Avignon

IMG_1993Rome, it seems, is wherever the Pope is. Although today Vatican City is the one and only “pontifical state”, there were about 75 years in the 14th century when the Pope lived in Avignon, France. For that period, Avignon was the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, thanks to a civil war going on in Rome. I guess Popes can´t risk getting caught up in such messes. After all, there are statues to guild, churches to build, that sort of thing. Today, Avignon is in the tourism business, thanks to its interesting history and preservation of one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in all of Europe: Palais des Papes (the Palace of the Popes). The modern city is quintessentially French: cobblestone streets dotted with quaint cafes, old ladies walking poodles, men on bicycles and flowery vines growing over rusty wraught iron and crumbly stone buildings with wooden shutters coated in pale blue paint, all against the backdrop of the Rhone river and the sound of La Vie En Rose playing on a scratchy phonograph in the distance. I swear, its exactly like that, give or take a few German tourists buying crap from the tacky boutiques along the busy retail strip in the center of town. Otherwise, honestly, the small, walled city smells like L'occitane and looks like a Vanity Fair photo spread of Martha Stewart’s farm house.

I’m surprised to find there is no palpable feeling of religiosity in the air in Avignon, though it is replete with religious relics: chapels, cathedrals, monuments, ornate facades depicting the crucifixion, eucharist and nativity. The Virgin Mary is everywhere. The architecture is stunning. It all captivates me for a while, until I’m struck by the sheer excess of it all. I imagine the working poor of the city, enslaved by the rigors of so much ritual, taxation, tithing and judgement, while the Popes commission works and decorate rooms in their likeness and taste, each of them surrounded by 25 Cardinals, each Cardinal in turn supported by 50 servants. Coronation feasts for a select few, bountiful enough to feed an entire city. I suppose power and money have always made the world go ‘round.

But enough of all that.

Because of the booming tourism, Avignon is home to some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the world. Thanks to my mother’s generosity, we actually get to enjoy two of them.

For starters, we stay at La Mirande, a small boutique hotel which Conde Naste Traveler named one of the world’s top 10 in 2009. Situated directly across a narrow cobblestone street from the Papal Palace, this former cardinal’s palace is a landmark in its own right. Inside, it’s decorated in flawless English country detail. Our room is wallpapered in beautiful fabric and well appointed in every way. The bathroom features marble floors, solid silver fixtures and Dr. Hauschka toiletries. The bed is made with fresh white linens. Pressed, fresh white linens. Incredible.

Since its chilly outside, Saturday’s breakfast is served in a room overlooking the hotel’s picturesque terrace and garden. A large farmhouse table is filled with baskets of croissant, pains aux chocolat, homemade jams, plates of salami, cheese, poached apricots and figs. Everything is organic.

Breakfast at La Mirande stands in stark contrast to the other 5 star experience of our weekend: dinner at Christian Etienne. Luckily, I’ve read the English version of the prix fixe menu before we arrive, so I’m able to recommend the Grand Palais Menu for my mom and the Fall Vegetable Menu for me. “We can share,” I say.

What I don’t realize is that her menu will include 5 courses: an appertif, followed by sea scallops over spaghetti squash with black trumpet mushrooms followed by panfried John Dory in shrimp jus, then a cheese cart, then dessert. My menu is similar, although – to my surprise -- in my menu the sea scallop dish is substituted with a shotglass of bright green “fish foam”, and the fried fish course is replaced by a raw egg atop artichoke puree in a large black bowl. Only a mother would “share” under these circumstances, and mine graciously does. (Love you, mom!!) Note: “Share” here is used to mean, “She gave me half of hers, while taking none of mine.”

In addition to the 5 courses, there are appertifs for the appertifs and desserts for the desserts and palate cleansers in between. When the last plate is finally cleared, it has been 3 hours since we sat down. We may die from consumption.

In retrospect, I realize Christian Etienne is the French equivalent of my New Zealand bungee jumping experience. Had to try it. Never want to do it again.

As for the rest of Avignon, pictures are worth a thousand words, so visit my Avidnon album on Flickr. I apologize to my A.D.D readers for this terribly long blog post, though I imagine they’ve all retreated to D-listed by now.

Once again, all’s well that ends well. Thanks, mom. It was truly a wonderful weekend!