30 November 2010

FRANCE: Day 11 - St. Remy-de-Provence y Avignon

We’re on the A8 and driving toward Aix-en-Provence, and then soon on the A7 toward St. Remy-de-Provence.

The plan is to get a taste of the heart of Provence while anticipating a future trip when we’ll stay for a week or more in the Luberon-Vaucluse, taking time to thoroughly explore and appreciate all that’s offered. We want to come when the weather is more favorable, but try to avoid the peak season of July-August when the narrow roads and small villages are full to brimming with tourists and traffic.

We figured on about two hours to Aix, based on our memories of 2008, but in reality we’re beyond Aix in just over 1-1/2 hours and before we know it we’re at Sortie 25 and headed west to St. Remy. After just a few miles, we enter an allee of Plane trees that goes on for miles. The trees are bare, but it’s easy to see that this would be a spectacular drive from April to November.

The further north and west we’ve gone from the Mediterranean, the cooler the temperatures and the stronger the winds. While we’re enjoying green grass and still blooming flowers on the Côte d’Azur, here we’re deep into Autumn, nearing winter, and the temperatures are 10 - 15˚ cooler than we’ve experienced in the south. And, it’s threatening to rain, so the air is damp and cool—no more than 40˚ here in St. Remy.

As usual we’ve arrived at our destination at lunch time when the shops are closed and will be for at least two hours. We explore the winding, cobbled streets of old St. Remy, eventually ending back on the main road deciding that Le Bar-Tabac des Alpilles looks perfect for lunch. For a few minutes we’re more interested in the toilette than the menu! That being said, we’ve lucked out because this seems to be the place the locals eat—always a good sign.

I’m thinking soup, and order Soupe de Legumes au Saveur des Provence, which is vegetable soup in an amazing broth with accompanying grated cheese and toasted baguette slices (croutons). CA goes for the pates carbonara and is very surprised when his pasta is accompanied by an egg yolk resting in an eggshell half alongside a small crock of grated cheese. I surmise and then suggest that he stir the egg yolk and the grated cheese into his hot linguine. He’s smacking his lips and scraping his plate before all is said and done. My soup is exquisite!

While CA elects a café crème to round-out his déjuener, mine has been light enough that I’m not embarrassed to finish off with café gourmand. This version is two shotglasses, one with chocolate mousse and the other a dollop of custard topped with strawberry pureé; two small slices of something similar to pound cake; and a shot of espresso. A gorgeous and delicious dessert for just 4€.

As we leave Le Bar-Tabac it’s just beginning to drizzle so double back to the car for umbrellas and continue our exploration of St. Remy on-foot. Just when you think you’ve figured out that villages close down between 12:00n and 2:00 or 2:30pm, you stumble onto one that’s decided their lunch break will be 1:00pm – 3:00pm! So, we visit the Tourism office for some additional information, walk the streets, visit the bookstore-papitier, and it’s still only 2:40pm!

Since the rain has become more persistent,we decide to drive on to Avignon, hoping for sunshine. Within 35 – 40 minutes we’re just outside the walls of the historique centre of Avignon, entering the parking garage at the Gare(RR station) Centre. We enter Avignon through Port St. Charles and investigate the market stalls crisscrossing the streets. Today’s market is mostly low-quality clothing, but there are a few stalls with sausages or cheeses.

We continue on Rue de la République toward the Palais des Papes, stopping in the tourism office for area maps—we’re learning! We’re again looking for toilettes, but eventually decide to have a café crème at Lou Mistrau Restaurant before continuing toward the Palais and eventually Pont d’Avignon.

It’s cold and getting wetter, but we meander in and out of the Christmas Market in the Place de l’Horloge, stopping in to view the phenomenal exhibit featuring hundreds of the Santones (hand painted miniature clay figures of the nativity and representations the people of historical Provence engaged in all the arts and tasks required to live the Proveçal life,) and a life-sized recreation of a traditional Provençal Christmas celebration centered around a fully-loaded, festively decorated dining table.

We’re wet and tired and ready to land somewhere. As we walk back through the historic city, we decide that we’ll stay at the Ibis Hotel we spotted just outside the city walls. Turns out the Ibis is just next to Gare Centre, and not only are we able to leave our car parked overnight just where it is, but we’re already parked on the 2nd floor, level with the Ibis entrance. Voilá! Dumb luck or divine guidance?

We’re excited to see that the Ibis offers free Internet in the reception area, which we take advantage of before landing in our simple, but clean room for a short rest. There’re two emails from JE with adorable and funny LE and JA stories. We’d been talking earlier today about how we’re missing hearing daily updates. LE has begun tattling, “Jonah’s whining!” And, JA is continuing to daily that God for his Gummi Bear vitamins.

By 7:00pm we’re out in the rain again on Rue de la République tracking down a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet Guidebook, which we’ve left behind in our hotel room… After a bit of searching, we decide on a pizzeria—Le Verso. We’ve stumbled into a terrific spot, We especially appreciate the wood burning open hearth fireplace and the lovely antique clock face that graces a walls near the entrance--it has to be at least 3-1/2 feet in diameter.

Lunch was a long time ago and we’re hungry. We both order pizza—CA goes for the prosciutto pizza with maché piled on top, and I choose some convoluted assemblage that includes potatoes, olives, chevré-camembert-emmenthaler cheeses, roasted peppers, artichokes, mushrooms, black olives, and the kitchen sink. The pizza crust is paper thin and we’d be grinning like Cheshire cats if we weren’t so busy stuffing our faces. Our waitress is adorable—for awhile we’re the only customers in this charming pizzeria.

I’m afraid we gobbled, finishing dinner in just about an hour. We just can’t seem to conquer the French-style of a 3-hour dinner… So, we’re soon back on the streets.It’s still rainy and cold, so we huddle together under umbrellas, talking longingly of the Côte d’Azur and it’s balmy climes. We’ll leave early tomorrow morning for Gordes and the surrounding area, probably driving back to Mougins by bedtime.

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