Day 12 Southern France: Avignon & Peter Discovers Another Culinary Gem in St Remy de Provence - 25 May
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon...” -- That popular little song, which dates back to the 15th century, reverberated through my head whilst I attended classes at the Alliance Francaise in my youth. I couldn’t wait to see the town that inspired that classic tune, and only a 30 minute drive away from St Remy de Provence.
Avignon is impressive. Known as the “city of the Popes”, it has a five thousand year history. Due to its strategic geographical location, it became the capital of the Cavare tribe and a Phoenician trading route before finally transforming into an opulent city under the Romans. As the choice of the papacy in the 14th century, Avignon became the capital of the Christian world. Surrounded by ramparts and crowned by the Palace of the Popes, the Cathedral, and Petit Palais, UNESCO has declared the architecture of this magnificent city, along with the Avignon bridge, a world heritage site.
One isn’t exactly short of cultural activity in Avignon, what with its multitude of museums, monuments, historic buildings and exhibitions. But the best way to see Avignon is definitely on foot. The Office of Tourism recommended several walks around the town of Avignon, but as we planned on driving back to St Remy de Provence by 3:00 pm, we opted to see what is commonly referred to as Avignon’s “Acropolis”. This historical area, which includes the Pope’s Palace Square, the former communal hall, the Palace of the Popes, Cathedral, Dom gardens, Petit Palais, Avignon Bridge, and the rampart between the Chatelet to the Dog Tower, is the most popular walk for visitors and a ‘must see’. On the walkway between the rampart and the Dom gardens, you’ll find the most magnificent view of Avignon, the Rhone, the Alpilles, and Mont Ventoux.
The Palace of the Popes itself, home to the Sovereign Pontiffs in the 14th century, is a large Gothic palace. You can visit 25 rooms of the Palace, including the ceremonial rooms, chapels, cloister, and private papal apartments with priceless frescoes on the walls.
The Petit Palais Museum houses an outstanding collection of Italian and Provencal paintings from the late 13th to the early 16th centuries, and collection of Romanesque and Gothic Avignon sculptures.
And finally the bridge that inspired the famous song, the Saint Benezet bridge. Built during the 12th century, it was destroyed in 1226 at the time of the Albigensian Crusades and then later rebuilt. The bridge was often damaged by raging flood waters, and finally abandoned in the 17th century.
Lunch at Avignon: As to be expected, the restaurants around the Pope’s Palace Square were “chokkers”, to use an Aussie vernacular. Filled with bodies and a cacophony of sound, this wasn’t the dining experience that we were looking for so we ducked to the side streets to check out what we could find. We found an awesome restaurant called La Cour du Louvre. An otherwise pricey restaurant, they had a set lunch menu for 19,00 Euros per person for a choice of a starter and a main. Good deal. For our starters, Peter and I chose a mixed salad, which consisted of mixed leaves, tomato, cucumber, “jamon serrano”, olives and melon with a wonderful house dressing. Refreshing and light, it was perfect for so hot a day. For the main, we both picked the fish of the day, a succulent sole that was served with mixed vegetables and aioli. Delicious and just the right amount of food. The restaurant itself was lovely and very refined, the service second to none. I don’t know too many restaurants in Sydney that will serve an entree and main of that calibre at AU$25 per person. La Cour du Louvre. 23 Rue St Agricol, 84000 Avignon. www.lacourdulouvre.com
Peter Discovers Another Culinary Gem Outside St Remy de Provence: “Let’s try out the place we found by the side of the road the day before yesterday.”, Peter said.
My mind drew a blank....I knew which restaurant Peter meant, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to get there. We had previously ducked into this place, situated just outside the main town of St Remy de Provence in a semi-rural area, to ask for directions on our way to L’Isle sur la Sourge. It had immediately piqued our interest. Although I had taken the restaurant’s card, our GPS was stubbornly showing “no results found” when I tried to key in the address.
“Don’t worry, I have a vague idea where it is.”, Peter insisted. And so he drove, and drove.... and drove. Homes got fewer and further in between as rural spaces and vineyards covered more ground. “Love, I don’t remember any of this!”, I had to admit.
After 10 minutes of driving in silence, Peter acquiesced, “OK, after 3 minutes, if we haven’t found it, we turn back and just have dinner at St Remy de Provence. OK?” Sounded like a plan.
All of a sudden, Peter spotted the name of his late best friend, “Milan” on the side of the road.
“Hey look, Vic, it’s Milan!” Peter blurted with a smile in his voice. Remembering his late friend’s fun-loving nature, he saw it as a sign to just keep going, and so he did. Lo and behold, less than 5 minutes later, we found the restaurant we were looking for, Restaurant de la Galine.
What excited us the most on approach of Restaurant de la Galine was that the parking lot was filled with mud splattered local cars - not a Mercedes, BMW or Porsche in site. With its homey and rustic decor inside, the atmosphere was buzzing with friends and families enjoying what seemed to be regional favorites. This was our kind of place!
The proprietor, who seemed to be handling the whole restaurant on his own, was efficient and gracious, greeting us straight away and showing us a table. It mattered not that he barely spoke English, so willing was he to please. While he warmly chatted and greeted diners who were obviously all regulars, he treated us with the same care and hospitality. We were able to work out quickly what we wanted, thanks to our basic knowledge of French, and our food did not take long to arrive. Starting off with a shared mixed salad for starters, Peter enjoyed a succulent fish of the day while I devoured “moules frites” - mussels with fries - for our mains.
What Peter and I loved about this place was the delicious home-cooked style food at reasonable prices and the lack of pretension. Parents, grandparents and children dined together with the family dog underfoot. Neighbors walked in and greeted half the room. Apart from Peter and I, the proprietor knew them all by name, giving each one the obligatory French “bisou”, the kiss on the cheek three times. And this is what dining is all about, the friendship and human interaction around a hearty meal. Good for the body, good for the soul.