The Search for the Perfect French Restaurant (2 of 3)

A quixotic quest for romance in a time that chivalry has forgot
Part 2 of 3

Chapitre Deux - In which our pilgrims set-off to visit the Court of the Pope only to find themselves 700 years too late. On the way an injury is sustained at Nimes the site of the ancient arena and we have a very nice baguette in Toulouse.

Other than its famous wines and truly beautiful city we had little luck in Bordeaux searching for the ideal restaurant. So we departed on our next leg with only one restaurant to recommend.

As the organiser of the trip and resolute leader of our plucky band, I had already paid for “passage to Avignon” with Rail Europe on the regional TER and Corail Téoz trains; not super-fast like the TGV but still fast and comfortably furnished. We passed vineyards, cherry orchards and wheat fields, we passed canals cut as straight as a Roman Road and winding rivers and creeks, we saw the Gothic steeples of Aquitaine give way to the sun-baked Mediterranean houses of Provence, we saw wind farms and ruined churches, we saw willows and oaks, we saw sometimes green sometimes golden rolling hills and we all strained at the windows trying to catch a glimpse of the walled-city of Carcassone as we sped past. Everything was delightful, even the station food that we ate in Toulouse didn’t seem tired - though we had already eaten countless baguettes in Bordeaux. That was until we came unstuck at Nîmes where we had to change trains - there was no train from Nîmes to Avignon and we were expected at the Palace of the Popes in order to get Papal blessing for our undoubtedly righteous Quest.

Instead we found at Nîmes a replacement bus service (sound familiar Sydney readers?), but unlike what one would find amongst the good citizenry of Sydney and definitely not something ever to be found anywhere in England, there was a great round blob of people, une foule des passagers, waiting for the next bus to Avignon. Not even the slightest semblance of a queue and as we discovered when one of our gutsy troop received une blessure falling over in the rush of people to get to the bus there was no queue sentiment in the blob either and it wasn’t a good idea to position oneself too strategically unless you were willing to put your elbows to good use. The famous Arènes de Nîmes were of course built by the Romans who’s gladiatorial penchant for blood is today visible in the tauromachie still practised at this ancient site and which maybe helps to explain the dog-eat-dog spirit that pervaded that god-forsaken bus bay.

Thus, long after the sun had set, close to midnight in fact, we finally stumbled through the gates of Avignon, seat of the Papal See. And we were welcomed at the very hospitable Hotel de l’Horloge. There was only one lonely member of staff on duty at the concierge that night and a telephone which never stopped ringing and had to be answered in Spanish, Italian and French; guessing from my poor French that I was a native English speaker the gentleman at the concierge obligingly switched to a near perfect English. There had been a mix-up with our rooms and the computers were down - so sweat running from his forehead and ignoring the persistent ringing of the Italian telephone the host at the Hotel de l'Horloge went upstairs himself to find us an alternate room. Exhausted, we sought our evening repas from a McDonald's that we noticed was open, the stench of which soon filled our otherwise very agreeable chambres.

We woke to the sounds of human traffic, the Place de l'Horloge was waking up and the cafes were filling below. Ignorant of the Mistral winds we had slept with the door to our terrace balcony open allowing the sounds and smells of a Provençal morning to greet us as we awoke. We breakfasted with the usual French petit dejeuner of the 6EUR variety in one of the cafés that open out to the Place de l'Horloge. And we departed for our audience with the Pope.

Soaring above the great city of Avignon, cast in gold and glistening in the morning sun, Jesus - in statue form, guided us towards the Palais des Papes. But to our aghast when we arrived the Palace was deserted, we had in fact arrived 700 years too late. Apparently, in the intervening years since the Popes had abandoned Avignon, a succession of 9 anti-Popes had taken residence in Avignon and left, a heretical new doctrine known as Protestantism had taken root in the country and been almost entirely wiped out in a series of bloody wars and finally le Roi de France himself was beheaded and France proclaimed a republic, bringing liberty to Europe at the end of the bayonets of the Emperor Napoléon. So now the Palais des Papes is the property of la Republique de France and it would seem the seat of the papacy is in Rome - of all places.

We went on a a tour of the old Pope's palace. It was once the central feature of the Avignon known to Petrarch as “a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered”. Our guidebook informed us Petrarch knew it as a place where “princes, dignitaries, poets and raiders” came to “beg from”, “extort” and “entertain” the Popes of old. The palace is now a spartan and empty stone building peopled with camera-carrying tourists. Afterwards we had lunch at one of the pleasant yet unmemorable restaurants that open on to the Place de l'Horloge.

The night was troubled; not for me, I slept fine, but some of the crew were complaining of a certain restlessness during the night. It was all explained the following morning by our driver: les mistrals - Mistral Winds - ceaselessly blowing down the Rhône valley. Whilst some people are fine with them, for others these winds can lead to madness, sleepless nights, headaches and sore throats leading people to commit "crimes of passion", they always blow from the North, and we were told are usually strongest just after it has rained in the Lyon region.

That same day however, we were given a hint that we might find what we were searching for here, by coming to Avignon. In the small town of Gordes we found Le Provencal Hotel Pizzeria - don't let “pizzeria” in the name fool you however, this restaurant was the home of a superb Coq au vin and the servings were enormous. My aunt and Esther's mum both opted for soup - which they maintained was nice but I can't imagine a soup ever being nominated for le repas parfait and Esther, foolishly, opted for their pizza - supremely disappointing given how nice the Coq au vin was - so a fantastic restaurant, serving a delicious meal but unfortunately, not le repas parfait.

That night we ate at Le Lutrin just opposite the Palais des Papes. Esther and I had in fact been there the night previous, just the two of us, and had found the atmosphere charming - solid stone masonry, Gothic arches and a great big roaring fire. So we came again, this time we had to request to be let into the same room of the restaurant and not its modern other half, the four of us were sat not in a cosy corner for couples like the previous night but at a great big table for the four of us in the centre of the room. Believe it or not this changed the atmosphere considerably, on the first night we presented a young couple, obviously from les pays anglo-saxon but who earnestly tried to order in French and converse with the waiter in French, who in turn tried to explain everything on the menu in English back to us. However, on the second night we returned, a troop of anglophones with a poor interpreter for the group (me) and we found our reception a mite cooler. To be sure, we returned at a busier time, yet there was still something a little unwelcoming on this second dinner. Our meals were very tasty, in particular I enjoyed my entrée, although simple, it worked very well, an assortment of patés, I had a Magret de Canard as a main and I would also like to recommend the dessert which Esther had - a trio of Crèmes brûlées: lavender, thyme and vanilla and which was also delicious. We washed it all down with an excellent red - Mas de Cadenet (I forget the year - 2006 perhaps).

In the next and final chapter of this story our adventurers head to Paris, encountering on the way trains en grève and the angry gods of Eyjafjallajökull in far away Iceland rain down a cloud of ash upon Europe, leaving our gourmands-errant stranded in Paris and unable to return to England.

Image: Gordes PROVENCE, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Le Palais des Papes, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Le Palais des Papes - l'intérieur, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Decisions decision - Le Lutrin, Tom Häkkinen.


Serkan Ozturk said...

What a beautiful word, 'tauromachie'.

Akseli Koskela said...

Yes, I was going to provide the translation next to it - but then I thought it would pique the reader's curiosity to find out what it means if I left it there untranslated.