I've always liked taking the train, there is something utterly romantic about traveling in this manner. However romance was the farthest thing from my mind as we sat in a cab in the centre of mid-morning traffic, hearts pounding and blood pressure rising, on our way to le Gare de Lyon with 15 minutes before our train was to depart. By the skill of our cab driver and a little bit of luck, we made it to the station in the nick of time. We raced to our platform with luggage flying everywhere and breathlessly boarded the train, the copain having dragged our two 40-pound suitcases up to our second level comfort class seats, only to find them occupied. "Downstairs" said the man in seat number 96, when I asked him where Coach 3 was. I looked at him suspiciously but didn't argue, especially weary of the woman with a baby in her arms sitting in number 95 beside him. So instead we implored the ticket agent ("Ah oui, I am coming," he said). Never fails that people will try to get away with sitting in unclaimed seats that they have not paid for! But finally, the culprits were kicked out and we were settled in.
I slept a bit, and wrote a bit, and barely noticed the countryside as we trained southbound to Avignon. 3 hours later and we had arrived. I peeled off the layers of clothing that I'd piled on in Paris to guard against the chill, happily feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. It was hot here, but I was not complaining. I waited ever so patiently as the copain negotiated us up from a compact Alfa Romeo Giulietta to a convertible Renault Megaine, so that we could ride top down with wind in hair through the Riviera. (Admittedly, he can be rather useful at times).
We drove from the train station through narrow winding streets and roundabouts with guidance from our GPS and found ourselves at Le Prieure hotel in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, a village on the other side of the Rhone river, away from the city. It was like being on another planet, such tranquility beneath the gentle trees and vines that led us to the entrance of our temporary haven. The site was a monastery prior to being converted to a hotel and the architecture was characterized by tight curled staircases and cobblestoned walls. Our suite was the "Egyptian room" and was at least twice the size of the room we had in Paris, equipped with a huge bathroom housing both a shower and a tub, as well as his and hers sinks. Two windows opened out to the courtyard below and the air that streamed in seemed so new and fresh.
We were hungry, but having arrived late in the afternoon, the restaurants nearby in the village square had closed their kitchens for the day, so we opted for an impromptu lunch consisting of a baguette from the local bakery, cheese from the local grocer, and a bottle of white from the local wine merchant. With our meal in hand we settled ourselves at a table in a quiet seating area of the hotel overlooking an intricate little garden which gave off the slightest hint of the scent of lavender.
The copain wanted to see le Pont du Gard, which was an ancient aqueduct built by Romans in the 1st century AD, spanning across the Gard river. So we drove 45 minutes westward to see the structure that used to be the conduit through which spring water was transported from Uzes to Nimes. Having passed out cold in the car during the ride over, I was still feeling rather tipsy from spot of wine that I'd consumed, and in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been climbing up the 160 feet to the top of the aqueduct. But I'm glad I did. I was amazed at the precision of the Roman engineers as the copain, formerly an engineer himself, patiently described the construction process to me, explaining how the use of arches allows the builder to use minimal
material to maximize the length of the span and the strength of support (or something like that). How they came to this conclusion thousands of years ago and brought this structure to life, was beyond me. It was truly an incredible sight to behold.
Once we got back to the hotel, we readied ourselves for dinner at Le Prieure's restaurant. I was giddy with anticipation, as this was a Michelin-starred establishment rumoured to be unbelievably good. After reviewing our options, we each decided to try a tasting menu. I went with the 'Spontaneity' and the copain settled on the 'Discovery.' The most memorable dish thus far started me off, a gently poached egg covered in tiny mushrooms, truffles, and truffle mousse, to die for. I actually had to stop myself from licking the plate that it came on. Next was seared monkfish dressed in a pale light mustard sauce, also mouthwateringly delicious. The main was a tenderly cooked veal cutlet set on a bed of risotto and truffles (A pasta that tastes like rice? That's my kind of pasta!) Dessert was just my cup of tea, poached apricots in a creamy sauce of Provencal herbs mmmmmmm. The copain said his dessert was the best chocolate cake he'd ever had in his life, and that's saying something, cuz he certainly loves his cocoa! What a meal!
I was incredibly satisfied with the evening, and it never ceases to amaze me that all I need is good food to feel happy and content. Exhausted from a full day, we happily headed for bed.