Monday, January 19, 2009

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Well, there is a definite advantage to not having a set itinerary. On our way towards Marseille today we stopped for fuel and a bite to eat at the road stop near the village of Mornas. From here we could see the most amazing fortress clinging precariously to the edge of a cliff face above the town. We decided to stay closer so we could cut back and have a look. Ergo we ended up in Avignon.

We had not planned to stop here but boy - are we glad we did. We are now being a little selective about how much researching we do because the year will just fly by with us still in France if we get too immersed in everything that there is to see!

We know fairly quickly that we need another full day here and so we find a hotel within spitting distance of the Palace - Le Hotel du Palais des Papes and book in for two nights. Set in a refurbished old building it reflects the style that is quintessentially French.

Avignon is known as the City of Popes and our first visit today was to the Palace of the Popes. This incredible set of buildings chronicles the City's connection to the Catholic Church. It dates back to the early 1300s and is a testament to the might and power of this empire. There are actually two palaces - the old palace was constructed by Pope Benedict XII and the new palace constructed as a continuation of this by Pope Clement VI. With the completion of the new palace, an impressive courtyard was created enclosed by the two. This courtyard is called the Courtyard of Honour and is where we begin our tour of the Palace. Through the Treasury Rooms where coins and gold were stored in under (sandstone flagging) floor caverns into the Jesus Hall (where a lot of cursing was done!) and the Chamberlains chamber with its private staircase to the Papal Rooms. But the highilight has to be the Salle de la Grande Audience where the Pope would have received visitors. This room is now very plain and unadorned. In its day there would have been rich brocaded wall hangings and medieval furniture. Now, it is just a huge open space that measures 15 m wide, 20 m high and 60 m long. It is awesome just in its sheer size. The walls are plain as is the vaulted ceiling that was replaced after a fire long ago. In here, you just feel so 'insignficant'. This room is closely followed by the Grande Chappelle in the floor beneath. Just slightly smaller and completed built of stone with vaulted stone ceiling, it too is very plain with an altar at the eastern end.

There are some rooms that retain their medieval decorations including friezes and ceiling decorations. As this compex has had a variety of uses over the decades, these are worn and obviously very original with minimal restoration. This only helps to visually set the scene for visitors, walking through living history!

In the past two centuries, the complex has been used first as a prison and then as an army barracks (when they whitewashed all the walls including over friezes etc). This has led to the destruction of some of the ages old interior - guess this comes all over the world with new uses in old settings though.

The ticket we bought includes entry onto the Pont St.-Bènèzet. Being winter, both these venues close at 5:45 pm and as it is now 5:00 pm, we hurry through twisting back streets down to the bridge. The bridge now juts out into the Rhône where only four of the original twelve arches remain. It was constructed from 1177 to 1185 with major calamaties befaling it through the ages. By now it is dark and we take a shortcut up lots of back alley steps to get back to the Hotel.

We eat at Le Lutrin (The Lectern) that is a partner business to the Hotel. The decor is positively provincial French (Hels, close your eyes and you could be so at home here) and the food is absolutely sublime. Our menu choices tonight are:
Entrecote de Bœuf «Maitre d’Hôtel», Saisie à l’huile d’olive
(Sirloin steak topped with Parsley Butter and seasonal local vegetables - Michael)
Gardiane à l’Avignonnaise avec son riz de campargue

(Stewed (aged) beef parfum with red wine sauce, served with white rice – Maria)

Assiette tout Chocolat: Mélange de mousse, fondant, glace et biscuits chocolates
(Plenty Chocolate selection - Michael)
Trilogie de Pagnal: Crème brûlée au Thym, à la lavande et à la fleur d’oranger

(Three crème brulee flavoured with thyme, rosemary and orange – Maria)

Finish with an espresso and it was truly delectable!

Today (Tuesday) is clear with a light cloud cover, but cool in a light breeze. Predicting 8 degrees but with a 'real feel' of about 6 degrees. I quickly write postcards to the mums before we set out from the hotel to find some breakfast about 9 am. Find a restaurant just down in the square near the Theatre and for the princely sum of €5.80 each we get OJ, coffee, hunk of bread (half a small bagette), croissant, jam and butter. You know - we are unsure if we will ever be able to eat the bland white stuff that supposedly passes for bread in Australia ever again! Searching for european bread recipes on the web already!!

Stomaches stuffed we head into the streets around the Palais des Papes on foot. Down the Rue de la Republic past wonderful examples of the history of France. We go to The Halles Market - the indoor produce markets - where delectable scents assault our noses - meats, smallgoods, fish, breads, fruits and vegetables and spices galore. Much quieter though than the one in Stuttgart!

We are following the green walking tour of Avignon and after 2.5 hours of solid walking on cobblestones I am not sure whether my feet or my hip hurts more. So back to the hotel I go to write up the blog while Michael sets off on the red walking tour. Added to the better part of the orange one we completed yesterday afternoon and we have seen much of the old city area.

Although the streets twist and turn and alleys jut in and out, it is pretty easy to follow where you are. As the centre is compact, tourist signs are found every 5-6 streets and if you continue to walk in a straight line its not long before you either come to the City Wall or one of the major streets!
The colour-coded walks within Avignon are self paced and ideal for a leisurely stroll, punctuated by stops at a café or esteminet. The red walking 'tour' takes one through the western section of old Avignon. The walk winds through narrow, and at times dimly lit, streets and lanes. All of the street/lane surfaces are covered with cobble-stones, cambered towards a central gutter and which appear to be constantly moist. A cloying aroma lingers, pungent and uraeic which inspires visions of bustling humanity; artists and artisans; merchants; beggars; street urchins; drunks and whores; lewdish behaviour.

The history oozes from the very surface of the buildings. Wherever you turn, there are constant reminders of Roman occupation, French Revolution and past insurgences.
"Liberté - Egalité - Fraternité"

Post Script
Ok so we turned many heads tonight. Ventured out for dinner after watching the Obama Inauguration on CNN and after walking half the length of the Rue de La Republique ended up coming back to one of the restaurants near the hotel - Restaurant La Grille.

Food was very good all round:
Le potage du jour (soup of the day - Vegetable with Basil Oil) - Maria
La terrine courgettes et son coulis tomoatoes basilic (Zucchini terrine with tomato and basil sauce) - Michael
La tagine au poulet et citron confit (Tagine of chickenwith preserved lemons, served with couscous) - both of us.
La crème caramel maison - Maria
La mousse lavande crème au miel (Lavender mousse with honey) - Michael

By asking for another two mousses to take away, I think we had set a new challenge for this restaurant. The waitress was very taken aback and did not think they could do it, but I am yet to find a chef who cannot rise to the occasion when his dishes are in demand! So, we succeeded in taking another two helpings with us, albeit in an un-lidded margarine container wrapped in foil and cling wrap. Believe us, it is THAT good. Another recipe for the deli!!!

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