The Fiat and the fig tree :: partie deux
After a whole 2 days of me working and Mom exploring greater Barcelona, and in a significantly more organized and thoroughly packed manner- Thursday we made our way to what I now consider to be ‘my’ Avis rent-a-car office. Only having to schlepp our bags 4 blocks, we plopped into line to pick up our little (automatic) VW Golf.
This was the first trip in a while where I could kick up my heels. This trip- was in the far more capable hands of my mother. All I had to do was not wreck the rental. (goddamnit Lara, don’t wreck the rental)
The plan was as follows:
- Night 1 in Arles – follow up on restaurant recommendation from Uncle Jim and purported best green peppercorn duck breast of his life.
- Night 2-3 in Avignon - spend the day 2 wandering up through the Camargue and the day 3 with Laurence, a tour guide the moms had secured to show us around Provence.
We traced our footsteps from the prior weekend up A7 until we passed Girona and began seeing fresh scenery. There was no security at the French border, but we wound through a low mountain pass and watched out the windows as the terrain become whiter and rockier. White stucco beach style homes in little towns popped up periodically.
I was a bit groggy by the time we pulled into Arles and worked our way up the hill through the little town to La Calendral. Greeted by an unenthusiastic young woman with red lips who seemed to glean joy from correcting others, we were led up a narrow, lush red velvet staircase to our little room that smelled faintly of bleach and lavender.
Not lingering long, we quickly ventured out to see the town. I was immediately stuck by the intensity and clarity of the light. While late in the afternoon, the sun was extraordinarily bright and left me squinting.
The cobbled roads and colorful, shuttered buildings were distinctly different from the pueblos in Spain (somehow more French...), yet the town pace and casual manner had the same languid suspension of time.
We checked out the dilapidated colosseum where they still have bloodless bullfights and walked along the riverfront. I imagined an impressionist world.
For dinner we followed up on a recommendation from Uncle Jim, who promised le Criquet had served the best green peppercorn duck breast of his life. Unfortunately there was no duck, but we started with an amazing pesto vegetable soup, to which I followed with an oxtail stew and some merengue and strawberry puff situation for desert. The rose in France is perfect. No arbor mist pinks here. It was dry and a bit tart and utterly drinkable, so we did (plenty). By the time we overheard the Germans at the next table persistently ordering the chocolate desert (ve vant ze choc-o-lattt. No, ze choc-o-latt) we were minimally choking back gags of inappropriate laughter. This is why we can’t go nice places.
The next morning we struggled to soft boil some eggs at the la Calendral self-service buffet and checked the route we would take to the Camargue. Troops of older men in cycling spandex strolled through as we tore at our croissants and woke up slowly.
Again, the sun shone persistently and whitely down as we explored the Camargue Nature Park. I'm not sure what I expected, but seeing Flamingos in France wasn't it. This region of France is know for the indigenous white horses that have been in the area for thousands of years and are used as the mounts for the cowboys for regional bull herding and fighting. I thought it was neat.
Soon my shoulders were the same shad of pink as the flamingo's rosy plumage
We had wanted to visit Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, but our desires also happened to coincide with the annual pilgrimage of the Roma people to they where they had been congregating for festival of Saint Sarah. Electing to avoid the endless lines of caravans, we made for Avignon.
On the way to Avignon we spotted a pop-up farm house turned restaurant and decided to try our lunch luck, the strategy worked well for us the week before in l'Empordá. The menu was a beyond my french comprehension, but with the help of le moms and Google I managed to order a warm goat cheese salad- and at last- my French duck breast.
The salad was light and fresh and the goat cheese brie was delicately melted on little toasts over fresh peppers, endive, and a thin mustard dressing. The duck breast. Well. The duck breast was perfect. Medium rare and mouth melting.
A couple of turns around the city, we figured out how to get past the city wall and and one way streets. This little room was a bit cozier, but substantially more atmospheric. And warm. Very warm. Knowing that we had to meet Laurence early in the morning, we meandered around the town and picked up provisions for an in-room picnic (including, but not limited to, more rosé).
Laurence arrived in the morning before on-time and, after waiting for us to catch up, briefed us on her thoughts for the day.
Maybe a little farmers market, and visit some of the small towns over here, in the Luberon valley- gesturing to her cracking map of Provence- and then here- making a sweeping triangle with her graceful french finger.
Still groggy, I shrugged. It all looked great.
Our first stop was at Petite Palais. A small, very local farmer's market that quickly turned into the compulsive buying of honey, cherries, heirloom tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes and on and on.
Mom bought a Panisse (some chickpea dough), but she kept saying Penis in French instead. Close enough.
After the market we headed to Luberon, a picturesque valley between the Petit Luberon, Grand Luberon, and Luberon Oriental mountain ranges. We made a quick coffee stop (*bathroom break) and I ordered a noisette- which means hazelnut and the french equivalent of a cortado.
Among other highlights Laurence shared was a stop in Gordes (one of the most beautiful villages in France- a prestigious association with very high standards), a stop at a tucked away studio in Joucas (Ulysse Plaud & Marion Heybroek- a couple who has been making surreal sculptures together for 40 years), and a visit to the town Van Gogh was hospitalized before his eventual suicide. All the while pointing out for us the small french towns built into steep cliffside, explaining the centuries of certain window framings, and detailing the differences between lavender and lavande.
It was easy to love Laurence, and France. The small villages and this small woman with answers and explanations for seemingly everything had cast a little spell. Or maybe it was the whiteness of the light. Or the rose. Or the fragrance of lavender hanging in the air.
If you're ever in France, or even thinking about going- drop her a line, you won't regret (Provence Exclusive).
Our final night, mom and I walked the walls of Avignon and crossed the river to watch the sun set. There was an unexpectedly heavy moon and we paused as it rose over Avignon, lining up with the ragged skyline. Kids played obnoxious music in the park, and a bachelorette party honked in the streets. Back across the bridge we found a cup of gelato, listened to the raucous futbol cheers and fell exhausted in bed.
The trip was so close to concluding without incident, until a stretch of A7 was closed for construction and we had to trek out an interesting detour- losing valuable time returning to our Avis. The car was expected back at one and we were beginning to edge on missing the cut-off.
Fortunately (for us) we pulled into the garage at 12:59 and turned the keys over to the peeved attendants.