle. I also had difficulty with the controls, I never figured out how to turn off the back windshield wiper, and finally one the last day, Rebecca discovered how to lock the doors from the inside, which would have been helpful in Avignon. Don't forget to Read More.
From Lyon to Avignon is about a 2 hour drive, and I am pretty sure I got caught by a speed camera going through a tunnel in Lyon, so we were careful to keep to the limits after that. Through the countryside, eerie fog hung in the hills, looking like the set of a horror movie, so I was happy when we arrived in Avignon. Avignon is a walled city, home of 5 or 6 French pope's, who at the time were more like kings - they had their own armies, currency, and other courts sent princes to serve at the popes' pleasure. It is also a university town, and in the summer hosts a huge theatre festival. Finding parking around the corner from our hotel was a nice treat - that continued our streak! The hotel Bouquet was great, the owners couldn't be nicer - marking a map of nice places to see and where not to eat for us. Each room has a theme, not overdone, and we had the Indian room, funky Buddhas on the bedspread and dancers on the wallhangings, but I am almost positive that the other decoration was South American. What a step up from Lyon - the room sported two double beds, a full bathroom with soap, warm water and clean towels - combinations not found in all French toilets.
We walked around the nearly deserted town for a bit that night and found a restaurant that just served wine and cheese, I had a warm chevre (mild goat's cheese) with garlic and caramelized onions, roasted potato wedges, a green salad and crusty bread with a perfect glass of white wine to aid my sleep.
After a chat with the hotel owner, who suggested a tour of the town across the river, we headed to Villeneuve les Avignon for the market and to check out the monastery. After a weird detour down a one-way street to view some farmhouses, we reversed after the road turned to dirt, and only had to pass one other car that was driving the opposite was. The market was just what you would expect in Provence: olives, marinated garlic (we were worried that Hertz would charge us extra for the stink), wine, pottery, pastries, bread, sausages, and every kind of meat, fish and produce imaginable. We started with a degustation - tasting - of Gabriel's cheese and bought a slice of each, the same cheese really, but aged three different lengths of time, my favorite was the 18 month old. The marinated garlic is amazing, not bitter, and the same producer offered tomato caviar, similar to a tapenade, it tasted like summer in a dish.
After a nice conversation (en francaise, oui) with the potter, I learned about the traditional pieces, the sausage bowl - for the whole pig, the olive oil pitcher and the little cicadas for knife rests. I wanted to buy everything! Not much luck with the cookie guy, but I pointed to a ginger cookie and he gave me the one that was burnt around one edge, which kinda annoyed me until I tasted it, and wanted to go back for more. Instead we bought a great sourdough baguette (pain au levain) and headed up to the old monastery.
Another great parking spot, and we sat in the car, munching on our treats, getting odd looks from the locals, especially since we forgot a knife, and had to rip the sausages apart with our teeth.
The monastery had served as a prison for "bad" priests so there were cells with little windows to pass food to the inmates. The chapel was a little worse for wear, but the collapsed part made it seem more beautiful with the blue sky above. I forgot already which pope is interred there, but it is a big deal - maybe a Clement? During WWII, an American or British parachuter fell into the courtyard, got stuck somehow and the town hid him for a few days until he could rejoin his unit. But the best part were the frescoes in the abbot's chapel. There were no guard ropes, so I was able to get as close as I wanted to see the details. Matteo Giovanetti worked on the pope's palace in Avignon, and probably painted these around the same time.
Off the Palais du Pape, huge, cold and mostly bare, with the most boring audio commentary I have ever heard. One room (no photos allowed) was painted with a forest scene - men fishing in a pond, catching birds in the most amazing green colored trees and foliage. The floor tiles were pictured with birds, fish etc in odd shades of green and orange. I am sad to say that I was less than impressed with the Palace, but maybe because I enjoyed the monastery already and two religious buildings in one day is pushing my limit. A quick stroll outside in the wind, and we were at the Pont d'Avignon, a bridge with an interesting story, I won't bore you with it, read here if you want.
Without a map, we tried to drive to one of the mountain villages, after a detour into an office park, we bought black market gas, which made the Fiesta sound even more like a tractor, and traced our way back to Avignon, which might have been easier if our map had indicated one-way and pedestrian only streets. Excited to find our way, we passed a group of students, drunk and annoyed with having to get out of our way, who opened the rear driver's side door; concerned about our imminent car-jacking, kidnapping and subsequent sale into slavery, I recommended that Rebecca floor it and threw myself into the back seat to save the door. Two blocks away, we were already laughing, but we still couldn't figure out that damn door lock and used the automatic button on the key to keep ourselves safe from then on.
Hungry again, we decided on Epiece et Love (Spice and Love) run by the charming Marie. An interesting crowd hit the restaurant and we tried our best to eavesdrop on the extremely high French guy and his Japanese girlfriend, but they moved tables so we had to amuse ourselves. Cozy in a back room table and after a blackberry aperitif and a bottle of wine, we made up a story of Marie and her lover Claude, and laughed as made up her motto of: "Love, Life and Cuisine, oh and maybe some Alcohol too." I had a nice pate, beef stew and we split a chocolate mousse - one half white and the other dark chocolate drizzled with what could only be Hershey's syrup. On the walk home, a man in bear skin coat almost ran me over! I promise that was not a wine-induced sighting.
Next stops: Carpentras, Gordes, Roussillon, and some other town I can't recall right now.