A week in Provence

Pictures and stories from our trip to Provence, France, from February 21 to March 2, 2009.

Pauwell’s is a travel company we first heard about on our second trip to Iles-de-la-Madeleine, where we met up with some other people from Waterloo. They told us that they had been on a couple Pauwell’s trips and had really enjoyed them. Ever since, we’d kept an eye on their offerings, but this was the first time a trip of theirs seemed to match our timeline, budget, and interest.

Booking a tour seemed to bring on a certain lethargy, because having decided and handed over our credit card number, we then did virtually no trip prep work at all. After Italy, we knew our passports were in order, and the tour included flight, hotel, activities, and several meals, so we felt there wasn’t much else to book. For maybe the first time ever, we didn’t even buy a guidebook about the area. We just booked the cat sitter, arranged airport parking, suspended the newspaper delivery, and went with the flow.

Avignon and its bridge
View of the pont d’Avignon in Provence

Saturday, February 21—Leaving

Departure day, and all went well. The ride to the airport went extremely well. Our Skyway parking lot, when we arrived, was as busy as we had ever seen it (maybe word is getting out), but they still got us into the transport van in good time. We had prebooked our seats, yet somehow ended up not being seated right beside each other. But it proved moot as the seat between us was empty, so I just moved over. As with previous Air France experiences, we found the staff very friendly, the food rather good for airline (economy) food, and we had those personal TVs that let you pick your own movie. (I watched Burn Without Reading, which was pretty funny.) A storm did start brewing just as we were about to take off. This resulted in a slight delay for de-icing, but also kicked up the wind, so in the end, the flight still arrived on time.

I managed to get some sleep on the flight, which seemed to have much more comfortable seats than Alitalia (though tall people did not look comfortable). Jean, on the other hand, made the mistake of having coffee at the end of dinner, and therefore couldn’t sleep much.

Sunday, February 22 — Arriving

We landed early morning in Paris at Charles de Gaule airport, and had a long wait before our flight to Marseilles—something like four hours. The tour group gathered. At this point, we had Inge, Liz, Larry, Lorrie, Umesh, and Venna. The last four, both couples, we ended up dining and touring with a number of times on the trip.

Larry, a neighbour of Jacques Pauwell’s (our tour guide), had been put in charge of ensuring the group made their connection. Grumpy with lack of sleep, trying to stay in a group at this point kind of got on my nerves, and concerned me about the rest of the trip. But fortunately, I mostly got over it later on, along with the jet lag.

Anyway, there isn’t much else to say about the transfer. We had plenty of time for passport control, new security check, breakfast, a bit of shopping, and just sitting around waiting. We also met up with another tour participant, Vi, who was coming from Burnaby, BC and therefore had already had a much longer travel day than the rest of us. She ended up being someone we quite enjoyed talking with later on in the tour.

The second flight was on time and about an hour’s duration; Jean and I both slept through the whole thing.

On arrival in Marseille, we were met by Diane, a tour participant who is also a Pauwell’s Travel associate and a friend of Vi’s. We had to wait a bit for the rest of the group to arrive, as they were coming from Sicily. So we were put on a bus and given a bit of a tour of Marseille.

Marseille is a port town, and the third largest city in France. It had some rough-looking parts, but also some pretty scenic bits around the water. We were dropped off at a lookout point where a willingness to do some stairs did lead to some nice views and a peak into a church that had definite mosque influences, with striped columns adorning it. (We were too sleepy to take any pictures of anything).

We then were driven back to the airport, where we got some sandwiches and met up with the rest of the group: Les and Jean, a wonderful older couple whom we came to enjoy talking with, and a group of four: Brian, Janet, Shirley, and Pearl, some of whom had lived in Timmins for a while.

Tour leader Jacques Pauwell and escort Joanne Mayhew also joined us at this point. On the bus ride to our hotel in Avignon, we were told a lot about the history of the region. Not too much of which I’ve retained!

Avignon is a walled city, with many streets inaccessible to large vehicles like buses. Our hotel was right in the core of the city, which was great, even though it meant we couldn’t be dropped off exactly in front of it. Not far at all, though. Rooms were assigned when we arrived. They were quite nice, if small. We were staying there all week, so we decided it would be easiest to unpack everything than to try and find a spot to keep the luggage accessible. We did have a brief rest, but there was a group dinner at 7:00 PM.

The restaurant was a few blocks away and had nice atmosphere. We were in our own room upstairs, with white linen tablecloths and all. Good white wine was included with the meal. We sat with the group of four with Timmins connections. Our meal started with a spinach-Parmesan cake, then we got a salad with balsamic dressing. Our main course was chicken with a mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes, and tomato with bread topping. Last was a tarte tatin with raspberry coulis. Except for the chicken being slightly overcooked, everything was delicious. There were, however, long breaks between courses, which weren’t so appreciated by we the sleepy.

Here the final group member joined us—Rita, a Canadian now living in Vienna, teaching music and doing ethnographic research into classical music greats like Beethoven.

After that, sleep!

Monday, February 23—Avignon

Daily breakfast at the hotel was included, and it was great—fantastic coffee warm milk, lots of fresh fruit and yogurt, good little croissant and chocolatine, cheese… There were also vats of eggs and bacon, but I never bothered with that. (Jean did occasionally.)

On the agenda today was a walking tour of Avignon. It was a sunny day, with reasonable temperature range (2-15), but very windy! Le Mistrale, a north wind, made its presence felt all day.

Wind-blown hair
No need for wind machines during Mistral season in Provence

We started at Avignon’s central square, which is right by our hotel. We learned a bit about the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) building and the city itself, which was of great importance in Roman times. Currently, it’s a common stop not only for Provence trips, but also other parts of France (Cannes) and Italy. This makes it a very busy place in summer. We also noted the beautiful Clock Tower overlooking the city, which is lit up at night.

Avignon city square
Central square in Avignon, with clock tower and carousel. Our hotel was in this area as well.

Next we walked to the Palais des Papes, which is huge! And here we got a bit of the history of the Italian popes who took up residence in Avignon in the past. They were often at war, so the Palais was fortified like a military installation. In fact, it was used by the French military before becoming the museum it is now.

Palais des Papes
The imposing Palais des Papes

The next stop was supposed to be a walk to a lookout over the city, behind Palais des Papes, but it was judged too windy to do that. So instead we went to a church, where we got our first of several lessons about symbolism within religious art, necessary to convey the gospel message in an era of mass illiteracy. It was pretty interesting.

Jesus on the cross and Mary statues
Religious iconography

Finally, we walked to the famous pont d’Avignon, which is partly washed away. Although there are many interesting fables about what happened to the bridge, the truth is simply that it was broken off by powerful water currents. It was easy to believe that on this windy day, which injured me as well, by slamming a door on my arm. The bridge also had this little shrine to Saint Bénézet, the bridge’s builder, in its lower parts. The little gift shop there was also nice, and we bought a couple books.

Pont D'Avignon
More aerial view of the Pont d’Avignon

On the walk back to our hotel, Jacques pointed out some of the shopping, art, and market districts for us to visit later.

We were then on our own until dinner. We went for lunch first, in the art district, at a place called Restaurant des artistes. We’d been advised that the menu (fixed-price multi-course dinners) were often the best deal, so we went with that. Jean started with the fish soup, which was delicious, but contained no chunks of fish (we later learned that was Provencal typical), while I had nice escargots de provence. Jean continued on the fish theme with his main, a seabass in aioli with rice, while I had guinea fowl. And for dessert, Jean had these interesting creamy mild cheese with honey, while I went with crème caramel. As wine, we just had the house white.

We had been given tickets to see the inside of the Palais des Papes (as part of the tour), so we did that next. As warned by Jacques, the interior was impressive in size but not decor; it was quite bare, having long ago been stripped of much of its finery, and with no restoration of that attempted to date. The audioguide was also included, but we soon found that this was really giving us more “pope-y” information than we felt we needed! We did get nice views of the city at one point, after climbing many stairs up to that locale. And there was an interesting shop attached, including a full wine cellar. Guess the popes have never been against wine.

(Did you know the Italians taught the French to make wine?)

We next tried to visit some of the art galleries, but many were closed, because it was Monday. Despite the persistent wind, we did head up to the viewpoint behind Palais des Papes. It was nice, and it was windy!

Park behind Palais des Papes
Park area behind the Palais des Papes

We also made a stop at the Tourist Office, and picked up a few brochures, then found a wine store where many samples were available. It was just a few steps from our hotel. So we tried a number, and made mental notes of our favourites, but didn’t buy anything just yet.

Dinner was another group affair, and it turned out to be at the exact place where had we lunch! Not to mention being the exact menu we had selected from at lunch. No matter; it had been good, so we just made different choices this time.

I started with this puff pastry thing that looked appallingly creamy to me when it first came out, but turned out to be quite tasty. Jean had a nice chicken paté. As our main course, we both had the lamb stew with pasta—nice and tender. For dessert, I had Jean’s soft cheese thing from lunch while he went with peach compote and raspberry. Wine was not included with this meal, but we splurged on a Chateauneuf-du-pape, to the waiter’s delight. Although a more pricey item on their menu, it was still much cheaper than you’d pay for it here! And quite delicious. We ended with nice espressos and cappuccinos.

Our dinner companions were Les and Jean, and Larry and Laurie. We compared various trips; the older couples had travelled more than we had, obviously. It was pleasant evening, and with very prompt service (even though we’d been warned it could be slower, what with us all ordering different things).

We had a little walk before settling in for the night. It proved difficult to sleep right through; we weren’t quite over the jet lag.

Avignon City Hall at night
Avignon Hotel de Ville (City Hall) at night

Tuesday, February 24—Carpentras, Orange, and Chateauneuf-du-pape

Today was a day to tour by bus, which left at 9:00 AM. On the way, we learned more about French history, including Jacques’ argument that the French revolutionaries were not all bad guys; after all, they wanted liberté and égalité for all. Sure, they killed a few people, but the aristocracy weren’t all that benign themselves.

Our first stop was Carpentras, a medieval town. Once again, the day was both very sunny and very windy. The town was neat. Sights we saw included a fountain, a church that had a mix of architectural styles because as tastes changed, the original structure got rebuilt and redecorated in the new mode. The result was interesting, but not always that appealing. We also saw a synagogue, which wasn’t so interesting in itself (it was pretty plain), but its history was. It was a very old synagogue. Jews had been encouraged by the Church to come and establish themselves in this town. The reason? The church needed money to be lent for some of its projects. Christians were not allowed to lend money. Hence, they needed Jews to do that.

Church front in Charpentras
The “church of many styles” in Carpentras

We had a little stop at a coffee shop, where the bathroom proved to be one of those “hole in the ground with handles” deals. Hadn’t seen one of those since our honeymoon trip! Fortunately, I was able to wait. It was kind of amusing seeing the expression on some of our travelling companions. “That was different.”

Next stop, Orange, a city with a very complicated history, involving the Belgians, who then annoyed the French, who retaliated by taking Orange away, and obviously the Romans got all mixed up in there as well.

The first stop was the huge Roman Arche de Triomphe, which turned out to be under renovation. Therefore, although we could appreciate the size, we couldn’t see any detail beneath the construction tarp (except, at one point, when the sun hit it the right way from the bus view).

So we didn’t spend too much time there, but instead, went on to the ampitheatre. I first I thought it was a coliseum, like the one in Rome, but the purpose of this building was theatrical productions, not gladiator fights. The audioguide for this sight was really good at giving you an image of what the theatrical productions were like at the time. My favourite was the history of the pantomime, the first type of theatre that women were allowed to participate in. Later on, someone decided they would be even more interesting productions if all the actors performed nude! That did increase the popularity, and the whole thing sort of escalated until they were basically presenting live pornography. Until one of the more religious emperors put a stop to it.

View of amphitheatre
Well-preserved Roman ampitheatre in Orange. Used for non-lethal arts and entertainment.

Oh. those Romans.

Roman artifacts display
Roman artifacts on display in the small museum by the ampitheatre

At the top, the views were great, but the wind was incredible! You felt in danger of it pushing you over.

Ampitheatre from above

At the same site, we also saw the ruins an ancient temple. Then it was time for lunch, which was on our own. We found a little restaurant nearby. I had the special, which started with eggplant and tomato pesto. Quite nice. Jean had an enormous salad with pine nuts, ham, and chicken liver! My main was fried chicken with sides of root vegetables and an endive salad. All good. Jean had a pasta with walnut sauce, which was good, but more than he could eat after that salad.

Next up is a drive to Chateauneuf-du-pape village, which is very picturesque. We drove by several vineyards, which are characterized by rocky soil. Jacques gave the history of the appellation, which came about after the French wine industry had been destroyed by a parasite, then revived by a grafting technique. Vintners in the area agreed to limit their production, and to follow certain rules to ensure the wine was of high quality.

Rocky terrain of Chateauneuf-du-pape
Chateauneuf wines grow under difficult, rocky conditions, producing small, sparse grape vineyards

Turns out the pope did once have a chateau in this village, and we stopped to visit that first. Another interesting ruin, and a nice lookout place.

Roman ruin in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
A Roman ruin in Chateauneuf-du-pape
View of Chateauneuf-du-Pape
The view from this area

The village itself is full of wine-tasting places, but we took this winding road up to the winery that does the Père Anselme chateauneuf, familiar for its twisty, dusty-looking bottle. On arrival, Jacques had a big debate with our tour guide, who complained that he hadn’t been warned we wanted to taste the white chateauneuf, and none was chilled. But Jacques won the debate, arguing that you can better assess the qualities of a white wine if it’s not too cold. And of course, the wine was still cool, not room temperature. It was our first time trying a white chateauneuf, which is made from pretty much the same grapes as the red, only without their skins. If not the most spectacular white we’ve ever had, it is a nice, complex beverage.

In front of Verger des Papes
Both of us in front of the winery we visited

Next up were a couple reds—one “regular”, one “reserve”, which indicates a particularly good year. But he also told us about the wine in general, including the surprising fact that although three main grapes make up this varietal (grenache, syrah, mourvedre), there are something like 10 others that can be included, if needed to get the right balance. And he also said that 1/3 of their Père Anselme wine goes to Québec and Ontario: a stunning amount for such a small population, he said. Most of their other wines are not exported.

Anyway, both reds were very good—the reserve probably was better. He said while these wines can be aged, they don’t have to be. When sold, they are ready to drink.

In the end, we didn’t buy any wine here, figuring we’d do that later at the wine-tasting store near our hotel.

We had one more stop on the way back to Avignon: Villeneuve. The main attraction here was actually Avignon, as you can get a very nice view of it from Villeneuve. The bus also drove around Avignon more before pulling in, so that we could see more of its walls.

For dinner this night, which was on our own, we decided to try a nice-looking restaurant that Jacques had pointed out on the Monday tour. It turned out to be very good, with lovely presentation and excellent service. Jean started with a goat cheese ravioli, while I had a shrimp curry appetizer thing.

I had the dorade au planchette as my main course. It was plain but very well-prepared. Jean had foie gras. We were both surprised at the size of the serving; quite large pieces compared to what you get in Canada. (And no surcharge for it.) While very good and with excellent texture, it was also definitely milder than the Canadian variety as well. As our wine with this, we had a 1/2 bottle of white chateauneuf-du-pape (a wine generally not available in Canada).

Wednesday, February 25—Nimes

Today, the wind finally let up! Yet the sun remained. So that was nice.

Our destination was Nimes. On the way, as usual, we heard plenty about France (and retained a bit). Our first stop was the very impressive aqueduct. It was huge, and gorgeous, and ancient. It was also in a beautiful natural setting. There were little hiking trails on the side, so we started with those, before looking at the structure more closely.

View of Nimes

Then we went down and in front to get the best photos. We had about an hour, but we could have spent more.

Nimes bridge

We got the scenic route into the city, and on the way, somehow got to talking about the Furies and the origins of the names for the days of the week (Monday = lundi = moon, Tuesday = mardi = Mars, Wednesday = mercredi = mercury, and so on). Also, apparently there is some connection between denim and Nimes (“de Nimes”).

Our first stop in town was a park with sculptures and the remnants of a temple to Diana. The gates were also very ornate, and in typical Roman style, depicted conquered people in submission.

Jacques and statue in park
Our tour guide, Jacques Pauwel, at Nimes park

Then we went into town, and had to work out the logistics of visiting the main sites. It turned out that we all had to go into the Coliseum together, then meet by the temple at 2:30. In between there, we arranged lunch on our own.

As we were hungry, we ended up somewhat hurrying through this Coliseum, even though it was probably better preserved than the one in Rome. We listened to only parts of the audioguide, and moved along fairly quickly. At one point, we somehow managed to get ourselves into a part of Coliseum that was really hard to get out of. We kept getting to blocked exits and so on. Obviously, we eventually managed to escape!

Coliseum high view

The Coliseums here, by the way, are currently used for Spanish-style bullfights. Posters assured us that the bulls are not killed at the end of these exhibitions.

Toreador statue

For lunch, we just went for moules et frites at a brasserie across the street. They weren’t the best ever, but they weren’t bad.

|Mussels and fries in front of the Coliseum

Then we all gathered at the temple for our 2:30 appointment. We were all ushered in to see a 3D film depicting key events in the history of the city (“all very sanitized,” Jacques said afterward). I thought that I wouldn’t be able to see the 3D at all (I have this eye condition such that I use only one eye at a time and therefore have limited depth perception), but I guess techniques have improved, so some things did appear to be “sticking out” of the frame to me as well.

We had a little time left for Nimes, but we just stopped at a cafe with Larry, Laurie, Umesh, and Venna. We were amused that our glass of wine was the same price as a glass of diet coke. It was nice to be able to sit in a patio in the sun in February.

Then, a bus ride back to Avignon.

After a pause, we took a big walk around town. I bought a bunch of chocolates at one of the shops. We did get to visit some art galleries, now open. Jean wouldn’t let me shop for clothes. We also located some museums for future consideration.

Eventually, we got hungry enough for dinner, and stopped at a nice-looking place called Le Petit Pichet. It was very quiet, though I’m not sure why, as the food and service were very appealing. As appetizers, Jean had cold foie gras, as good as any we’d had in Canada (I’m sure it would appall the French for that to be our standard!), and I had this goat cheese thing with sesame seeds on tomato that was also very nice.

As a main course, I had duck confit, while Jean went for lamb in Parmesan croute. Both very well-prepared. We had potato machette, I think it was, on the side—we actually had to ask what was in it. It involved cream, and was very provencal, we were told. As the wine, we ordered a 1/2 bottle of Vacqueras (spelling?), a relative of Chateauneuf-du-pape, and a similar style wine. Just a bit cheaper. For dessert was cheese, which Jean ate most of.

We slept pretty well; perhaps the jet lag was over.

Thursday, February 26—Arles and Camargue

Another day, another bus trip! Our first destination was Arles, a city the Romans occupied for about 700 years. To the French, they brought the French language (they spoke more of a Gaelic before), Christianity, and the all-important art of winemaking (they used to drink beer). We also learned all about the history of Beaujolais, which used to be the main type of wine in France simply because it was easier to make lots of and to transport, and why Beaujolais Nouveau day was so important: It was the day all the vintners agreed to sell their first wines. Back then, young wines were the best, you see; they became more unappealing with age.

In Arles, we did a group walking tour first. And what did we see? Roman ruins! Another theatre, another coliseum.

Roman ruin
Ho hum. Another fabulous Roman ruin.

But the big attraction in this area was actually art-related. We went to the very coffee shop that Van Gogh made famous in one of his paintings. The coffee shop has, probably wisely, redecorated itself to match the colour scheme of the painting. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we were unable to actually have coffee here.

But later on, we saw where Van Gogh spent some time trying to heal his wounded psyche. We also had some free time to do a little shopping. It remained low wind and sunny, so it was pleasant to amble about. We interpreted a French sign for a couple from Texas we happened to meet.

Van Gogh garden retreat
Van Gogh recuperated here

Our next stop, by bus, was by a bridge that Van Gogh had made famous in another painting. Jacques told us afterward that although this was the original bridge, it was not in its original location anymore. That location had to be repurposed, but recognizing the bridge’s significance, they moved it to where it was easier to take photos of.

Bridge Van Gogh once painted
Reproduction of Van Gogh bridge painting
See the resemblance?

Then we were off to the fields of Camargue. This was quite different from all those little villages, as it really focused on nature. The area is particularly known for its white horses, although none of these are wild any longer.

White horses in Camargue
A change of scenery—horses and bulls in the fields of Camargue

There were also lots of birds, like pelicans and pink flamingos.

Pelican near its nest
Pink flamingos

We had a group lunch here. Everyone agreed to the menu, although it was heavy on red meats. It began with a nice pork paté, and then we had bull stew in a rich wine sauce. Quite tender, though some complained about the fattyness of the meat (but those things go together!). It included red wine of the region, which isn’t considered as “fine” as in some Provence areas, but was quite good. We then had a small cheese course—a brie, a blue, another soft cheese, none too strong—and dessert was tarte tatin.

We sat with Vi and Liz for this meal, and it was good to get to know them a little better.

Then back on the bus, and off to Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer, our only peak at the Mediterranean. This was a beachy kind of town, with the typical tacky shops and gypsies running around (OK, maybe that part isn’t that typical). Although we weren’t here that long, we probably could have skipped this one entirely!

Then we stopped at a little culinary shop where we were encourage to purchase fleur de sel and other regional specialties. I did get that salt, even though we actually have some at home already. Not that it goes bad, though.

We took a fairly scenic route back, stopping for more flamingo shots, and crossing the Rhone a couple times.

It had been a big lunch, so after a pause and some reading, we opted for a light dinner. We met Vi on the way out and she recommended a creperie; that’s where we ended up. It was nice and bright. I had the smoked salmon crepe while Jean went for a ham and egg type. And we had some cidre with it, harkening back to a honeymoon meal in France. The dessert crepes sound great, but we were really too full.

Friday, February 27—Optional country tour

Today is a day of options, all of which we signed up for.

The first was to visit some more “country” areas of Provence. For this part, we started a little earlier, and Jacques didn’t come along—just his assistant Joanne.

Our first stop was Ile-sur-Sorgue, a small town all surround by water. It was quite charming, and had this big water wheel thing that Jean took a lot of pictures of. And we had time for a bit of shopping, though many stores were still closed (it was early). I did get some jewelry at one shop, which was having a pre-vacation sale.

Pretty town of Ile-sur-Sorgue

Next, we went off to Fontaine-Vaucluse. This was a really cool little village with a mountain overlooking it. We walked the trail to that first—it had a stream all along it, so it was really nice.

Mountain stream
The gorgeous Fontaine Vaucluse mountain and stream

And we visited some of the shops, including a great art store (but really not enough time for such a big purchase) and a little candy shop. They also had paper mill where they still pounded out the paper as in the olden days. There were beautiful paper products for sale here.

Paper mill
A paper mill as in the days of yore

Oh, and by the way, it was still sunny and mostly wind-less. It started out quite cool, but rose to about 18C.

Then we were off to the Musée de la lavande, where we learned the difference between lavande and fine lavender—which grows only in certain areas and has medicinal properties. And, of course, costs a lot more. After that small presentation, we saw a little film on its cultivation, and had time in the lavender shop. Jean couldn’t handle the perfumy smell and soon waited outdoors. I didn’t end up buying anything.

Finally, we were off to Gordes. The tour had a firm ending time because the bus driver had another engagement, so we were only able to gawk at Gordes from a distance, not go into it. It’s quite an impressive view.

View of Gordes
View of the village of Gordes

So we were back at Avignon at 1:00. That night was our gourmet dinner, so we didn’t want a big lunch, but we needed something. I started thinking that maybe something Oriental would be suitable. Of course, that somehow made it impossible to find anything Oriental, despite lots of walking around. Or so it seemed. We eventually did come upon a Thai place, where we had good shrimp rice rolls and some nice soup, although the mains were just so-so.

But there was still time, so we decided to visit some museums. We started with the Musée Aglandon, which boasted works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, and so on. This is true, only it was a small museum with a small collection. So there weren’t many works by these artists, and they weren’t necessarily their best or best-known.

Not far was the Musée Lapidaire, which has all these stone remnants from Roman and Egyptian sources. It was kind of interesting. The building itself was very impressive, all high ornate walls and ceilings. We ran into Larry and Laurie there.

Then we were off to the Musée Calvet. This turned out to be our favourite of the Avignon museums. The collection was neither too big nor too small, and had nice variety. Many of the artists weren’t known to us, but still produced some interesting works. Some of the sculptures were also impressive (even though nothing like in Rome).

Next we headed to our wine store, unsure if we’d have another chance to make this purchase. We got a bottle of white chateauneuf, a red that we had liked the last time in, and their very last 2005 red chateauneuf réserve. Jean also wanted to try a Bandole, so we got one of those, even though we couldn’t taste that one ahead.

Our gourmet dinner was carefully selected by Jacques (tough job, but someone has to do it), and was at a place called Aix Cinq Sens. Maybe half the group participated? We started with this rich white Rhone wine, and enjoyed an amuse-bouche (not amuse-gueule, Jacques emphasizes) of zucchini with olive oil (done fancier than it sounds there). It was delicious. I had roast quail as my entree, and Jean went for foie gras—again! (And again, it’s very good but milder than the Canadian. They must feed their ducks differently, or something.) I had duck magret as my main course, with an orange flavoring. Jean had fish, also nicely flavored. We switched to a red Rhone at this point. A small cheese platter followed. And finally, conjugaison de pomme—apples prepared several different ways. It was a very nice evening.

Saturday, February 28—Aix-en-Provence

Leaving Saturday morning, the Avignon streets were much quieter. The weather remained sunny.

Today was Aix-en-Provence, mostly known for its affiliation with the painter Paul Cézanne. But our first stop was in the heart of the city, called one of France’s most beautiful. Certainly the main street had impressive buildings. We were told the market was open, which were able to find with the help of some locals. Jean and I lost each other there at one point, as I became distracted by a vendor of bootleg CDs—including several by The Who. Ultimately, I was saved by my lack of Euros, as I figured he wasn’t running a credit card business.

Paul Cezanne statue

We then gathered for a ride to Cézanne’s studio, as you have to make an appointment to visit that. We got a great tour there. It was quiet, so the hostess was able (and interested in) telling us a lot about the place and Cézanne’s work. Cézanne was quite the eccentric. Many of his still-life models remain in the house. His real-life models required the patience of Job, as he was a very slow painter, taking months on a work. The wall colours were specifically chosen to take best advantage of daylight, given the tree height at the time (now they’re much taller). We also had some time to walk the grounds here.

Paul Cezanne's house through the trees
Paul Cézanne lived and worked here

Then we were brought back to town for lunch on our own. Jacques had mentioned a restaurant Cézanne had frequented that had been restored to that time. Several of us went there together, then got rather shocked by the prices! The waiter appeased most by allowing us to order from the outdoor menu, which featured somewhat cheaper sandwiches and salads. But Jean and I just went ahead and shared six oysters to start, then had the daily special, which was osso bucco. Will say it was quite a bit of food, and very well prepared. Several of us also tried a glass of the local rosé.

We had a bit of time to stop in some galleries, but I couldn’t see the Hair du temps exhibit, as it was closed for lunch. (Ah, the French.)

Back on the bus and we drove to Les Baux, a really cool medieval village that had been a ghost town for hundreds of years, before it was rediscovered and turned into a tourist destination. We could have spent more time here, visiting the little shops and getting a sense of the place and its ruined castles.

Village of les Baux
Very interesting former ghost town of les Baux

And then we saw a couple more Roman artifacts—some large cenotaphs that had managed to stay standing.

Roman cenotaph
Roman cenotaph

And a kind of meandering drive back. In Avignon, some kind of street event had blocked off some roads, so we had to walk a little farther to our hotel.

For dinner, we decided to try to find an Italian place we’d heard about from Larry. We did find one, but later discovered it was not the one he went to. No matter, as it was quite good. I had the risotto with mushrooms, while Jean had risotto with cream and Parmesan. And the house red. The risotto was amazing; the red was OK.

Having skipped the appetizers, we had room for dessert: a chocolate caramel mousse for me, a crepe cake with mascarpone for Jean.

Sunday, March 1—Avignon encore

It was a little later start today, with the group gathering at the Petit Palais, the one big site we hadn’t been to yet. It turned out to be all religious art, although we now understand this type of art better, and there are some nice examples here.

Petit Palais in Avignon
Le Petit Palais, now home to an art gallery

After that, we to the Marché des Halles. It’s a market, with this greenery growing on the front, which was cool. We walked around the whole thing, but had noticed an oyster place at the start, and ended up back there. We thought that would be a reasonable lunch, and had about 12 of those between us. And a little glass of white wine.

The afternoon, we just relaxed and packed up.

We had a final group dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be fancier than I had expected, though I didn’t look like a total schlub. We sat with Larry and Laurie, Vi and Diane. Larry wasn’t feeling that great, though, and ended up leaving early. But the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed our three-course meal, with things like paté, foie gras (again!), salmon, chocolate-caramel mousse, and chocolate fondant cake. And all included wine, starting with a kir.

Monday, March 2—The return

The food poisoning started overnight, with cramps, then nausea, then yuck. Looking back, the market oysters seem the most likely culprit (it wasn’t the final dinner, as no one else got sick), but who knows.

At any rate… Our departure was at 3:00 AM! We hadn’t slept at all, so at least it wasn’t hard getting up. Though we had to pack barf bags. Yay.

Jean spent the whole first flight—the little Marseille to Paris deal—in the washroom. But the pause between flights, though much shorter than on our way there, was enough to settle things. We turned down nearly all food on the way home, but accepted water and, by the end, attempted crackers and apples. We were able to sleep, and saw a couple decent movies.

It took a little longer to recuperate from this one than the Spanish food poisoning, but remains that we have a knack for getting sick only at the end, when it doesn’t really prevent us from doing anything. Still, I’d rather just skip it all together…

Also see: 18 random things about our trip to Provence