Saturday, March 3, 2018

Visit to the Pope's Palace in Avignon France (not Rome Italy)

I have ignored my blog for far too long. Busy at work and projects at home, so I never seem to find quiet time to share adventures with you. So here I am. I hope to be here more frequently going forward.

As followers of "Our House in Provence" blog know, Shirley and I have been traveling to Sablet for quite a few years. During those years, we have spent a lot of time in Avignon but never felt inclined to visit the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace). Probably has to do with the fact we steer clear of museums. Much prefer to spend our time wandering around towns and villages, walking in and out of shops and stopping periodically for a petit café or glass of rosé depending on the time of day.

Last fall, we were honored by a visit of friends from Northern California. Since several had visited Sablet previously, we wanted to take the group to some new places. One place we chose to visit was the Pope's Palace. So we loaded the group into the car and headed to Avignon. We parked in our favorite parking garage and climbed the steps and exited to a view across Place du Palais to the Cathedral.

Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral is a Romanesque building, mainly built during the 12th century. The most prominent feature of the cathedral is the 19th century gilded statue of the Virgin which surmounts the western tower. The mausoleum of Pope John XXII (1334) is one of the most beautiful works within the cathedral. During the 14th century, this became the world’s most important church, home to seven different popes.

Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral

The Popes' Palace is a historical palace in Avignon, one of the largest and most important Medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. One time fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Six papal conclaves were held in the Palace, leading to the elections of 6 French popes, Benedict XII in 1334, Clement VI in 1342, Innocent VI in 1352, Urban V in 1362, Gregory XI in 1370 and antipope Benedict XIII in 1394.

It all began back in the 13th century from the conflict between the papacy and the French crown, culminating with Philip IV of France's killing of Pope Boniface VIII, and after the death of Pope Benedict XI, forcing a deadlocked conclave to elect the French Clement V, as Pope in 1305. Clement V declined to move to Rome, remaining in France, and in 1309, he moved his court to the papal enclave at Avignon, where it remained for the next 67 years.

Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral and Palais des Papes

Built in less then 20 years starting in 1335, the Popes' Palace is the amalgamation of two buildings: the old Palace of Benedict XII which sits on the rock of Doms, and the new Palace of Clement VI, the most extravagant of the Avignon popes. Not only is the final combination the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages, it is also one of the best examples of the International Gothic architectural style.

Palais des Papes

Come along with us as we visit the Palais des Papes. Inside, you’ll walk along sloping passages, narrow stairways, through arched doorways and into over 25 rooms that are open to visitors.

The central courtyard was completed in 1347 when Clement VI added the New Palace's south and west wings. In the center, you can see the well that Clement VI created on the site that was once the former Audience Chamber of John XXII.

Central Courtyard

Benoît XII Cloister, also known as the Court of the Old Palace, is named for Pope Benedict XII. It is a serene green space enclosed by a double-arcade, the upper level of which is a blind-arcade.

Benoit XII Cloister

As I mentioned previously, the palace served for over six decades as the residence of seven popes, and then during the Western Schism as the palace of two antipopes. In later years, the complex housed the Vice-legates and served as a barracks for the French military.

Palais des Papes

Pope's Palace Corridor

The Grand Tinel was the feast room! Measuring 160 feet (48 meters) long, five seatings, each with four courses, were served here. Normally, the pope sat alone at the south end inside his papal cathedra and if a visiting dignitary were dining with him, his guest would be alongside; however, on a lower platform.

The cavernous Grand Tinel or Feast Room

The Kitchen Tower was added to the palace during the reign of Clement VI. It features an impressive cone-shaped chimney in the ceiling.

The Kitchen Tower Chimney

Not a pope, but our friend John

Plaster effigies of prominent figures in the Sacristy from during the papal rule in the palace

The Consistory, a meeting hall where the Pope received official dignitaries was once decorated with paintings (they were destroyed by fire in the early 15th century) and features plain stone walls and houses displays of models and architectural elements, including a scale model of the palace and a set of wooden cupboard doors.

"Passion of the Christ" sculpture inside the Consistory

An architect, Jean de Louvres, was commissioned by Clement VI to build a new tower and adjoining buildings, including a 52 m long Grand Chapel, seen below, to serve as the location for papal acts of worship.

The Grand Chapel, where the Avignon popes worshiped

Chambre des Notaires, the Notary Room seen below, houses 19th-century portraits of the nine Avignon popes painted by Henri Serrur.

Notary Room

Magna Porta

The Escalier d’Honneur, the Stairway of Honor, is a wide Italian-style processional or ceremonial stairway, restored in the 17th century, leads from the Courtyard of Honor to the Great Chapel.

Stairway of Honor

The residency of the Popes in Avignon ended on September 13, 1376, when Pope Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved his court to Rome (arriving on January 17, 1377). Despite this return, following Gregory's death on March 27, 1378, the breakdown in relations between the cardinals and Gregory's successor, Urban VI, gave rise to the Western Schism.

This started a second line of Avignon popes, regarded as illegitimate and known as antipopes. The second and final Avignon antipope, Benedict XIII, lost most of his support in 1398, including that of France; following five years of siege by the French, he fled to Perpignan on March 11, 1403. The schism ended in 1417 at the Council of Constance, after two popes had reigned in opposition to the papacy in Rome.

Palais des Papes Tower

We finished our visit to the Palace and walked down to the neo-classical town hall known as the Hôtel de Ville on Place de l'Horloge. It was built in the 19th century as a replacement for an older building. Only the 14th century clock tower remains from the original structure. The Gothic clock tower seen below, which gave the square its name, was incorporated into the construction of the later Hôtel de Ville.

14th century Bell Tower of the Hôtel de Ville

If you are going to be in the area this year, and want to visit the Popes' Palace, it is probably preferable to do so first thing in the morning or in Spring or Fall as I have heard from friends that it is very hot and you will sweat profusely during your visit. Enough said.

Have a great week. Hope to hear from some of you.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Le Bistrot du Paradou, a Most Enjoyable Destination in the Alpilles

One Friday a few months back, we had a date for a rendezvous with cousins Jean-Marc and Christine for dinner. It was my responsibility to choose a restaurant somewhere between Montpellier and Sablet. After making some calls, I landed on Le Bistrot du Paradou. I was informed they had one table left but apologetically said it was out of the main dining room near the kitchen.

Le Bistrot du Paradou Kitchen

It was 75 km to the small village in the Alpilles Mountains called Paradou where the Bistrot is located. The last stretch of road took us past spots that offered spectacular views of Les Baux de Provence bathed in lights and the entrance to the Carrières de Lumières that I told you about here.

Le Bistrot du Paradou Dining Room

The restaurant is located in a traditional blue-shuttered house, just off the road, shaded by ancient plane trees. The terrace looks like a pleasant place to enjoy an aperitif or coffee after a meal, and there is convenient parking next door.

We were led through the dining room with vintage-tiled floors, stone walls, and timbered ceilings, to our table. When I said we would be happy to take the last table, I pictured a small raised table in an out of the way spot not usually offered to guests. Instead, we were led into the private room shown below with a large wood table set for 4. IMO, it was the perfect place for someone who loves to cook.

Our Table near Le Bistrot du Paradou Kitchen

There is only a single four-course prix fixe menu served at each meal. Tuesday, for example, might feature roasted farm-raised guinea hen, and Friday lunch is aioli, the traditional Provençal feast of steamed vegetables, salt cod, and local snails accompanied by the pungent garlic mayonnaise for which it is named. The price includes unlimited bottles of Côtes du Rhône wine—red, white, or rosé from Mont Redon.

House Red Wine

Our meal began with Soupe au Pistou, the Provence equivalent of minestrone, a seasonal vegetable soup — enriched with a simplified basil pesto (no pine nuts) brought to the table in a large earthenware dish, from which we served ourselves several times.

Tureen of Soupe au Pistou

Shortly after we were seated, our server stopped by to wish us "bienvenue" (welcome) and tell us about the menu for the evening. He said the Bistrot was offering two starters, the previously mentioned Soupe au Pistou and Escargots a la Bourguignonne (Snails in Garlic–Herb Butter). As you can see below, cousin Jean-Marc is ready to tuck into the tasty morsels.

Escargots a la Bourguignonne

The Soupe au Pistou was delicious, perfectly seasoned and we happily helped ourselves to second and third helpings including Jean-Marc who couldn't resist the aromas from the soupe.

Bowl of Pistou Soup

The main course that evening was Rack of Lamb with potato puree and ratatouille. When I called earlier in the day for reservation, I asked about a fish or vegetarian alternative for Shirley who doesn't eat red meat. They were happy to oblige and brought Shirley a generous portion of fresh cod served with the same accompaniments as our lamb. Since we could observe the goings on in the kitchen, we saw several plates of spit roasted Bresse chicken being sent out to the dining room.

Rack of Lamb with Potato Puree and Ratatouille

Although we were all quite full by now, we couldn't resist the temptation of the platter of cheese left on our table and we sampled the various ripe hard and soft cheeses shown below.

Cheese Board

A chalkboard with the dessert menu was brought to the table. Desserts included apple tart, ice creams and a few French classics including baba au rhum, crème caramel and the chocolate mousse I chose which was excellent.

As service wound down, we chatted with the all female kitchen team. They told us about the history of the Bistrot, the opening schedule (depends upon the time of year) and the various menu items offered on a seasonal basis.

Chocolate Mousse

I loved the food and ambiance at Le Bistrot du Paradou. They excel at simple food, done really well. It costs €51+ (depending upon lunch or dinner) and includes starter, main course, cheese, choice of desserts, wine and coffee. I can’t emphasize enough how essential it is to reserve in advance for a meal at this very popular bistrot.

Le Bistrot du Paradou
57 Avenue de la Vallée des Baux
13520 Paradou, France
Tel: +33490543270
No website

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A night in Lyon and unforgetable dinner at Cafe Comptoir Abel

As we plan trips to the South of France, I look for good fares from San Francisco to Geneva, Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and Nice. Recently, it seems Geneva and Lyon have offered the best fares on our favorite airline. The first couple of times we flew into Lyon, we went straight from Saint-Exupéry Airport to Sablet and vice versa on the return trip.

This year we went to Lyon the day before we were scheduled to fly home so we could eat in one of the famous bouchons which Lyon is famous for. After all, Lyon is considered to be the gastronomic capital of France. As you know, I love food and that is the only thing that could make me leave Sablet one hour before we have to go.

Lyon is about 200 km north of Sablet at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Its center reflects 2,000 years of history from the Roman Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules, medieval and Renaissance architecture in Vieux (Old) Lyon, to the modern Confluence district on Presqu'île peninsula.

Place Jacobins is the center of what is now called “old money Lyon” – where the bigger fortunes live. This statue represents the religious Jacobins inspired by the Dominican faith who first developed the area. The statue seen below, "The Fountain of the Jacobins" was inaugurated in 1885.

Fountain of the Jacobins'

Place des Célestins seen below is located in the Célestins quarter, in the 2nd arrondissement of Lyon. The square was named after the religious Order of Celestines who were installed there from 1407 to 1778. Before 1307, the square was located on lands owned by the Knights Templar, who had a command post there. After the Knights Templar were evicted, the Célestins installed a monastery which, despite some fires, remained for almost 400 years. Eventually demolished in 1778, it was replaced with the housing estate of the Célestins and a theater.

Place des Célestins

The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built with private funds between 1872 and 1884. Perched on top of the Fourvière hill, the basilica looms impressively over the city of Lyon, from where it can be seen from many vantage points. Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom is attributed the salvation of the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague, the Black Death, that swept Europe in 1643.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière on top of the hill

Every city in France has a monument of one kind or another commemorating King Louis XIV, and in Lyon he has been suitably and majestically immortalized in the form of a bronze statue in the middle of Place Bellecour, which is bigger than Red Square and is the largest downtown pedestrian zone in Europe. He is guarded by the Gods of War and Lions, as well as Marianne, who sits at the bottom of the base.

Statue of King Louis XIV, Place Bellecour

The Bell Tower seen standing alone below used to be the bell tower of the Charity Hospital. This was the second hospital of Lyon after Hotel Dieu. It was built in 1622 and destroyed in 1934 to make place for the Post Office. This is the enormous building on the south side of the square.

Belltower of Charity

As I said, Lyon is called France's gastronomic capital—probably a result of its geography. Alpine streams to the east supply pike, trout, and crayfish. The Dombes plateau, to the northeast, abounds in game, and the plain of Bresse, beyond that, produces France's finest chickens. Due north lie the vineyards of Beaujolais, which yield fruity, inexpensive red wines, while just a few miles farther, the Maconnais region makes chardonnay wines. Charolles, to the northwest, gives its name to the best French beef cattle—the white Charolais, raised in the pastures surrounding the town. Superb cheeses are close at hand, too: fourme d'ambert, cantal, and st-nectaire from the Auvergne, southwest of Lyon; st-marcellin, rumored to have been King Louis XI's favorite, from the Isere to the southeast.

We came to Lyon so we could dine at a bouchon. Bouchons are bistros of a sort, but with more limited menus. Their décor tends to be modest to the point of austerity. Some have paper tablecloths, and some don't change the cutlery between courses—and the food served in bouchons is almost always based on humble ingredients. The majority of these establishments are family-run, and most of the chefs are women—the spiritual descendants of Mere Brazier, Mere Fillioux, Tante Paulette, and other female master chefs who contributed so much to the glory of Lyonnais gastronomy earlier this century. Bouchon prices are always reasonable too.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is illuminated at night on top of the hill.

Most of the best bouchons are clustered near Lyon's City Hall, in the middle of the Presqu'Île, the three-mile-long peninsula, bordered on one side by the Rhone and on the other by the Saone, that extends through the middle of the city, which is where Café Comptoir Abel is located.

Café Comptoir Abel is one of the oldest, most authentic bouchons in Lyon. The bistro tables and chairs wear a patina of age, and the original wooden paneling and bric-a-brac make this bouchon a place that’s not to be missed. Hidden away near the quays of the river Saône, this bouchon has been an institution in the city since 1928. Chef Alain Vigneron has worked in the restaurant since 1976, and has been in charge of the kitchens for last 16 years.

Café Comptoir Abel

We were seated at a wood table without table cloth or placemats and to keep out experience authentic, we ordered a red wine from the Beaujolais village of Villié-Morgon.

Olivier Depardon Beaujolais

For starter, Shirley chose a green bean salad that included the bottom of an artichoke, some greens and peas.

Fond d'Artichaut en Haricots Verts

I chose the salade gourmande which consisted of green beans, diced artichoke bottom, sliced mushrooms, peas and foie gras.

Salade Gourmande

For my main course, I chose one of the signature dishes of chicken with a morel mushroom cream sauce. It was really good!

Le Fameux Poulet aux Morilles a la Creme

Shirley chose another signature dish of quenelles de brochet that was served with the same delicious morel mushroom cream sauce. Quenelles de Brochet is a large Pike dumpling that is finished under the broiler. It was very light and didn't taste fishy at all.

Quenelles de Brochet en Gratin Maison

Although my chicken came with rice, we couldn't resist ordering a side dish of gratin Dauphinois. Gratin Dauphinois is a traditional regional dish consisting of potatoes and crème fraîche, from the Dauphiné region

Gratin Dauphinois

The morel mushroom cream sauce was so good, we asked for a little more.

Supplement de Sauce aux Morilles

Chicken with Morel Mushroom Sauce with Rice Pilaf

The dessert menu was written on a slate black board.

Dessert Chalkboard

Café Comptoir Abel Bar

Café Comptoir Abel

I chose the Fondant au Chocolat with both ice cream and Crème Anglaise. It was literally a slab of melting chocolate with ice cream and Crème Anglaise. I could only eat a couple of bites after the other rich food.

Fondant au Chocolat with Ice Cream and Crème Anglaise

Shirley went with vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Hot Chocolate Sauce

Entrance to Café Comptoir Abel

If your travels take you to Lyon, the Hôtel des Artistes is a very reasonably priced 3 Star hotel in the center of Lyon on the Presqu'Île, near the Saone River.

Our Hotel

We were treated to the view of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière seen below as we walked out of the hotel before we headed to the airport to begin our trip back to San Francisco.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Morning Light

Café Comptoir Abel
25 Rue Guynemer
69002 Lyon
Tel: +33 4 78 37 46 18