Exploring the Diversity of Provence
The Foods, Wines, Markets, and Cultural Life of Avignon
|Taking it easy at a café on the Place de l'Horloge in front of the Opéra-théâtre d'Avignon.
As much as driving through the countryside of Provence appeals to me, taking in the markets and stopping along the roadside for a long, lingering, lunch in a county inn, I wanted to get to know Provence from one place. I also wanted to explore Provence relying entirely on public transportation. Because Avignon was in the middle of everything, that became my home base. It turned out to be the perfect place for day-trips using the well-connected train and bus lines, as well as a wonderful place to stay.
In Avignon, you can visit the famous Les Halles d’Avignon covered market as well as take in tranquil day trips to places such as the salt marshes and sandy vineyards of the Camargue, the magnificent Roman aqueduct at the Pont du Gard (and onward to Uzès for the traditional Saturday market), to Châteauneuf du Pape and Orange for Rhône wines and the Roman theatre, to the Lubéron for country markets, fantastically wonderful and bizarre wild and manmade landscapes and fecund fields, and to the cities of Aix and Marseilles.
Moreover, in Avignon I discovered the Hôtel Médiéval run by a gregarious staff who all make a person feel as if they are coming home each time she enters its stone doorway in the medieval neighborhood. Hôtel Médiéval (15 rue de la Petite-Saunerie, tel. 04-90-86-11-06, firstname.lastname@example.org) not only offers hotel rooms but also a few studios with kitchenettes with a special weekly rate for those of us who want to stay a while, have a city home and cook the market catch of the day. It was so pleasant that as much as I enjoyed those day trips, I also treasured staying put and visiting Les Halles and all the little gourmet shops in the walled medieval city, getting to know merchants and stands, both biologique (organic) and other local produce, cheeses, olive oils and olives, and regional wines.
On my train journey to Avignon I had been given an education by an older man on his way to Marseilles to visit family. As we began chatting, I asked him what he thought was the best food to sample in Provence. He started with that classic shrug and then launched into a delightful monologue: “Alors, you must really try toro steak, the bulls here are truly delicious.” He gestured out the train window. To the south, in the Camargue marshes and coast, live the famous, black bulls destined for steak. “Next, you must have the bouillabaisse, one with all the catch of the sea in it.” “Where is the best bouillabaisse?” I asked. Another shrug “Everywhere makes their own,” he said, but Marseilles is famous given the location and the fishing port. “Next,” he went on, “be sure to sample the fresh produce of Provence as crudités with our special mayonnaise dip.” The divine vegetables—raw or blanched—that can go into this fresh platter with the mayonnaise dip (aioli) are: carrots, peppers, celery, asparagus, turnips, radishes, green beans, fennel, cauliflower, cucumber, tomatoes, and broccoli…whatever is in season. The aioli offers a garlicky spin on classic mayo, whipped up fresh with eggs, lemon juice, olive oil, finely minced garlic—or better, smashed—fresh chopped herbs, salt and pepper.
Arriving in Arles, the elderly man stood up, pulled my bag from overhead and placed it in the aisle, holding the door open for me. “Welcome to Provence and bon appetit!” Not only did I take his culinary lead, but in my explorations in Provence I discovered other people who were as consistently warm and welcoming as he had been.
All the makings for the bouillabaisse and the crudités were readily available in Les Halles. But that toro steak, that was something I tried in Arles. I enjoyed it at the restaurant connected with the Hostellerie des Arenes (62 Rue du Refuge, near the Roman amphitheatre). I ordered the daily fixed-price menu, offering a three course meal and wine that added up to no more than euros 18. It included a salade de chevre, steak de tarreau au buerre vert with ratatouille and pommes de terre au gratin, homemade flan for dessert, and a Côte du Rhone red. This meal was so perfect, so delicious, that it has gone down as one of those epic meals one remembers for a long time. Moreover, the atmosphere of Restaurant des Arenes reinforced this experience, from the three quick and witty women who ran it to the patrons who all welcomed each newcomer when they entered the dining area and who proceeded to talk to each other across tables as if we were one large family.
Once settled in Avignon, as well as on day-trips throughout Provence, I began to discover an important part of daily life and culture often not described in popular books expounding the bounty of Provence and her culture. I learned that I had only read part of the story. Missing were the Jews, the Romany, the North Africans, and the West Africans. Missing were the influence of Italy and Spain, especially Catalonia. In Avignon I discovered this more diverse and accurate depiction of Provence, one that reinforced the fact that since the time of the Celto-Ligurians, through to the Romans and right up to the post-colonial French present, Provence has been a main crossroads in the Mediterranean, bringing in peoples from everywhere. And yes, it also possesses the wonderfully quirky, warm, and witty Provençales. They all exist together and together they define what is special about Provence, albeit a bit edgier and changeable but no less charming than Peter Mayle’s or M.F.K. Fischer’s Provences, not to mention the Provence depicted in popular food and travel magazines.
There is no better place to see this rich diversity than at Avignon’ Sunday flea market, held in Place des Carmes, right in front of the church and cloister, Église et Cloître des Carmes. (On Saturday on this same plaza you’ll also locate the vibrant flower market.) The Sunday flea market packs the Place with West Africans, North Africans, Provençales, and Romany, buying and selling everything from used shoes and clothes to old record albums to household goods and theatrical props. Some dramatic Louis XV style mirrors and chairs add shabby chic to the whole scene. Being a Sunday, as the market carries on so does the church service from Église des Carmes. As a shopper you can enjoy the piped Sunday service’s sermon and sacred song from speakers that are mounted over the plaza. Like many market goers, I punctuated my shopping by stepping inside the church and standing in the back row to sing with the congregation, following the words on a karaoke-like screen near the altar.
Among Avignon’s many charms is its completely walled medieval city within the modern city. Numerous gates lead into this walled town. Inside, the rush of traffic is limited to the very few main streets, leaving many pedestrian-only passages. Though the popes who built this old town were a somewhat feisty lot, they did leave a stone medieval city that enchants residents and visitors alike. And while the Pont d’Avignon is most famous because of its catchy primary school song, I think Avignon should be famous for its warm people, its access to regionally grown and produced foods and wines, and its fairytale-like setting on the Rhône, giving it easy access to Arles, Orange, Gordes, Aix, Marseilles, Les Baux, the Pont du Gard, and on into the lavender, calabash, melon, auberge, apple orchards, and wine fields throughout Provence.
|The Palais des Papes from the Place du Palais.
Here are some favorite spots for food and exploration in Avignon:
Avignon was occupied long before it became the residence of Popes in the 13th and 14th centuries. A stroll along the gardens of Rocher des Doms will take you to an area, also within the walls of the medieval city, first occupied in prehistory, then in the Bronze Age and again in the Iron Age when it became the site of an oppidum, a Celtic-style fortress. The Romans then settled Rocher des Doms and after them it was forgotten as a human settlement and used as grazing land in the medieval period. In around 1830 the Rocher des Doms was converted into a garden.
- Take in the sunset in the gardens of the Rocher des Doms overlooking the Rhône to the west and north. The numinous pink sunset on the Rhone is worth it but do be forewarned, as the sun sets, some of the world’s most voracious mosquitoes, guardians of the Rhône and nearby Camargue no doubt, emerge with the speed of Genghis Khan’s army. Many guidebooks warn of mosquitoes through the warm summer months but I was there at the tail end of September and they were as unrelenting as in July.)
- Walk along the wall as well as within it and explore the different gates. Take in the famous bridge, Pont St-Bénézet, both for its sing-song and historical fame but also for its lovely view of the Rhône river valley.
- Dip into the little courtyards that are open to the public and off the narrow streets in the walled city. Usually there is an art exhibit housed in one of the interior courtyard buildings. These places also offer delightful peace and relaxation.
- Take a good chunk of a day to take in the huge Gothic Palais des Papes and immerse yourself in the two-century long Avignonese papacy, of the 14th and 15th centuries when Avignon became the residence of the Popes (1309) to leave behind the warring political factionalism in Rome. But by 1378, with the election of Pope Clement VII, a division emerged between Roman Popes and Avignonese Popes, which lasted until 1417. (The Avignon popes were mainly acknowledged in Naples, France, and Spain.) During that time the popes in Rome and in Avignon competed with and denounced each other as they vied for mortal power. At the same time, the city of Avignon flourished during this same time because of papal patronage. After the papal reunification in Rome, Avignon continued under papal control until 1792. The revolution ended this, making Avignon a part of France.
- Visit the walled city’s synagogue, which was first built in the 13th century and then rebuilt after a fire in the mid-nineteenth century (hence its strong neoclassical style). It is located at 2 Place Jérusalem and is open from 10a.m-12p.m. on Friday, and from 10a.m.-12p.m. and 3-5p.m. on Monday through Thursday. If you visit, dress modestly. For more information, the telephone is 04-90-85-21-24.
- Take in the many small food, oil and wine boutique shops in the walled city where you can buy locally made olive oils, soaps, essential oils, olives, artisinal brebis (sheep’s milk) cheeses, artisinal sausages, flowers, and fruits and vegetables of the season.
- Visit Les Halles d’Avignon as your daily stop for fresh, locally produced and procured foods and wines. Les Halles is open everyday except Mondays, from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on Place Pie (tel. 04-90-27-15-15, www.halles-avignon.com) Therein you will also find organic growers and producers.
- Avignon is the heart of Côte du Rhône country and so also a great place from which to explore this stellar appellation. A good start might be getting oriented at Avignon’s Maison des Vins (6 rue St-Michel, tel. 04-90-27-24-00, www.vins-rhone.com), which offers information on wine trails that you can explore, as well as the names of many vineyards that are open to public visits and that offer tastings.
A budget epicurean’s note: the special sea salt from the Camargue makes a wonderful souvenir and gift but don’t buy it in the tourist shops where it is two to three times more expensive. Instead, the very same container of salt can be procured at any of the many everyday small markets scattered throughout the city.
Markets Around Provence
|A spread of some of the many market finds in Provence.
1. Weekly Markets:
Weekly markets start in the morning and end around or near lunchtime. Markets being one of the splendors of Provence, most tourist offices have lists to hand out for the weekly market times and places.
Sunday: Aigues-Mortes (also on Wednesday), Toulon.
Monday: Bédoin, Cavaillon, Nîmes, Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer (also on Friday).
Tuesday: La Ciotat, Aubagne (also on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday), Tarascon, Vaison-la-Romaine.
Wednesday: Arles, Cassis (also on Friday), Gardanne (also on Friday and Sunday), Salon de Provence, St-Rémy-de-Provence, Valréas (also on Saturday).
Thursday: Aix-en-Provence, Beaucaire (also on Sunday), L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (also on Sunday), Nyons, Orange, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.
Friday: Carpentras, Cassis, Pertuis, Roums (also on Saturday).
Saturday: Apt, Arles, Avignon (flower market), Uzès.
2. Daily, Seasonal, and Specialty Markets:
Daily markets: Avignon (Les Halles, except Mondays when closed), Carpentras (by the station), Aix-en-Provence (on Place Richelme)
Truffles: Richerenches, on Saturdays from November to March.
Melons: Cavaillon, all mornings from May to September.
Garlic: Marseilles, daily from June to July, on the cours Belsunce.
Fish: Marseilles, daily all year long, along the quai des Belges.