Monday, 20 May 2013: Marseille to Avignon
Written Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Monday morning, we big our final farwewell to the Ibis Budget Marseille Vieux Port. David and I went down to the parking garage to bring the car to the hotel's lay-by, and to my great surprise, the machine at which one pays for parking actually accepted our new chip-bearing credit card, without a pin and without a signature! That certainly simplifies things! We verified later that the card still won't work the gas pumps at unmanned service stations, but not having to shovel cash into parking machines will be a great convenience. In fact, all the restaurants were ready for us; they already knew that they no longer had to swipe the mag strip American cards but could insert them into the slot used for European chip cards. The difference is that the mobile card reader the waiter brings to the table is then handed to European customers, so that they can enter their pin numbers, whereas in our case, the machine still spits out a paper receipt and a charge slip for signature.
We bushwhacked our way out of the city and onto the secondary roads, then pulled over to see if the GPS would navigate for us. Surprisingly, it served us well. It didn't list our hotel, another Ibis Budget, among its "points of interest, but it knew the Ibis, which (from my Google area maps) I knew was right next door. Even more amazing, when we followed my Google area map to a nearby spot that was supposed to provide parking, we found it was a free public parking lot, just two doors from the hotel!
Now, is this a medieval city wall or what? Actually, it's "what." The walls do date originally from the 14th century, but they've been pretty heavily restored in the last couple of hundred years. This is actually the view from my hotel-room window. The Ibis Budget and the regular Ibis next door are on the circular boulevard that rings the city, just outside the walls.
"Our" gate, the Porte Saint Roche, is one lane wide and one-way outward (two one-way streets meet head on just inside it. Only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed to enter through it; the bikes get a narrow lane, but the pedestrians are on their own.
This gate isn't very scenic inside, but a couple of gates along the wall, we found this handsome sculpture on the sidewalk. In the background, you can see some of the ongoing work on the ramparts.
I certainly recommend the Ibis Budget Avignon Pont d'Europe. Besides the features I've already described for the one in Marseille, it had twice the hanging space and twice the shelf space per room, and each room had an entirely enclosed bathroom (a feature we did not find in the next two we stayed at) with an entirely enclosed shower stall. It also had three unused electrical outlets. Its breakfast included everything we'd gotten in Marseille, plus applesauce, fruit yogurt (in addition to plain), and two kinds of sliced bread, and its coffee machine never broke down. It even provided plates in addition to the green plastic trays. And all the staff were very nice.
We found lunch at La Régence, on the Rue de la République, right across from the Office de Tourisme.
CJ got another salade Niçoise, this one (for some reason), in addition to all the usual ingredients, heavily showered with rice.
Jeff got a ham-and-cheese omelet, which came with salad and fries (which looked just like mine, shown below.
Both took the opportunity to order Cokes, which are way better in France than in the U.S. because they're still made with real sugar. I now realize that that's why, in the days of my youth, 6-oz. bottled cokes were so much better than Cokes in any other size or form—they were the last ones still made with sugar rather than corn syrup. Today, my supermarket sells a few precious imported Mexican Cokes in the ethic food aisle, for the same reason.
David ordered his usual goat-cheese salad, which looked as though it were made with Bûcheron goat cheese and came showered with walnuts and olives. Unfortunately, "pain de mie," ordinary American-stule sliced bread, is becomes more and more common in France, and salads that used to be constructed on baguette slices now come on breakfast-style toast.
I had a mushroom and cheese omelet, clearly made with canned mushrooms and pretty badly overcooked. The fries were not such a much either. Good salad, though.
After a visit to the OT for maps, recommendations, and combined tickets to the Papal Palace and the Pont d'Avignon (officially the Pont Saint Bénézet), we set off up the boulevard, which runs arrow straight from the Porte de la République to the Place de l'Horloge, thought to be the site of the Roman forum (some excavated stone fragments of the forum are displayed in a tiny park off to one side). Today, the place is wall-to-wall café tables, except for the aisles left to accommodate pedestrians. I don't know whether the boulevard is straight because it follows an old Roman road leading to the forum or whether it's another of those wide streets punched through by brute force of urban planning in the 19th century.
The place gets its name from the large clock on the tower of the Mairie, which occupies one long side of it. Above the clock are "jacquemarts," called "jacks" in English, puppets that move when the clock strikes the hour, but although we passed through the place many times, we never managed to be there at the right time to see their routine.
Just beyond the Place de l'Horloge is the Place du Palais, where we'd hoped to catch thje little tourist train (another brownish one, like the one in Aix), but its next two departures were already sold out, so we went on beyond to tour the papal palace. Again, the price of the tickets included excellent audioguides in your choice of language.
On the left is the facade of the palace, as seen over the last few café umbrellas.
On the right is a model on display inside, which gives a better idea of the size and layout of the building. On the side nearest the camera, you can see the two round, pointed "tourelles" that flank the main entrance—the same two that are visible above the umbrellas in the photo on the left.
In the course of the tour, we finally got straight the story of what the popes were doing in Avignon to start with. I had always thought that the only ones to live there were those during the great schism, when rival popes ruled from Avignon and Rome simultaneously, but in fact, at least a few "unique" popes were based there. In the 13th century, the papacy was itinerant, residing one place, then another, as the popes moved around. Then, in the 14th century, a series of popes was duly elected who all happened to be French and who simply decided to settle in Avignon.
After them the papacy moved (back?) to Rome, and only a couple of popes later did the schism occur, during which guys claiming to be pope lived in both Avignon and Rome.
At the left here is one of the passageways in the palace through which the tour led us. On the right was a poster prominently displayed both in the palace and around the town, advertising an upcoming art exhibition to be held in palace, called "Les Papesses," i.e., "the Popesses." It will feature six feminist artists from around the world, and I was excited to see among them "Kiki Smith." Could that be my college classmate? Didn't she go into the arts ? How many Kiki Smith's can there be?
Well, at least two, it seems: my classmate, who is now a professor of theater at our old Alma Mater, and this other Kiki Smith, a few years younger, who will be included in the exhibition in Avignon.
The palace stands empty now, used only for touring, so what you see and learn about are (a) the architecture and history of its construction and (b) the history of the papacy during its Avignon period, principally which pope built what.
On the left is one of the two inner courtyards (one for the "old" palace and one for the "new" part added later; the sprinklers were running when we were there). On the right is an impressive roster of the people who worked on the construction of the palace in 1344–1345, presumably from payroll records. They include masons, carpenters, "transporters," "stone breakers," suppliers of rope, wood, tile, stone, etc., as well as quite a people just listed as laborers.
The three photos above were other striking views from the tour. On the left, a view upward from one of the courtyards, showing all the alterations made over the years. You can see arches that have been bricked up and reworked in several different styles, according to the uses of the rooms at different times in their history. In the center is one of the several large naves we passed through. Some had stone vaulted ceilings, but this one was wooden. The original burned along ago but has been reconstructed according to the original inverted-boat-hull design. The photo shows once again the French genius for lighting architecture. On the right is a view into a courtyard through a carved stone window frame.
The rooms are mostly bare, but in a few places, traces of the original decoration can still be seen. On the left, a relief of Christ carrying the cross.
On the right is a section of fresco that looks entirely fresh and new. It portrays the prophets and was painted by Matteo Giovanetti in 1352-1353 in the Salle de Grande Audience (the great audience room). Originally, all the vast walls of the room were covered with such paintings, including a huge crucifixion scene, but they were destroyed by the military administration that occupied the building in the 19th century. I have no idea why this one section was spared—perhaps it was hidden or covered by a temporary structure at the time.
As we emerged from the tour, out a back door of the palace, we found an operatic soprano busking in a little area just off the Place du Palais—much better than the average street singer.
After an hour or so back at the hotel, we walked back into the town for dinner at La Fourchette (The Fork).
On the left, David and me, for once without the dork strap.
On the right, the bowl of tiny bread buns we were brought. They were good, but each one was about the size of a two golf balls, and they never brought us any more. In the background you can see the pits from the dish of olives—the default amuse-bouche in this part of the world.
The walls of the restaurant were covered with photographs and memorabilia, including a wide variety of forms of all designs.
First course, me: Ravioli of local sheep's-milk ricotta with spinach and saffron. As you can see, I got just one very large ravioli (a raviolo?) in a creamy sauce. The sauce was tinted with spinach, and I also found spinach inside with the cheese. Rich, tender, and delicious!
First course, David: A cold jellied terrine of poultry with onion jam. Pieces of meat (mostly chicken) and bits of vegetables (and the bay leaf you can see) had been packed into a loaf pan, then jelled together with rich poultry stock. He said it was very good but not great.
First course, Jeff: Very thin slices of marinated raw salmon with thin slices of toast and a small salad of mâche (lamb's lettuce). Sorry it's a little blurry, but you know what salmon looks like, right?
First course, CJ: The "cream soup of the day," which was a cream of tomato. The server brought her a warmed soup plate with the chunk of sautéed fois gras in the bottom, then poured the hot soup carefully around it. The soup was great, but she wouldn't share the liver.
Main course, David and me: Daurade royale with cream of sorrel. Fish with sorrel sauce is a classic dish, and it usually consists of plain fish with a cream-based sauce into which thinly sliced sorrel leaves have been cooked—they nearly melt in the process. In this case, though, the fish had been wrapped in whole fresh sorrel leaves, then grilled or baked, and only then set on top of a sorrel cream sauce. Excellent. Sorrel is Rumex acetosa, in the Polygonaceae, i.e., the buckwheat family. It's a common weed, but wild specimens don't usually have as good flavor as the garden varieties selected for it. It has a sour, lemony tang (mostly from oxalic acid, I think).
Main course, Jeff and CJ: Fresh breast of duck dusted with curry powder and cooked like a rare steak, with a compote of zucchini on the side. CJ has been hooked on rare grilled duck since she first came to France with us, and I think we've made a convert of Jeff as well.
The duck came with these lovely olive-oil mashed potatoes. This part of France really is different. I don't think we were served butter, or anything with butter in it, more than once the whole trip. They joke that even the motorcycles around here run on olive oil.
Dessert, David and Jeff: Chocolate profiteroles. David loves these, and clearly as soon as Jeff heard the description, his decision was also made. They are cream puffs (usually three small ones, but in this case, one large) filled with vanilla ice cream and smothered in hot fudge. Addictive.
Dessert, me: The pastry of the day: crisp hazelnut meringue layered with almond-and-hazelnut ice cream and drizzled with caramel syrup. Excellent, but I'm afraid I couldn't finish the huge piece they brought me.
Dessert, CJ: Ice cream, I think, but maybe berries and cream (I need to be quicker off the mark with the camera). Anyway, they ransacked the kitchen to find miniature "elephant-ear" pastries to substitute for the usual almond tuile.
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