Friday, August 27, 2010
I wanted to visit Avignon for ten years. When I studied in Nice my teachers used all sorts of stories, songs, and rhymes to teach us French. There were the Tintin cartoons, the “Champs-Elysees” song, and many others. One of the most memorable of these was the nursery rhyme about a certain bridge in Avignon. ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon,’ it went, ‘on y danse, on y danse’. There we dance, there we dance.
Avignon wasn’t far from Nice, but in our excitement to travel to other European countries, my friends and I never went. It didn’t sit well with me that we missed out on the city with the famous bridge (or what’s left of it after 17th century floods washed part of it out), and since then I always meant to visit.
It was fortunate, then, that I was offered two tickets on board the Eurostar Explorer Train to Avignon this week. After departing London and spending a lovely afternoon in Lille, my boyfriend and I took the train down through the French countryside to Provence. As we headed south, the warm weather grew increasingly warmer, and by the time we got to our destination it was outright hot.
After our train arrived at the Avignon TGV station, we took a bus to our hotel, the Novotel Sud. The hotel was nice enough, but it was unfortunately a 10 minute / 15 euro taxi ride from the Avignon city center. It was the only part of the trip that disappointed me.
After checking in, my boyfriend and I took a taxi to the historic walled city. It was dark by then, but with the crowds gone and the sweltering heat abated, we were able to explore the city in peace. The Place du Palais stood still with its monolithic Papal Palace dominating the scene, and the Pont d’Avignon was silent in its flood-lit splendor.
After seeing the highlights we stumbled upon Restaurant Brunel, which allowed us to order food despite having arrived 15 minutes after closing time. We both had the pates fraiches with prawns and calamari. It was good, but—and I never thought I would say this about French cuisine—the pasta could have used a bit more butter.
We made our way back to the hotel after dinner and woke up early the next morning to try to find a mode of transport to Avignon that didn’t cost an exorbitant sum. The man at the hotel reception desk looked both horrified and baffled when we asked about a bus, but eventually waved us in the direction of a nearby shopping mall. We walked over and found the stand, which had a sign that told us that the bus came every two hours. Thankfully we arrived five minutes before one of the scheduled stops.
Back in Avignon we had a marathon 11-hour day of sightseeing. We explored every facet of the city from the thick medieval walls to the Palais des Papes to the boutiques that lined the tiny winding streets. We spent time in the large city squares, the small cafes, and the farmers’ market at Les Halles.
The last of these was our favorite. There were vendors selling everything from cranberry chevre to crisp Chardonnay, fresh cod to ripe cherries. We didn’t hesitate to buy ourselves a picnic lunch from a variety of the stalls.
At La Maison du Fromage we picked up one of fifty kinds of chevre on sale, from Panissain we bought a fluffy loaf of multigrain bread, from Serge Olives we got two types of tomato tapenade, and from Le Jardin de Victor we bought fresh figs and grapes. We rounded out the selection with a half bottle of Sablet. All of it was consumed in the shadows of the Palais des Papes facing a giant statue of an elephant balancing solidly on its trunk.
When we weren’t busy eating, we braved the heat and explored some of the less busy streets in the city center. There we discovered a wealth of little details. Not least among these were the beautiful stone block benches on the rue des Teinturiers. Carved in an array of designs that ranged from the reptilian to the vegetal, they made a photogenic foreground to the large waterwheel churning lazily in the canal behind them.
Further afield we came across a mural of photographs on the inside of one of the city walls. Each brick was covered by a photo of a person or place, and several were hollowed out and filled with objects like painted stones and empty cans. With no explanation offered for the project, we were left to imagine the origins and purpose of the art.
Moving on, we found everything from creative graffiti to withered grape vines clinging to residential buildings. We saw golden statues in front of art schools and stumbled upon tiny shops selling everything a 19th century world traveler could have wanted at her writing desk.
We stopped for lemonade at the adorable Theias cafe, then eventually found ourselves in the Place des Corps Saints. It was a large square filled with tables from the surrounding restaurants. By then it was 7pm, and we were ready for a glass (or two, as it happened) of wine.
When darkness fell and the heat relented, we moved to a table at the Bistrot a Tartines, a restaurant that served the famous open-face sandwiches. I got a salami tartine with cornichons while my boyfriend ordered a massive prosciutto and melon salad. Dessert was an excellent cherry-and-gingerbread concoction and a generous slice of blueberry tart.
After dinner we walked off our food comas for a bit before taking a taxi back to the hotel. I went to bed at midnight knowing that I would have to get up at 8am to go for a run. I was half-heartedly trying to get in shape for a marathon I’m “running” in a few weeks, and this was to be my first real run in several years.
The run turned out to be a successful one. As I wheezed my way down the road from the hotel, I suddenly found myself surrounded by farmland. Everywhere I looked there were orchards full of fruit. First there were pear trees, their boughs heavy with green teardrops. Then came apple orchards with their rosy red bulbs. Stalks of stately corn gave way to loud chicken coops and hot houses full of juicy tomatoes. If I had known how motivational it would be to run through fields of food, I would have started my training much earlier.
After my run I collected my boyfriend and we took the bus back to Avignon. We only had two hours before we had to catch the TGV train to Lille, so we walked directly to Les Halles to pick up another picnic lunch for the journey north.
We mostly replicated the meal from the day before, but we spent an extra long time at the cheese shop. I asked the man behind the counter to suggest a chevre, and several of the locals got involved in what turned into a lively discussion of what kind of cheese we should try. It was heartwarming to be surrounded by people that cared as much about cheese as I did.
We finally settled on one of the many types of chevre. My boyfriend also wanted to get a jar of dark cherry confiture, which started another discussion. Apparently this was no ordinary jam. It was the first of its kind to be paired with cheese, starting a global trend. The Basque cherry goodness absolutely had to be paired with a specific cheese, a wedge of which was then sliced and placed in our bag. We even had a random passer-by stop to tell us how special it was that we were ordering this combination.
After the excitement of the cheese shop, we walked through the city for a bit longer. We made our way to the main squares to catch a last glimpse of the large clock towers, the historic carousel, and the Papal Palace.
Back at the hotel we all piled onto a coach to get to the TGV station, which was inconveniently located slightly out of the city. Upon arrival we bought gelato to keep ourselves from melting in the heat, then boarded our train to the north.
On the train we had the perfect meal: our lovely picnic plus the amazing views of the French countryside. The Basque cherry-confiture-and-cheese combination was as good as our cheesemonger and his supporters promised, and the golden brown rooftops of provincial towns and churches were as pretty as any of the paintings for sale in the Avignon city squares.
As we journeyed further north on the Eurostar Explorer Train, the downpours commenced and the thought of London quickly became a rainy reality. It made us even more thankful to have been invited on the Explorer Train, but also nostalgic for our sunny stint in the south of France. There are plenty of bridges back home in Blighty, but but the weather may never be nice enough to dance on them. For that I will always have Avignon.