Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A&G Off to France--Day Two

(Author's note: This entry is the second of two weeks of daily entries about our trip to Provence.)

17 October 2005

One of the reasons to go to France is that they eat dessert for breakfast and even have the gall to call it petite dejeuner. Turns out that at La Banasterie the croissants are shaped like little ties more than the more common loops, but they will turn out to be the best of our trip. We head out to pick up our rental car, and here I must admit one of the great shames of my life – I can’t drive a stick. I never learned, and now that I’m sort of calcified, can’t get convinced I need to since there are cars out there perfectly happy to change gears for me. Technology replaces knowledge, sure, but I’m lazy. So, renting an automatic car in Europe is tricky, by which I really mean more expensive. As we go through the process with our pleasant Hertz rep, we find out her brother lives in Santa Barbara, teaching yoga. (Figures that cliché is a French word.) Then we head out to the lot to find our perfectly wonderful – and Amy would have it right now if it fit in her suitcase and stealing wasn’t illegal – Mercedes A180. It’s diesel, so sounds like a John Deere, but otherwise it’s Mercedes through and through, with windshield wipers that come on when they sense moisture and other nifty touches. We only wish the U.S. would sell them, although we’d have to run the crucial backseat two greyhound width test.

In the car, we immediately road trip and aim for one of Provence’s main attractions – the Pont du Gard. OK, it’s actually in the Gard département, but is a stone’s throw from Avignon, at least a throw by the like’s of Romans who could build a bridge 275 meters long in 19 BC (that’s Before Construction Machinery). This monument to what Roman ingenuity and lots of slave power can accomplish does transcend its inherent postcardability; there’s a reason it’s been a tourist site for 300 years. What isn’t talked about as much is the site of the bridge, which is flat-out gorgeous and worth a walk even without a monument from a couple millennia ago. This very blue morning French schoolchildren scamper about in their oh-so-French cute ways – and Amy and I would have one of them right now if he or she fit in a suitcase and kidnapping wasn’t illegal.

We head from the bridge to nearby Nimes, figuring we might as well keep the tourist sites in the hundred A.D.s at most, since it’s our first day with the car and that has to keep the odometer down. We find Nimes Arena, which in its day was corporately named the Christians Aren’t Us Centre. It’s still used for bullfights and other events, so there’s scaffolding and seating and signage, but we never find the vomitorium, even when we go to the top of the stands and look down and Amy feels a bit of vertigo.
After an equally map-challenging spin through the streets of Nimes old town, we finally find Maison Carée (it’s a square…house) that’s actually rectangular and looks like it’s spent too much time in car exhaust. Still, you take your incredibly well preserved Roman temples where you can find them, and you don’t find them in the U.S. even if it sort of looks like the Supreme Court building. Maybe if Alito gets on the bench, we can name 9 anti-justices and move them to Nimes, sort of like the Avignon popes. But I get carried away.

On our way back to Avignon, we opt for a different route and thereby get ourselves temporarily lost in the city of Tarascon, so can joke we were briefly eaten by the fearsome Tarasque, or at the least, bad signage and too many roundabouts. This getting lost of course means we need to drink, if nothing else to further excuse any other getting lost we might do (we are on foot inside the walls of Avignon, so don’t get MADD at us). We opt for Patis at the Opera Café on the bustling Place de L’Horloge. I’m not usually a licorice fan, but Pastis is a pleasing drink and does seem to set the palate straight for an evening of French gastronomy. And for a free floor show we get to see a man at a table wrestle his change back from a homeless person who tries to run off with the payment for his bill.

Dinner is nothing short of glorious. We eat at what's long been considered one of Avignon's top restaurants, Hiely Lucullus, a second floor dining room done up in Beaux Arts style, wtih lots of swirling woodwork and mirrors. This otherworldly ornateness is a grand set up for the simply elegant food. To start, Amy bravely orders eel and squid with saltwort salad and honey vinaigrette. The calamari are perfect little sea essences. I get my first and best foie gras in France, steamed and wrapped in celery root, then dressed with porto butter and hazelnut oil. It's a perfect mix of the fatty tissue of the goose and the texture of the root. As a main I order the rack of lamb (for just one, no fat jokes, please) in a tarragon crust with eggplant and roasted tomato. Mary would have had a lot of lamb if she ate at Hiely Lucullus. Yum. Amy had the breast of acacia honey-lacquered duckling with glazed baby vegetables which tastes as delicious as it reads. We had a fine bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape Mas St. Louis 2000. For dessert we passed on selections from the cheese chariot, which we later regretted when we saw the amazing thing wheeled in for another patron, for sweets truly delectable: figs stuffed with honey and dried fruits with rosemary ice cream for Amy, a coffee banana cream dessert with cocoa crisp chocolate and salt ice crystal cream for me. These were inventive, rewarding, delights on the plate.

Oh, and that leaves out the amuse bouche of mushroom soup, the sorbet course and the sweets with the bill. I promise we weren't the Americans who almost sent their lamb back because they thought it was undercooked, only to discover that the questionable red was from the tomatoes. But those spoiled Americans would be topped a few night downs the line as ambassadors from the New Unholy Roman Empire, you'll see.

And then we went back to the B&B and off to sleep.


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