Sous le pont d’Avignon
The train from Dijon to Avignon takes us through vineyard country. Signs for M.Chapoutieradorn the hillsides. As you enjoy the scenic vignettes, you pass an ominous brooding nuclear reactor, no doubt waiting for the Rhone to flood and irradiate the already powerful reds.
A first impression of Avignon is that it is noticeably more touristy than Dijon and more English language friendly. For example, unlike Dijon, many of the restaurant menus here feature English translations.
Half a bridge too far
A must-see here is the Pont d’Avignon, originating from the 12thcentury and the basis of the famous song. It’s actually less than half a bridge as only four of the original 22 arches remain, so it stops disappointingly half way across the river. They have had many centuries to fix this but so far no action.
And I have it on good authority that the song we learned in execrable French at school is wrong – they didn’t dance “sur la pont”, they actually danced under it, that is, “sous le pont”, in a long gone café. Should I be called upon to sing this song in future it is the correct “sous” version I shall offer.
We have a good look round at the Palais des Papes in the heart of the city. A bunch of popes who battled with Rome for control of the Catholic empire lived here and ruled in the 14th century.
The palace kitchen area has a brilliant papal pizza oven, though I doubt the popes ever saw it.
However, the endless chapels and well-preserved examples of papal power and domesticity wear us out so we are happy to find near the exit a tasting room, where for a few dollars we refresh ourselves with some of the local reds.
Near the Papal Palace, we enjoy a casual lunch at Creperie du Cloitre. Scrumptious folded rectangles of crepes ooze with cheese, cream, spinach and a fried egg. They go down well with a bottle of Val de Rance Cidre Bouché. A silky smooth unpasteurised dry cider from Breton.
Hidden a few blocks away from the Papal Palace is the Musee Agladon – where we stroll around a small collection of gems by Picasso, Modigliani, Cezanne and Bonnard, not to mention classic pieces of 7th century Chinese terra cotta.
Security seems lax and in contrast to most other museums, we are able to get up quite close and photographical to the priceless masterpieces.
Later, with supper, we try a shiraz from the local supermarket. It is the Domaine des Remizieres, Cuvee Christophe 2009, appellation Crozes Hermitage, (14% alcohol, about $18). The shiraz-based red is a deep purple in colour, rich, soft and satisfying in the mouth.
Aqueduct with Quacking frogs
Towards the end of our Avignon stay, we hire a tour guide and visit the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct some 2000 years old.
As we rest on the bank of the tranquil river below the aqueduct, we hear loud quacking and look around for ducks. The racket is in fact coming from large frogs, and I reflect that the Roman Legionaries who built the place probably sat on the same spot 20 centuries ago, listening to the same spooky sound. And possibly caught a few for dinner.
Chateauneuf du Pape
The same morning we head off to Chateauneuf du Pape, a pretty hill top village set among hectares of Côtes du Rhône vineyards. On top of the main hill and sorely in need of a lick of paint are the derelict ruins of the “Pope’s new house”. Down the hill in the village, we visit a retailer for a little tasting.
Of the wines we taste, I quite like those from Chateau de la Gardine. First up is the 2005 vintage old vines white – AOC Chateauneuf du Pape – consisting mainly of roussanne. This presents fresh and perfumey, with a faint edge of liquorice allsorts on the palate.
Their 2006 red from the same appellation, made predominantly of grenache, is a warmly alcoholic style. Deep purple to black in colour, smooth in the mouth with sweetish fruit and a long finish.
A bus to Aix en Provence
But alas, after Chateauneuf de Pape, it’s farewell to fair Avignon, and time to take a bus to our next stop, Aix en Provence. More about Aix and Marseille in Part III.