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Provence (3/30-4/2)

March 31st, 2007 · No Comments

Roman ruins, wine tasting, the Papal Palace…and a French bullfight (think more like tag with a bull)! Read below for the fun exploits of our long weekend in Provence!

Daniel

For photos, click here:

Provence

After another fun TGV train ride with Zookie in tow, we found our quaint hotel in the town of Arles. The owners were friendly and happy to offer dining recommendations (it helped that we could speak a little French). Plus, the coffee was fantastic! Hotel du Musee

One of the best parts of being in Arles was wandering the streets and alleyways. Scattered around town are copies of various paintings by Van Gogh while he lived in Arles. It’s easy to see how he was inspired by the local cafes and squares. The colors are still vibrant – we found a bright blue door down a narrow street. It was a perfect photo opportunity for Zookie.

An unexpected highlight was the ancient colosseum that sits at the center of town. Amazingly intact for its age, the colosseum is beautiful to walk around and admire the architecture. The best part – they still have bull fights inside. Of course we found a way to catch the Sunday showing. The majority of bull fights are very different from the typical blood and gore killing fest. Rather than a one-on-one showoff, two teams of locals challenge each other. The goal: grab the ribbon (which is tightly wrapped around a bull’s horns) and race to safety beyond a wooden barrier without getting trampled by the bull. It was fun to watch and interesting to learn about the history behind the game.

During the action (we watched the teams try to get the ribbon on 4 different bulls), the overhead speakers blasted out Carmen whenever the bull made an extraordinary move or chase. Also, in the background a man’s voice rattled off numbers and names, which apparently were wealthy spectators offering bets if one of the players could grab the ribbon at that instant. Essentially, a little motivation for the men on the field to get aggressive. Finally, when time ran out Carmen would come on and the bull would proudly trot through the main gate. A fantastic way to spend the afternoon.

Here are two short videos to give you an idea of how the Course Camarguiase works: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3078201512749035185&hl=en and http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8114115027640534373&hl=en

One day, we took a quick daytrip to Avignon, to see the Papal Palace. This was the residence of the Pope from 1309 to 1403. It originally came to be when Pope Clement V was elected. Italy had been unstable and somewhat dangerous for a while, so the idea that it may be best to leave the Vatican wasn’t so crazy….but only a Frenchman would really have the audacity to suggest that the entire head of the Catholic Church be moved to his homeland. As if that weren’t enough, when Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome in 1378, that should have been the end of the Avignon papacy. But after he died, the French decided they were in charge now, and recognized their own Pope instead of the one in Rome. Hence the great Papal Schism: during which there were actually two Pope from 1378 until 1417. Crazy!

On our last day, I finally braved it and we rented a manual car. We had wanted to explore the French countryside, specifically the Cote du Rhone wine region. I needed to finally learn how to drive stick, especially because we were planning a trip to Turkey (where, in some regions, you cannot even find an automatic car). So we decided this was the best time and place for a nice little adventure. All-in-all, it wasn’t so bad. I somehow managed to drive the car for two hours before stalling it once — but after that first stall I had quite a bit of trouble. I think Kim’s text message (stating no stalls yet) to our friend was the fatal jinx…Thank god France has so many roundabouts!

Touring the countryside was a wonderful way to really get a feel for the region. The small cities of France are full of character and each their own, but once you get out into the more rural towns, it is a completely different feel. We visited Les Baux, a beautiful city with a castle perched right on top of white cliffs. The view of the surrounding olive groves and vineyards was amazing.

I had been looking forward to wine tasting for months, especially as Cote du Rhone wines are my favorite. We visited several caveaus (local wine store for the town) and some vineyards and wineries. The small town of Gigondas has an excellent caveau, and Zookie could even join us on our tasting quest! We also tasted at Domaine de l’Amandine in Seguret and Didier Charavin’s place in Rasteau. The French are much more laid back about their wine tasting than we are in Napa or Sonoma. There is no tasting fee, no fancy tasting room, and far fewer people rushing from winery to winery. And the purchase process is completely different too — bottles, of course, are much cheaper. But you can also just bring a large jug or container to the winery and they fill fill it up directly from the tap! (I think that has to be illegal in the United States or maybe Two Buck Chuck is working on it)

Our last stop on our countryside adventure was the old Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard. It was built as the critical link of a 30 mile canal that supplied nine million gallons of water per day to Nimes — one of ancient Europe’s largest cities. The remaining part of the aqueduct spans a canyon like a massive bridge, and is actually the second-highest standing Roman structure. (Rome’s Colosseum is only 2 yards taller.) A feat of engineering, especially when you remember that this was built thousands of years ago.

Restaurants: The food in Provence is amazing. We actually liked the restaurants here better than most of the places we had tried in Paris. It’s a different style of cooking, based on olive oil (not butter, which is the style in Paris) and very fresh ingredients and herbs. Oh, and your value for money goes much farther here. (Think 25-50% less than Paris prices.)

L’Entrevue
(Place Nina Berbenova – 13200 Arles Tel: +33 (0)4 90 93 37 28)
www.restaurant-lentrevue.com
Kimberly had eaten here six years ago when she came to Europe with her best friend after college. She had been raving about this Moroccan restaurant for years: as it was the first place she tried pastilla. It is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavours. Made with a crust that is similar to the Greek phyllo pastry, it is stuffed with pigeon (sometimes chicken), almonds, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. It was pretty amazing (as was my couscous).

Lou Caleu
(27 Rue Porte de Laure 13200 Arles Tel: 33+ (0)4 90 49 71 77)
www.restaurant-lou-caleu.com
If you are looking for a traditional Provence meal, look no further. This is probably the best place to try Gigotin de lapereau roti aux jus d’herbes et son ail confit (leg of young rabbit roasted in an aux jus herbs sauce with a garlic confit) or longe de co
chonnet de lait laquĆ© au miel d’oranges douces
(loin of young milk-fed pig laquered in orange-flower honey). In provence, the meat will taste more flavorful and flowery even with the same cooking preparation as other parts of France — because the animals are fed a diet of flowers and herbs to give them a different flavor from within. We enjoyed a great lunch here. But take note, the menus are in French only…and our waiter didn’t speak enough English. (So we ended up serving as translators for the many Americans in the restaurant!)

La Cigaliere
(53, Rue Condorcet 13200 Arles Tel: +33 (0)4 90 96 56 20)
www.restaurant-la-cigaliere.com
This place is just exceptional. Again, wonderful fresh food in the Provenve cooking style. Come hungry!

La Paillote
(28, Rue Doct Fanton 13200 Arles Tel: +33 (0)4 90 96 33 15)
We enjoyed a great Provence meal here as well. It was surprisingly empty, which meant we got the chef’s attention all to ourselves. I think it was relatively new, so that may have explained why it was so quiet. The prix-fixe meals were a really good value.

Tags: France

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